Now that almost all of the anticipated dust has settled down over Kabul even before blowing, New Delhi is looking for more in the Taliban than terrorism of the nineties. If welcoming the Taliban to the Indian embassy in Doha indicates New Delhi’s acknowledgement of the group in some way, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s observation—in Washington—that they were ‘reasonable’ and the Doha talks were ‘reassuring’, kindles hope.
The Taliban has reiterated that they would not interfere in Kashmir, which to them is either India’s internal issue or a bilateral problem with Pakistan. It is unclear if their declaration to raise their voice for Kashmir Muslims without taking to weapons is tactical or strategic, from an ‘emirate’ to a ‘caliphate’.
The Taliban too has a constituency, and cannot be seen as ignoring continual reports of physical and ideological attacks on Muslims in India. As Afghan rulers, theirs is also a counter-narrative to India wanting to ‘protect’ Hindus and Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains in takeover-time Afghanistan, again as government policy. Their voice can soon be heard in the OIC, and maybe the UN, not long after.
There are the redoubled Indian terror concerns that flow mainly from the Al Qaida message that after Afghanistan, it’s now Kashmir for them. The Taliban needs to demonstrate that they want to put down Al Qaida and the ISKP, and snap umbilical cord ties with ISI. Pakistanis must know that the road to India criss-crosses their nation, and ‘jihadi’ and ‘global emirate/caliphate’ resonate there better and wider, now and ever.
Otherwise, citing historical linkages with Afghanistan, the Taliban have asked India to retain and revive bilateral political, trade and cultural ties. They are not (yet) talking the language of Taliban 1.0 who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. Post-takeover, Hindus and Sikhs too have reportedly slowed down outward migration and begun returning home from places of refuge.
Strategic independence: The Taliban is controlling most of Afghanistan. Yet, their overtures do not automatically signal that the tiger has changed its stripes. India’s ‘cautious optimism’ tradition should be the yardstick and tightrope walking, the name of the game.
In all this, India also has to think and act independent of the US, whose interests in the region are different from ours. Washington is yet to open up on support/weapons for erstwhile Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh, who is in hiding to fight the Taliban. There is a lesson in how the CIA helped make poppy Afghanistan’s staple crop in their fight against ‘Soviet occupation’, and Americans now disabled choppers and ground vehicles with the Taliban in mind, but denied them mainly to government forces.
Unlike the US, India has retained its Kabul embassy, though unlike Russia and China, and Iran and Pakistan, it needed to evacuate. For New Delhi, over-identification with the US to fend off China elsewhere can be counterproductive in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ should have begun with a real feel for ground realities, more so after Doklam and Galwan, nearer home. New Delhi cannot continue to compromise on strategic independence and outsource the nation’s neighbourhood policy to the US or anyone else—and be seen as doing so, too.
If reports that Iran, Qatar and the US helped New Delhi to evacuate Indians are fair, it justifies the pre-takeover Russian assessment that India did not have any influence on the Taliban to be invited to the four-nation conclave, where the US, Pakistan and China were present. Obliquely, New Delhi has made the pitch since, with the India-chaired UNSC session removing the ‘t-for-terror’ word in reference to the Taliban, from the post-takeover resolution of August 16.
Theocratic state: India and Indians need to expect, if not accept, that Taliban 2.0 is creating a theocratic state as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, without necessarily exporting terrorism. The Sharia may dictate their domestic laws and behaviour. We need to contextualise their human rights violations, without reference to unprincipled, self-serving Western political templates.
New Delhi has to see if ‘new Taliban’ wants to give an orderly government, whether or not it is ‘democratic’, initially, taking Afghanistan away from an era of ‘stateless people with faceless leadership’. It is what Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden made of Afghanistan. It is where Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have left it.
For India, the current developmental presence in all 34 provinces should be an outreach tool, and not an end in itself. It’s true of all neighbourhood. The Taliban’s declaration that China will be their ‘principal development partner’ is as much steeped in reality for the group/Afghanistan as it is in politics for China.
Analysts now say that the US hardly spent $500 million from a 20-year total of $2.3 trillion on developmental works in Afghanistan. Whatever debt-trap China has been laying in other aid-recipient nations, Afghanistan under the Taliban is now looking for hard cash and fast-track development.
India does not have that kind of money to spare even without the pandemic. New Delhi’s decades-old efforts to put together a consortium of anti-China nations for investments in Third World nations has not been as successful as the emergence of the Quad-based military alliance. All of it is saying a lot about our reach and outreach in Afghanistan—past, present and possibly future!
N Sathiya Moorthy, Distinguished Fellow & Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation (firstname.lastname@example.org)