Opinion: Hard Realities - Is India Ready For A Real Taliban Outreach?

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India has now begun to engage more uninhibitedly with the Taliban leadership in Kabul, as was demonstrated by a March 7 visit of a delegation of the Ministry of External Affairs to the Afghan capital and the subsequent press coverage it received. The Taliban's control of Afghanistan is now a hard reality, with which India has begun to reconcile for a variety of pragmatic reasons.

The question is how far and how quickly should India move forward with the Taliban in practical ways. Is the Indian public opinion ready for this, given the fundamentalist Islamic character of the Taliban, their brutal use of terror to gain power in Afghanistan, and the lack of confidence in the relative moderation they are projecting currently? Is this posture simply tactical because they have to gain the world's acceptance and deliver governance to Afghanistan in very difficult conditions, or, have they become more experienced and learnt lessons from the past, and want to avoid repeating their mistakes?

Sour Experience With Taliban

In India, the antipathy for the Taliban cannot be ignored. They have been seen as creatures of Pakistan; their past role in the IC 814 hijacking has not been forgotten, as also the fact that they allowed terrorist attacks against India from their soil. Their medieval Islamist ideology is viewed as a regional threat.

They have gained power in Afghanistan for the second time with full Pakistani backing. The ISI chief played a role in the government formation in Kabul, making Sirajuddin Haqqani, a designated terrorist, the Interior Minister.

India has noted, however, that after assuming power, the Taliban have avoided negative statements about India. They have assured India that they will not allow Afghan soil to be used against the country. So far, this seems to be the case. They complain apparently that despite this, India's narrative about them has not changed.

Taliban-Pakistan Relations Are Rough

More importantly, their relations with Pakistan have soured. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has carried out operations inside the country. The Taliban have refused to act against the TTP as requested by Pakistan, and have advised the latter to sort out their differences with the TTP, for which they have offered help. Pakistan carried out attacks against the TTP in Afghanistan once again on March 18, eliciting strong protests from the Taliban government.

Pakistan's hopes of “strategic depth' against India in Afghanistan have been belied. The state of their bilateral relations has deteriorated further with Pakistan's expulsion of nearly 500,000 Afghan refugees who had settled there years ago. The Taliban refused to recognise the Durand Line when they first came to power in Kabul with Pakistan's backing. They are doing so again. Pakistan's fencing of the border during the Ghani presidency to affirm the Durand Line on the ground has not progressed, and in parts, the fencing has been ruptured.

The Taliban are asserting their independence. Pakistan, in turn, has stepped up economic pressure on the Taliban government by exploiting land-locked Afghanistan's dependence on imports from Pakistan as well as the transit of goods through it. The country has been blocking traffic at Torkham, among other places. This is critical because customs duties on such goods are a vital source of revenue — making up almost 50- 60% of the total—for the Taliban government.

Why The Taliban Need India

This explains why the Taliban minister concerned visited Chabahar to activate this alternative route for Afghanistan's trade traffic. India had been promoting this route to gain access to Afghanistan, which Pakistan has long denied to India. There is now a shared interest between India and the Taliban government to loosen Pakistan's transit grip on Afghanistan, which is why the subject of transit was mentioned in the release issued by the Taliban in its Foreign Minister's meeting with the visiting MEA Joint Secretary. It might be time to give Afghanistan more options.

India's projects in Afghanistan during the Karzai/Ghani regimes were spread all over the country, including in areas under Taliban control. These projects were very well received by the locals, and the Taliban, therefore, did not disturb them. India has invested almost $3 billion in assistance projects in Afghanistan, earning the people's goodwill. The Taliban want India to continue this form of assistance. An Indian technical delegation recently went to Afghanistan to inspect the Selma dam constructed by India. The security situation seems to be under control.

India's Assistance Projects

The reality is that India and Afghanistan have historical ties. These have essentially been with the Pashtuns, though the relationship later extended to the Tajiks, the Hazaras and the Uzbeks when India supported the Northern Alliance against the first Taliban government. The fact that the Taliban are Pashtuns does not necessarily mean that we distance ourselves from the Pashtuns at a people's level. It is argued that if we want to continue our humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, which includes the Pashtuns, a pragmatic modus vivendi with the Taliban authorities in Kabul would be required. The Taliban appreciate the projects India has backed in Afghanistan and want them to be expanded.

At the international level, India has to remain in line with the overall consensus against recognising the interim Taliban government unless it becomes inclusive, gives rights to women, respects human rights, guarantees that its soil will not be used to commit acts of terrorism, among other concerns. The Central Asian states are concerned about the spillover of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan into their polities. Elements affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State seem to be present in Afghanistan, though lately, no major incident involving them has been reported. It appears that the Taliban government is desperate to obtain formal recognition, and hence its moderate stance. Individually, some Taliban leaders may even want to give women some basic rights, including the right to education, but they have to defer to the Emir in Kandahar, whose thinking remains very regressive.

India has thus not accorded formal recognition to the Taliban government. Its “technical” mission in Kabul is manned by middle-level officials, whereas countries like China, Russia, Turkey, the European Union and the Central Asian states have ambassadors in place.

The Other Afghanistan

India faces another challenge. A host of Afghan leaders who have quit the country still owe allegiance to the overthrown Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and fly its flag, not that of the Taliban. India, therefore, has to deal with two Afghanistans, one inside the country and one outside, and find some sort of balance between the two.

In sum, India cannot withdraw from Afghanistan as it did during the first Taliban regime in the country. The country is an important geopolitical piece not only in the larger geography of the Indian subcontinent, but also that of Central Asia. China, which is already present strategically in Pakistan and is dominating Central Asia economically, is extending its sway there. It has strengthened its presence in Afghanistan's neighbour Iran, too. India thus must not vacate its bilateral and geopolitical stakes in Kabul, and for that, the doors to the Taliban would need to be kept open.

(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France, and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.