India will do well to reposition itself geopolitically to ensure Afghanistan becomes a neutral State and buffer to Chinese penetration of South Asia
India has always wavered on the recognition, reconciliation and reintegration of Taliban. This goes back to more than a decade ago when India categorised it into ‘good’ Taliban and ‘bad’ Taliban and reluctantly agreed to reconciliation and integration of ‘good’ Taliban. At the London conference in January 2010, attended by 69 Foreign Ministers including India’s SM Krishna to find a political solution in Afghanistan, India’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban were replaced by the innovative “non-hardcore rebels”. When the Americans signed the Doha peace accord, the deal was titled “Agreement between USA and Taliban which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. The MEA has neither modified its position on Taliban nor its undisguised revulsion for it.
Engagement with the Taliban similarly has been a story of twists and turns. At the Raisina Dialogue in 2018, Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat, when asked whether India should talk to the Taliban, without batting an eyelid replied in the affirmative: “We have talked to rebel groups earlier.” The very next day, GoI issued a clarification noting that Gen Rawat had spoken in his personal capacity and his views did not reflect those of the Government. It is not clear precisely when the back channel or direct talks started with the Taliban but earlier this year, Qatar’s Foreign Minister confirmed that engagement with Taliban had taken place in Doha. The first known public contact with the Taliban occurred in Moscow when two retired Indian officials attended as observers the Troika Plus engagement with Taliban of the US, Russia, China and Pakistan in 2020. Rumours of Indian contact with Taliban go back to 2017/18. Many columnists, including myself, have advocated for years that India should officially engage with the Taliban. But that did not happen.
India has rested on its laurels of being voted by multiple polls in Afghanistan as the most favoured nation. Nearly 70 per cent of Afghans polled for India, way ahead of other countries. India’s contribution to development and capacity building is simply outstanding. India has completed or was working on more than 500 projects in 34 provinces in Afghanistan, utilising upwards of $2bn of the $3bn allotted to the latter. Hundreds of students are studying in civilian and military institutes and will remain in India till the completion of their assignments. India is second home to many Afghan leaders, something Taliban has resented. The Taliban have asked India to return to complete its unfinished projects. KEC International and Kalpataru Power Transmission will complete their infrastructure projects when the green flag is shown. WAPCOS, which completed Salma Dam, is not sure about its return. Tata Motors and Hyderabad-based BSCPL Infrastructure exited in 2015.
Mixed messages from Taliban suggest that Indian business and the embassy should not be in any hurry to return to Kabul as some diplomats and political leaders have advocated. Evacuation of Indians and Afghan nationals of Indian origin has been the priority. In April 2020, India withdrew its consulates from Herat and Jalalabad, scaled down the Kabul Embassy the same year, closing the old Chancery and moving into the new embassy in the green zone. On July 11, India withdrew its Kandahar Consulate and, a month later, Mazar-e-Sharif. India has quit Kabul to Pakistan’s glee. This tragic predicament has been created by India’s persistence with “wait and watch” over the years even after signing the strategic protocol with Afghanistan in 2011. Little effort was made to convert goodwill into political and strategic influence despite military assets in Tajikistan. More lately, India put all its eggs in the US basket though a last-ditch effort was made to salvage relations with Iran and Russia. The Americans say: “We do not look at Afghanistan through the Indian prism.” Strategic patience has failed, leaving India out in the cold.
At the second SCO summit last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India was in no hurry to recognise Taliban. This was the first official statement by the Government. Modi called for the Taliban to eschew radicalisation and drug running to ensure Afghanistan did not become sanctuary for cross-border terrorism. He also observed that the Government was not inclusive and had come up without negotiations but India would be ready to provide humanitarian aid and join any regional/global initiative to help people of Afghanistan. Former NSA, MK Narayanan, has advised India to reposition itself geopolitically and even mediate a proposal to ensure Afghanistan becomes a neutral State and buffer to further Chinese penetration of South Asia. The neutrality project has been attempted by, among others, the UN and will not work due to Pakistan’s interference. China is likely to become the lead player in Afghanistan, securing its strategic corridor to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan. The China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus will constitute a new threat for India from Af-Pak.
India has lost its privileged intelligence cooperation with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and leverage over Pakistan. At the UNSC, while presiding over it in August, India could have done a lot more on its three statements on Afghanistan, including Resolution 2593. New Delhi must find its feet and wings to claim its legitimate place in the Hindukush where the new Great Game is only just beginning.
(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal.)