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Insights into Editorial: Getting India back to the Afghan high table

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Context:

US government is pushing India to reconsider its long-held policy towards Taliban and also encouraging direct engagement with Taliban.

For the first time, a US official has openly suggested that India should engage directly to Taliban and discuss its terror concerns.

The rapidly changing political landscape in Afghanistan has put India in a spot. Despite being a key player in Afghanistan’s development and peace process, India was not the part of the US-Taliban agreement.

The leader of the Taliban said that militants were committed to a landmark deal with the U.S., despite being accused of carrying out thousands of attacks in Afghanistan since it was signed.

The United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban have signed an historic agreement:

With the potential to end the war in Afghanistan, the long-awaited agreement includes:

  • a timeline of 14 months for all US and NATO troops to withdraw
  • a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used to threaten US security
  • and negotiations with the Afghan government by March 10; leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

Years of shuttle diplomacy were behind the signing and Qatar played a central role in the negotiations. It hosted the months-long discussions between representatives of the Taliban and US officials in its capital, Doha.

India’s position on Taliban:

India refused to recognise the Taliban regime of 1996-2001 and rather supported the ‘Norther Alliance’ in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan

India has long held the position of dealing only with the elected government in Kabul, and has always considered the Taliban a terrorist organisation backed by Pakistan

India supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process.

Kandahar Hijack of 1999 and Taliban’s proximity to Pakistan’s deep state has also embittered the Indo-Taliban relations.

However, India’s refusal to engage with Taliban will give Pakistan a free hand to use it as a proxy in India’s internal matters.

Given India’s regional and global positions, it is appropriate for India to engage with all the key players in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the government but also in terms of political forces, society and the Afghan body politic

India’s position on non-engagement with Taliban has reduced its role in international diplomatic efforts. US wants India to have more active role, other than economic and humanitarian, in the peace process.

The following critical points are essential for India:

  1. First, Afghanistan’s unity and territorial integrity is considered vital to India since the British period. Any disintegration prospect or falling a part of it into Pakistan or fragmentation within would severely undermine Indian state.
  2. Second, history guides that there are no winners in the Afghan end-game. Those fallen into the Afghan trap only ended up draining their resources.
  3. Third, a core principle underpins India Afghan’s policy is to avoid any Af-Pak proximity from a zero-sum calculation. Pakistan by virtue of culture, tribal and spatial reasons will always enjoy an edge over India.
  4. Fourth, politics suggests that Afghanistan’s irredentist claim over the Pushtun areas of Pakistan versus Pakistan’s revanchist ambitions in Afghanistan create mutual suspicion if not inherent animosity between the two.
  5. Fifth, the Afghans always loathed being run by a puppet master, detested Pakistanis. Irrespective of frequent power-shifts, Kabul looked towards Delhi for the requisite political legitimacy and for quintessential protection against Pakistani hegemonic threat.
  6. Sixth, whether they are Sufis, Wahabis, Deobandis or secular scholars, the Afghan craving for tracing roots and ancestry or even the severe pangs of nostalgia for Hindustan, eventually turned them to Delhi. This hurt the Pakistanis the most.
    1. The fear of Afghan protégés escaping from their cage still causes nightmares in Rawalpindi.
  7. Seventh, the law of attraction in the case of India always worked in a reverse way. The people, societies and nations across the world always found their own ways to connect with India. India can again become the centre, instead of it constantly chasing for an influence outside.

India need to review its policy from time to time:

India should now upgrade its channels of communication with the Taliban.

Try to persuade Iran that cooperation between both countries is still possible.

India will probably have to reassess its strategic convergence with the US because the US’s foreign policy is acting against India’s strategic interest.

India’s support to Taliban will be a betrayal for people of Afghanistan if Taliban goes back to the medieval practices and establishes an Islamic republic based on Sharia thus denying the hard-earned rights of the Afghan peoples.

India’s engagement should be conditional on Taliban joining the mainstream politics.

India should not give legitimacy to a government in exile (Taliban’s political office is based in Doha) in its own neighbourhood.

It is imperative that Taliban should deal with India as an independent entity, as a nationalist Afghan entity, and not a proxy for other countries.

Conclusion:

It is sad that despite all that India has done in Afghanistan over the past 18 years since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, it finds itself on the margins of international diplomacy on Afghanistan.

With the signing of US-Taliban peace deal, Afghanistan has entered a critical stage and must become an Indian diplomatic priority.

Also, the recent developments (combined with the weakening position of elected government and the simultaneous rise in Taliban’s foothold) points that it is only a matter of time before Taliban gains international legitimacy. So, it is important for India to recalibrate its position w.r.t Taliban in view of the ongoing changes.

India needs to take corrective diplomatic action even at this late stage, and even in the time of COVID-19. It must begin openly talking to the Taliban and with all political groups in the country. It must realise that its Afghan policy needs changes.