This Article is From Aug 17, 2021

What I Learnt As Foreign Minister About Afghanistan, Taliban - Yashwant Sinha

It was October 2002. I had taken over as the External Affairs Minister of India a few months earlier and was making my first goodwill visits to countries in India's neighbourhood. As part of this, I decided to visit Afghanistan, which had been liberated from the Taliban's clutches a few months earlier. I did not confine my visit to Kabul alone as most visitors did in those difficult days. I decided to visit Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar as well. In Herat, the local warlord Ismail Khan gave me a reception fit for a head of state/government. I responded by asking him what India could do for him. He made a simple request: get the Salma Dam, a boon for the people of that area, completed. I responded positively, and immediately after my return to India, we dispatched a team of experts to prepare the project report for it. The dam was constructed by WAPCOS, India, at the cost of $290 million and inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi and President Ashraf Ghani jointly in June 2016. It came to be known as the 'Friendship Dam' but alas, nobody remembered how it all happened. People remember the inaugurator, not the initiator.

Be that as it may, for me, Kandahar was special because it was here that the hijackers had taken the Indian Airlines plane in December 1999; Jaswant Singh had gone there to get the plane back. In fact, some of the officials who had accompanied Jaswant Singh on that trip were also with me as we landed in Kandahar. This time, however, it was different, I was a welcome guest. But I was surprised to see, as we alighted from the plane, that there was no reception committee waiting to receive me at the airport except some gun-wielding American soldiers who came near the aircraft and looked around out of curiosity. A little later, a burly man came almost running to the plane, huffing and fluffing and introduced himself as the Governor of Kandahar. He told me apologetically that he was delayed because the American troops who were in control of the airport had stopped him for security check and had frisked him thoroughly. It left me stunned. The Americans were frisking the Afghan Governor of the place in his own jurisdiction? The fate of America in Afghanistan became clear to me that day on the soil of Kandahar. The Afghans tolerated them as long as they kept their troops there. The Taliban overran the country the moment they were gone. The speed with which the Taliban took over Afghanistan has surprised many but not me. Afghanistan was waiting to fall in their lap. The puppet regime there and the puppet army had no will to fight the Taliban. The world, including India, has been left wringing its hand in disappointment and shock. Twenty years of American effort to shore up an alternative regime, arm and modernise the Afghan army, and help Afghanistan in nation-building has collapsed like a house of cards. I have no doubt that future historians will delve deep and enumerate the reasons for this debacle. For me, 'the ugly American' was never accepted in Afghanistan.


The Taliban swept through Afghanistan in a matter of weeks after US troops withdrew

What are the implications of the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan for the world, the region and India? Some of the statements of the Taliban spokesmen in recent days are reassuring. History is replete with examples of revolutionaries turning into responsible rulers under the burden of office. I hope the Taliban will not disappoint us and will rule with responsibility.

The US stands thoroughly discredited. It has proved to be an unreliable ally. It will find it difficult now to act as the policeman of the world. There should be no place for unilateral American military action henceforth anywhere in the world. No more the 'coalition of the willing'. The UN must discharge this responsibility, especially its Security Council, of which India is a non-permanent member today. India must guide the UN in the matter of maintaining peace in the world, through negotiations if possible, through the use of force, if necessary. India has already reached out to the Taliban. These contacts should now be more open and direct. I hated the Taliban because they destroyed the historic Bamiyan Buddhas. But living in the past is not always helpful. Pakistan is considered to be a special friend of the Taliban. China is happy that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, while at the same time oppressing and killing the Muslim Uighurs in its own territory. Russia has also reached out to the Taliban. Commentators in India are worried that India is now surrounded by one more unfriendly neighbour. Our diplomacy will determine how we turn a difficult situation to our advantage. India is a big and powerful country. We should be scared of none.


Chaos unfolded at Kabul airport when thousands came there hoping to catch a flight out

Russia has been an all-weather friend of India for decades. This relationship has frayed at the edges because of our unseemly hurry to get under the US umbrella. India is too big a country to be under anyone's umbrella. I see no reason, not even the military maneuvers of China against India at the LAC, as a valid reason to take shelter under the US umbrella or even the Quad for that matter. Our motto should be that we want enmity with none but we are capable of defending our territory on our own against anyone. Ashoka's 'ahimsa' was always backed by military might. Tulsidas taught us that there could be no love without fear.

India has done a lot for the development and welfare of the people of Afghanistan. I can also take credit for India constructing the parliament building in Kabul among the many other things we have done for Afghanistan. So India has no reason to be defensive. The Taliban knows what we have done and from all accounts appreciates it. It must know that we can do much more. Three billion dollars is not the limit of our capabilities, we can do much more. India is also very popular with the people of Afghanistan. Our soft power can be seen all over. The Governor of Kandahar had told me in 2002 that he was in possession of a large number of cassettes of Indian music.

To sum up:

1. A Taliban regime in Kabul is a reality.

2. Pakistan, China and Russia have welcomed the change and are preparing to recognise the new regime.

3. The post-takeover statements from the Taliban have been reassuring.

4. India is already in contact with the Taliban.

5. It is time to make these contacts open and direct.

6. India should not leave the field for Pakistan and China to do as they like.

7. India should talk to the Taliban with confidence and from a position of strength.

8. India is proud of what it has done so far for the people of Afghanistan.

9. It should assure the new regime that it can do more.

10. India is very popular with the people of Afghanistan. This asset should be fully utilised.

Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004). He is currently vice-president, Trinamool Congress.

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