India's Afghanistan conundrum
India had to deal with a seemingly contradictory situation regarding Afghanistan last week. While the Afghan embassy in New Delhi put out a message on social media saying they were shutting down due to lack of cooperation from the Indian government, India's representative was part of the Kazan Declaration at the fifth meeting of the Moscow Format Consultations where nine countries and four guests of honour engaged with the Taliban leadership.
The Afghan embassy in India has been at sea since the Taliban takeover in 2021. The diplomats and staff engaged by the former Ashraf Ghani government were lost about their status with a new Taliban dispensation in Kabul, which had no recognition from any country including India.
However, it became clear in less than a year after the Taliban takeover that India would take a different approach towards the regime this time, as opposed to New Delhi's stand on Taliban's earlier regime in 1996-2001. After an overnight operation to remove all its personnel from Kabul in August 2021, India said in June 2022 that a "technical team" would be based in Kabul, in what was seen as the reopening of the embassy in the Afghan capital. The move came a week after India's senior diplomat dealing with the region (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) JP Singh travelled to Kabul and met with acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mottaqi.
India and the Moscow Format Consultation
Feeling left out of the loop as the US troops suddenly withdrew from Afghanistan in a chaotic and hurried manner, India had to rely largely on Russia to avoid being blackballed in its own region. The Russian National Security Advisor, Nikolai Patrushev, travelled to India twice within a span of a few months to engage with Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
India continued to be part of the Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan that started in 2017 as a six-party discussion with special representatives of Russia, Afghanistan, India, Iran, China and Pakistan. However, since the Taliban takeover in 2021, the meeting last week in the Russian city of Kazan was the first time that a Taliban representative - Foreign Minister Mottaqi - joined the meeting.
The Kazan Declaration
The Kazan Declaration spoke of the security situation, "appreciated the current Afghan authorities for their serious fight against ISIS" and "called on the current Afghan authorities to take effective measures to dismantle, eliminate and prevent placement of all sorts of terrorist groups based in Afghanistan." It also mentioned the reduction in poppy cultivation and the need for cooperation to fight against the threats of terrorism and drug-trafficking emanating from the Afghan territory.
The declaration "regretfully stated that there had been no progress in forming a truly inclusive government in Afghanistan, reflecting the interests of all ethno-political groups of the country". The Russian Presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told the media - as reported by Middle East Monitor - that Moscow expected additional measures by Kabul to have an all-inclusive government as it could form the basis for official recognition of the new Afghan leadership.
No voice for women
Even though countries are coming forward to engage with the Taliban, there is, so far, little pressure on the Taliban to be fair to the women of their society. The Kazan declaration expressed concern about the restrictions on women's employment and education. The declaration urged the Taliban "to promote the modern education in the schools conforming to international standards". This, when the Taliban has denied women even basic rights.
In August, the Taliban banned all women from entering the Band-e-Amir national park in Bamiyan as they said women were not adhering to the headscarf (hijab) rule. Women were banned from working for the government and later, for domestic and foreign NGOs. Girls above sixth grade have not been allowed school since 2021.
The "Appalling" Choices
When the Taliban barred women from engaging with NGOs and the UN, a statement from the United Nations had said that "through this ban, the Taliban de facto authorities seek to force the United Nations into having to make an appalling choice between staying and delivering in support of the Afghan people and standing by the norms and principles we are duty-bound to uphold".
A similar "appalling choice" is confronting many other countries on their engagement with the Taliban regime. Not engaging them would mean that the meagre humanitarian aid being supplied to the people of Afghanistan will stop, but continuing to engage with the Taliban is giving them some sort of legitimacy without recognition, which it continues to leverage to its advantage. What else explains the increasing suppression of women and the continuing an ad hoc regime without fair ethnopolitical representation, which has been emphasised since 2021 by global players?
Afghanistan Embassy Shutdown in New Delhi
Amidst this quandary, as the Embassy of Afghanistan shut down in New Delhi, their charges against the host Indian government were scathing and saddening at the same time. They accused the Indian government of lack of support, pointing out that the host government had even failed to renew visas of diplomats.
Indian government sources, on the other hand, had initially said while they were looking at the authenticity of the Afghan Embassy message on social media, there had been a steady departure of diplomats to third countries, reportedly after they were granted asylum. Reports of infighting amongst Embassy personnel were also cited.
Who are the real Afghans?
The developments leave us with the question - who does the world perceive as the real Afghan right now? Even as geopolitical pragmatism drives engagement with the Taliban - which is still not recognised - personnel employed by the ousted government are pariah now. Though food and medicine are being sent in humanitarian aid, no forceful voice has been able to read the riot act to the Taliban over the continued suppression of Afghan women. It is between these paradoxes that the ordinary Afghan and perhaps the real Afghan continues to suffer.
(Maha Siddiqui is a journalist who has extensively reported on public policy and global affairs.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.