NEW DELHI: Media reports of a secret meeting between Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, were quickly denied by the government. This was not surprising as India has traditionally been opposed to the Pakistan-backed militant group and refused to recognise its government in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
India, like the rest of the world except Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, severed all diplomatic ties with the country during the Taliban regime and had vocally supported the Northern Alliance government. But with large swathes of Afghanistan falling into the hands of the Taliban, forcing India to evacuate its employees from the Kandahar consulate, and with intelligence reports saying the militants could overrun the country within six months to two years of the United States troop pullout, India finds itself in a fix given its huge economic and strategic investments there. (See graphic)
So how does India continue to protest its interests in a rapidly changing Afghan scenario? Opinions are expectedly divided but some feel it may not be a bad idea to engage with the Taliban. Moscow-based analyst Andrew Korybko feels India’s best bet is to enter into a dialogue with the Taliban. “India must enter into pragmatic discussions with the Taliban, even if secretly at first and perhaps facilitated by Russia. This could help both sides to better understand their new strategic calculations and help reduce the serious mistrust between them,” Korybko said.
He said India was the only major actor in the region without public ties with the Taliban. Korybko faulted New Delhi with staking all of its strategy on the current Afghanistan regime, which in turn was predicated on the “mistaken prediction that the Pentagon would indefinitely remain in the country.” “It is in India’s interests to enter into contact with them as soon as possible especially if they eventually return to power in Afghanistan and are cautiously welcomed by the international community for pragmatic reasons,” he said.
But talking to the Taliban could mean stepping into a domestic political minefield. The militant group has given India much grief in the past with its role in the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 hijacking and several attacks on Indian installations in Afghanistan, including the embassy in 2008 that left an Indian army Brigadier and an IFS officer dead.
Engaging the Taliban can invite ridicule from opposition parties and also runs counter to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s professed view of being tough on terrorist organisations. “It is not that India has never engaged with the Taliban. Their engagement, in whatever capacity, had brought about a solution to the IC-814 crisis. Therefore, it is important for India to engage with the Taliban, more so now as there is a realistic and practical chance that the group might end up governing Afghanistan,” said political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.
But public engagement with the Taliban would put pressure on the government to start a dialogue with elements in Kashmir as the Kashmir-Pakistan-Taliban nexus was very much in place even today. “It is a very tricky situation for India but I am sure that the highest level of leadership is aware of it. But, it is important that the government does not completely shut its options with the Taliban,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Washington-based research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Kriti Upadhyaya, was more circumspect. “There will definitely be ripple effects of the US withdrawal on India’s foreign policy and we have already seen a flurry of activity on the diplomatic side with India reaching out to Iran, Pakistan and Russia,” she said.
Upadhyaya felt New Delhi could remain relevant in Afghanistan by continuing development work in non-Taliban controlled areas. “India can work with the Hazaras and the Tajiks and finally push for a UN peacekeeping mission in which India can send its own peacekeepers along with others. This is how India can have a presence in the war-torn country,” Upadhyaya said.