Recently, New Delhi sent a team to Kabul to discuss humanitarian aid with the Taliban administration. Subsequently, in an effort to prevent grains from being pilfered, New Delhi announced that it would alter the route of transportation. India reportedly suggested sending more consignments via Mumbai, Kandla, or Mundra ports on the west coast to Chabahar Port and taking the Iranian land route, reaching Herat. This would avoid the delays on the Punjab border, with trucks lining up and waiting to be off-loaded, to be transported further through Pakistan.
The Indian External Affairs Ministry stated that a team led by the Joint Secretary – Pakistan, Afghanistan, & Iran (PAI) Division – visited Kabul to supervise the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The ministry said in a statement that the team will also engage with representatives from international organisations involved in humanitarian aid delivery. In addition, the team is also anticipated to visit various locations where Indian programmes and projects are being implemented.
India has already dispatched several shipments of humanitarian assistance consisting of 20,000 MTs of wheat, 13 tons of medicines, 500,000 doses of COVID vaccine and winter clothing. These consignments were handed over to the Indira Gandhi Children Hospital, Kabul and UN specialized agencies including WHO and WFP. Furthermore, India is in the process of shipping more medical assistance and foodgrains to Afghanistan.
An agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on February 29, 2020, marks a milestone in America’s longest ever war.
But the haphazard US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, left many in a lurch – a humanitarian catastrophe witnessed by us all.
PROMINENT LANDMARKS IN INDO-AFGHAN RELATIONS:
· In 1950, Afghanistan and India signed a “Friendship Treaty.”
· Prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, New Delhi had formalized agreements and protocols with various pro-Soviet regimes in Kabul.
· While India’s role in Afghanistan was constrained during the anti-Soviet jihad, between 1979 and 1989, India expanded its development activities in Afghanistan, focusing upon industrial, irrigation, and hydroelectric projects.
· After the Taliban consolidated their hold on Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, India struggled to maintain its presence and to support anti-Taliban forces.
· Since 2001, India has relied upon development projects and other forms of humanitarian assistance.
India has three main concerns when it comes to the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan.
One, India has made investments worth billions of dollars in the past 20 years. It would want to protect these investments and retain the Afghan people’s goodwill.
Two, when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, Afghanistan became a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups. India also saw a sharp rise in violence in Kashmir during the Mujahideen-Taliban reigns of Afghanistan. New Delhi would not like history to repeat itself and would want commitments from the Taliban that they would not offer support for anti-India groups.
Three, the Taliban remaining a Pakistani satellite forever is not in India’s strategic interest. New Delhi cannot pursue any of its objectives if it does not engage with the Taliban.
Over two decades India poured money into the rebuilding of Afghanistan, which it sees as vital to its security and as a link to Central Asia. Delhi hardly wishes to cede the space it had made for itself in Afghanistan. For now, the engagement is likely to remain functional, for liaising on India’s humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan, and for trade, which has remarkably continued even after the Taliban takeover, and despite the absence of diplomatic relations between the two sides.
It will also lead to the reopening of the Indian embassy in Kabul. India maintains with Afghanistan a policy of gradual engagement rooted in realism.
But it should not be forgotten that the Taliban continues to have close ties with al Qaeda, as well as two India focussed groups, Jaish e Mohammed and Lashkar e Toiba. For a wider understanding of its objectives, the government should explain its decision to do business with the Taliban, one of whose elements, the Haqqani group, is said to have been responsible for the 2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul. Taliban government has its roots in terrorism and has been closely associated with Pakistan’s ISI, terrorism in Kashmir, and the drug trade.
India is also chair of the Taliban sanctions committee of the UNSC.
India is a stakeholder in Afghanistan and cannot afford to sever links with it to safeguard our national interests. Since the only link possible to the Afghan people and the geographic entity of Afghanistan is via the Taliban regime, India is forced to do business with it. Taliban regime has also been giving indicators of not being mere stooges of Pakistan but an independent country pursuing its independent national interest. This gives rise to hope for India to be able to succeed in the pursuit of our national interests as regards Afghanistan.
MEANING OF INDIA’S ENGAGEMENT:
New Delhi’s decision to establish direct official contact with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime has been months in the making.
By sending a delegation of officials of appropriate seniority, with no political fronting, India has also conveyed that the approach cannot be read as recognition of the Taliban as legitimate rulers.
India, which sees itself as a regional power, considers itself a “stakeholder” in Afghanistan, no less than China or Russia, and does not want to be left out. Being kept out of the US-Taliban, and from other formats in which regional countries mapped out their own roles in a post US-Afghanistan was bad enough.
REASON FOR THE CHANGE IN THE STANCE
In the 1990s, when the Taliban first came to power, India shut its embassy in Kabul and effectively withdrew from Afghanistan. But that only allowed Pakistan to entrench itself in Afghanistan as a de facto power behind the scenes, as the world saw during the hijacking of IC-814 in 1999 by terrorists who directed the Indian flight to Kandahar.
While the United States of America, Russia, China and Iran pivoted from treating the Taliban as enemy to building relations with it in recent years, New Delhi remained inflexible, leaving it with little leverage when the militants returned to power. But recent border tensions between the Taliban and Islamabad have underscored that this time around, the fighters will not be satisfied with being mere proxies of Pakistan. This has created an opportunity for India to explore a new equation with the Taliban based on pragmatism — not values.
Dealing with the group comes with risks: Pakistan still wields influence over its leaders and Taliban rule could see the return of terrorist outfits like the al Qaeda. But India cannot afford to repeat the 1990s stand. The world has changed. India must too.
One view is that the Indian outreach to the Taliban will help it reconnect with the Afghan people, a link that snapped after the Taliban takeover August 2021. After the icebreaker with the Taliban, India should make a start on making amends to the people by clearing visas for some 3,000 Afghan students who are waiting to return to India to resume their studies in this country.
Healthcare facilities are scarce and more than 20 million Afghans – half the country’s population – are facing acute hunger. Girls are barred from getting secondary education, women can no longer be in the public sphere and are not welcome in the job market.
These terrible humanitarian and social tragedies should see a concerted global effort to help.
In recent weeks both the Islamic State and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have stepped up their activities on both sides of the Durand Line. Add to this the hard-to-believe hardliners of Taliban’s Kandhari group that wants even more medievalism.
Taliban is said to have organized a separate group called ‘Panipat Operational Unit’.
The weapons, military hardware, and even tanks and aircraft left by the US and the NATO allies are observed to be going into the hands of the hardliners.
All of this further jeopardises India’s painstaking investments in Afghanistan over the last two decades. Pakistan, of course, will try to use the Taliban to block any Indian move, which means New Delhi has to work more closely with Tehran to maintain a strategic foothold in the region.
The risk of terrorist activities emanating from Afghan soil still remains. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement states that the Taliban will prevent terrorist outfits from operating on Afghan soil, there is little clarity on how the agreement will be verified and enforced. The risk has also to do with the growing influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which shares an undeniable link with the Taliban, especially the Haqqani group.
China has its own economic interests eying the mineral wealth of Afghanistan and will not hesitate in supporting anti-India elements.
With the open threats of bombings from Al-Qaeda across our cities, we need to tread carefully about our ties with the Taliban.
WAY AHEAD FOR INDIA:
Broader Diplomatic Engagement: India should consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to Afghan reconciliation. The envoy can ensure that Indian views are expressed at every meeting, broaden engagement with the Afghan government and other political actors, and reach out to certain Taliban representatives and express the security concerns from time to time.
Continued Training and Investments: India should provide more military training to Afghan security forces and invest in longer-term capacity-building programs. It should actively support and invest in the National Directorate of Security, intelligence sharing, and training of engineers and Armed Forces personnel in various academies.
Given the continued levels of violence and the impact of the coronavirus on the Afghan economy, India should expand its development assistance.
India should look to broaden its engagements with Iran and Russia, and explore opportunities for cooperation with the US as well. It means investing in a wider diplomatic initiative with the view to carve out areas of convergence.
The final stand can still be an inclusive Afghanistan with prudent welfare driven policies for women, children and minorities to be truly Afghan led government to government ties.
–BY YOGITA KADU