As India returns to more open engagement with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following a precipitate withdrawal in 2021, it’s important to assess how India can maximise its presence and secure its interests, writes Amar Sinha, former envoy to Afghanistan.

The news of a high-level delegation to Kabul led by a seasoned Af-Pak hand, and current Joint Secretary in MEA handling this region, was a pleasant surprise. The ground was being prepared for some time, and tentative outreach attempts were made by both sides repeatedly since 15 August 2021.  Clearly it is in India’s interest to remain engaged with Kabul and this necessitated a recalibration of our policies which had remained a hostage of the knee-jerk reaction that led to hasty withdrawal of our Embassy and all personnel -- despite years of proclaiming that India had ‘No Exit Policy’ from its neighborhood.

The unseemly and embarrassing exit of President Ashraf Ghani, and his ruling dispensation, had left all aghast, including India. Was the writing on the wall missed or did the comfort level with Ghani lull us into complacency? The fact that his days were numbered was clear even before the 2019 elections, but inertia allowed the moment to pass.  An enduring lesson that remains is that expats cannot run a country. 

While it may take some time to undo the damage done in the recent past, one takes heart that finally diplomacy is taking center stage. This is not to downplay the security concerns emanating from Afghanistan but then security considerations and fear of the knowns and unknowns cannot be the only determinant of India’s neighborhood policy, situated as it is on India’s foreign policy principle of Neighbourhood First.

Hardnosed realism that has underpinned recent foreign policy also rules out the possibility of India ceding ground in its neighborhood to inimical or unfriendly forces. The test of diplomacy is not in preaching to the converted but winning new friends and influencing interlocuters whose world view, and experiences, may not always be aligned to ours. No matter what shade of Afghan rules Kabul, India will remain a beacon and an indispensable country for them.

While there is much blame to be apportioned for the meltdown in Afghanistan last year, this is hardly the time to rue lost opportunities. Having broken the ice, India will have to display determination and focus to stay the course, and put our relations on a positive trajectory. Half measures will not do, because India runs the risk of again disappointing the sizeable constituency of friends of India in Afghanistan.

To begin with, we need to articulate our objectives clearly. In essence, it is this:  India seeks to build new relationships without abandoning its old friends and will be creating conditions that foster reconciliation, dialogue and durable peace in Afghanistan. It is not in India’s interest that Afghanistan remains roiled in an endless war. The Taliban will need to realize that moderation in some of their policies currently under the global spotlight will add to stability and longevity of their regime as it evolves further. If they seek global acceptance, they will also need to embrace some of the global norms.

Security concerns are real and serious, and diplomatic engagement is a tool for its mitigation. The Kabul regime should be made to commit to the objectives of the UNSC resolution 2593. Already there are reports that some of the Pakistan based anti-India terror groups have shifted to Afghanistan. Kabul and Kandahar need to be duly sensitized. Ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan allows such forces to grow and it would pose a challenge both internally as well as regionally.

There has been some public speculation on the nature and level of Indian presence in Kabul. There is a view that India should consider a low-level presence to mark attendance and keep the flag flying -- boxed in by security concerns. The trouble with this is, it may not provide India the much-needed access to influential players and stakeholders in Afghanistan, thus severely limiting New Delhi’s role. It could be counter-productive for India’s medium terms interests as well. India therefore will have to carefully choose the level at which it should be represented in Kabul.

Despite the assurances of the Taliban regime, we have to be mindful of new proxy groups attacking Indian interests. Afghanistan has seen repeated attacks targeting specific communities, mosques or even Taliban forces and these will continue. Revenge killing is still rampant. Under such confusion it is not too difficult to launch sleeper cells or proxies from across the border. Even the Badri 313 special forces commander, who was responsible for securing Kabul, was felled by assassin bullets in the heart of Kabul! 

Perhaps it is time the Indian government sheds its longstanding inhibitions on appointing a Special Representative or an Envoy who has greater flexibility in travelling in and out of Afghanistan and engaging with his counterparts from around the world. Interestingly most of the countries that have functioning embassies in Kabul also have a SR in place. India is a rare exception. It has neither.

Positioning an officer in Kabul will serve little purpose if the earlier visa regime is not restored. The post August 2001 policy was a classic self-goal, which ended up hurting India’s friends the most. In any case an indiscriminate blanket ban is hardly a policy. It has to be run by people who know the actors, and of their antecedents and connections which would mean MEA will have to regain a major say in visa issuance. Without this tweak, any presence on the ground will further disappoint Afghans since trade, medical assistance and education hinge on this.

India has been quick in stepping in to alleviate some of the immediate hardship faced by Afghans- medicines, vaccines, wheat- and this was favorably noted by the current regime. India’s assistance and experience can also fill in many other gaps that the current regime may have in fully leveraging its national resources such as expertise in border (management) related issues, legal frameworks on water sharing or extractive industries, trade laws and connectivity, local governments and digital financial inclusion, Ed tech, or modernization and diversification of Agriculture which has a direct bearing on drug production. 

Finally, public narrative in India on Taliban tends to lay the entire blame for the hijack of the Indian Airline’s IC 814 in 1999 on the Taliban. The Taliban has a different take that merits consideration. Taliban sees it as a humanitarian gesture authorized by their Emir in response to urgent Indian request to allow the plane to land in Kandahar since it was running low on fuel.  The public narrative in India overlooks the fact that the conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan, carried out by Pakistanis. The ISI used its considerable influence over the Taliban to whisk away the released prisoners who continue to thrive in Pakistan. No wonder the Taliban do not accept this shifting of blame on to them.

No doubt the Taliban is guilty of many sins including of extreme discrimination and brutality, and it also comprises elements which are implacable and beyond the pale, but then all 33 million Afghans are not Taliban. The Afghans old friends of India. In view of all this India can not just be wished away from its neighborhood, even as we robustly engage in distant geographies.

4 June 2022


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