Is India clueless on Afghanistan?

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Is India clueless on Afghanistan?

Tuesday, 31 August 2021 | Subramanian Swamy

Is India clueless  on Afghanistan?

The Govt must consider its options in remaining engaged with Afghanistan and of ordinary people who boldly placed their faith in Indian leadership

Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15 was noisy but the desperate appeals of innocent Afghans who wanted to leave the country for securing their individual liberty could not be arranged adequately by the international community. Taliban has already taken over most of the provinces, but Kabul is the cherry topping.

India has been largely silent. As of now, it is not clear what the Narendra Modi Government’s policies are with regard to the situation in Afghanistan. On the ground, it chose to make India “speak with its feet” with Indians fleeing through Government-provided flights. But not all have left due to Talban allies’ terror in the provinces and near the Kabul airport.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi early on ordered the full evacuation of the Indian Embassy and all Indian personnel within hours of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s departure from the Presidential Palace. A little earlier, Indian diplomats and staff had departed from Kandahar and other provincial capitals to reach Kabul. Most Indians have been evacuated.

At the UN Security Council in New York and UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, India has expressed its worries about terrorism, human rights and refugees, but has not mentioned the Taliban itself even once by name. And in India, the Government appears to be just as mute, as thousands of Afghans clamour for visas, and get no reply, focusing instead on the task of bringing a few hundred Indian nationals back home.

The Modi Government’s silence is in sharp contrast to the past, particularly the last 20 years till recently. India had then been at the forefront of discussions in Afghanistan and on Afghanistan. India’s role strengthened over the tenure of three different Governments in Delhi in three areas: infrastructure building and development assistance, encompassing all 34 provinces of the country; building democracy, such as in helping script the Constitution and technical assistance to hold elections; and educational investment, as also allowing thousands of young Afghans to study in India, be trained as professionals and soldiers, and become skilled.

India was the first country that Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership with, the only country that undertook perilous but ambitious projects such as a new Parliament building, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, and the Chabahar port project in Iran, the infrastructure for transit trade. As a consequence, India by far is the one country that polled consistently highest among countries that Afghan people trusted.

It seems inconceivable and incomprehensible that the Government can choose to simply walk away from such capital invested and nurtured, regardless of the developments in Afghanistan, the domestic political considerations in India and geopolitical sensitivities of some neighbours. Therefore, it would be abdication of responsibility. The Government must instead consider all its options in remaining engaged with Afghanistan for its future and of the ordinary people of Afghanistan who boldly placed their faith in Indian leadership.

For this, to begin with, it is necessary to acknowledge the hard agonising truth that no other power from the West to the East has considered India’s interests or contribution to date, while charting the course on Afghanistan.

Such shocking blocking out of India has been found in the cut-out of several quadrilateral arrangements, e.g., the main negotiations held by the “Troika plus” consisting of the United States-Russia-China-Pakistan that pushed for a more “inclusive Government” by including the Taliban; the alternative grouping of Russia-Iran-China-Pakistan that formed a “regional arc” that has today enabled them to retain their Embassies in Kabul; and the connectivity quadrilaterals formed by the US and China, respectively, with Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, that depend heavily on Taliban protection and Pakistani port access. India is nowhere in these arrangements-a loud denigration of the Modi Government.

Neither India’s so-called traditional strategic and defence partner, Russia, nor its currently fastest-growing global strategic partner, the United States, thought it important to include India in any confabulation or insist that their envoys, Zamir Kabulov (who is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan) and Zalmay Khalilzad (US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation), briefed their counterparts in New Delhi about the details of their negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

New Delhi was unable to assure its diplomatic staff that they would be secure from Taliban militia and their Pakistani benefactors, in order to keep diplomats in Kabul. It was able to negotiate a diplomatic outpost at Kabul airport that would allow it to place a core team as with the US, the United Kingdom and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, it is time to accept India’s diplomacy was a huge failure. This acceptance will mean that India's foreign policy needs a reset and a new diplomatic strategy.

While the Modi Government found it inconvenient to vocally protest the talks with the Taliban and the extended line to Pakistan to facilitate the talks with these “friendly” global leaders thus far, it is necessary for India to publicly decry such an outcome that has clearly worked against India's interests till now.

In order to do so, India must begin by rallying in the United Nations, to exert its influence, explicitly in its own interest, and that of the still existing on paper, the Afghan “Republic” in the UN, which cannot be allowed to be just abandoned.

At the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the remained period as Chairman, India must be vocal about its abhorrence of a Taliban-run Afghanistan that seeks to reverse the gains of democracy developing in the past two decades. A pathetic diluted statement that India drafted as UNSC president on August 16 did not even mention opposition to theso-called “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.

India must thereafter take a leading role in the debate over who will be nominated to Afghanistan’s seat at the UN, and whether the Republic’s appointed current Ambassador will remain, or the seat declared “vacant”, or even “suspended” depending on the new regime in Afghanistan committing to international norms on human rights, women’s rights, minority rights and others.

As Chairman of the Taliban Sanctions Committee (or the 1988 Sanctions Committee), India must not act shy, but in fact use its muscle to ensure terrorists such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and other members of the Haqqani group responsible for brutal suicide bombings on Indian embassies and consulates, not be given any exemptions: on travel, recourse to funds, or arms.

Thus, Prime Minister Modi’s forthcoming speech at the UN General Assembly scheduled for September 25th will be an appropriate occasion to express India’s position on the civilised future of Afghanistan and thus challenge the rest of the international community to refuse legitimisation of the Taliban regime, unless the regime is willing to negotiate on all these issues.

In dealing with the Taliban regime, the Modi Government must determine the nature of its engagement with this new regime. The question of whether India will move from its fruitless back-channel talks with the Taliban and with Pakistan in the past few months, into something substantive remains to be seen.

In a world of hard geopolitical realities, it is also uniquely India's soft power, autonomy based on principles and a Hindu tradition selfless assistance to those in need, such examples as Parsis and Jews, particularly has been the unique voice of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. We must make that voice heard loud and clear on Afghanistan, loud and clear and now.

(The writer is a BJP MP and former Union Minister. The views expressed are personal.)

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