India must measure Taliban by its actions, wait for opening

Sharat Sabharwal writes: Going forward, if the Taliban build an inclusive and stable system, they maybe able to win international recognition. If they stick to their old ways, they may end up generating opposition, violence and instability in the country.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan under their one-sided deal with the Taliban looked in the end like a rout, evoking the Saigon moment and seriously denting its credibility. Dogged by reports of corruption and desertions, the Afghan army proved no match for the religiously motivated Taliban, folding up in 10 days without much of a fight. The Taliban victory, underpinned by religious extremism and terror, could be a shot in the arm for terrorists across the region. The Americans — and even more the region —continue to pay the price for their imprudence in using religious zealots through Pakistan to dislodge the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Pockets of protests and resistance, including in the Panjshir valley, have been reported, but there’s nothing that looks like a viable challenge to the Taliban for now.

The Taliban had inherited a country in ruins the last time and ruled it with an iron hand, financing it through smuggling and the drug trade. They have now inherited a functional state and economy, with reasonably good infrastructure and an aspirational class. They need qualified persons, wider international recognition and assistance to keep it running. Blocking Afghanistan’s access to its assets/emergency reserves by the US and IMF is a sign of the problems that an isolated Afghanistan can face. The Taliban are, therefore, trying to project a softer image by, inter alia, announcing an amnesty for their opponents and protection of women’s rights in keeping with Islamic values. However, serious doubts persist about their real intentions because of their track record and reports of reprisals, targeted killings and severe restrictions on human rights.

They have spoken of an Emirate, application of shariah law and an inclusive government in the same breath. Regardless of the gloss of inclusivity that they put on their political set-up by taking on board non-Taliban faces, it will essentially be a Taliban-dominated government with a heavy dose of their brand of the shariah. It is also to be seen how they balance the interests of the various factions in the government.

Concerns have been expressed in India about a shift in the geopolitical balance in the region in favour of the China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran axis, with China using the opportunity to draw Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative and Pakistan replicating the 1990s scenario of diverting jihadis from Afghanistan to destabilise Kashmir. Though not entirely unfounded, overreading such possibilities ought to be avoided. The Chinese may be averse to bankrolling an isolated Afghanistan. China has called upon the Taliban to adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, adding that it will consider recognition only after an open, inclusive and broadly representative government is installed. It has also expressed hope that the Taliban will firmly fight terrorist forces, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The Taliban have all along existed with an ecosystem of extremism and terrorism. Warriors of al Qaeda, ETIM, Central Asian and Pakistani terror groups have fought alongside them. Islamic State terrorists are also present in Afghanistan. Concerns will, therefore, persist in China and Russia about the security and stability of Xinjiang and the Central Asian Republics respectively. Iran, too, will have concerns about the safety of the Hazara Shias in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the triumphalism at the Taliban victory, the national discourse in Pakistan recognises the attendant risks of fresh refugee flows, emboldening of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and extremism in general and the problems associated with the Taliban tendency to regard the Pashtun belt on both sides of the Durand Line as a continuum (Mullah Mohammad Omar had declined the Pakistani proposal to recognise this line). However, Pakistan is blinded by the urge to see India out of Afghanistan. Further, faced with threats from the TTP and other groups in its west, broader international consensus against terrorism and the ongoing scrutiny of the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan may have to think twice before coming out of its current restraint mode on Kashmir.

There is criticism that India did not build bridges with the Taliban even after the US deal with them. There are reports of behind the scenes contacts with them and the official position is that India is in touch with all stakeholders. Could India have done better? The hand-wringing at our current dilemma ignores certain ground realities. First, the obvious difficulty in building bridges with the Taliban, an outfit dependent on Pakistan for diplomatic support, sanctuaries and their war effort. Second, India has no direct access to Afghanistan. Third, putting Indian boots on the ground in any appreciable number will pit them against Pakistan and its proxies, who have a considerable logistical advantage. Therefore, India has to count on others for security — the American security cover in the last 20 years, which is now gone.

Can India count on the Taliban, whose Haqqani faction is known as a virtual wing of the ISI, for security and do business with them? We will have to look for answers to these questions through quiet contact with the Taliban, because we care for the people of Afghanistan and should not abandon this strategically important space in our neighbourhood indefinitely. Friendly countries such as Russia and Qatar can help. While counselling moderation and promising continued development partnership, we should judge the Taliban primarily by their security guarantees, including not allowing the use of their territory by anti-India terrorists and the ability to deal with us independently of Pakistan.

For now, it is wait and watch for India, as indeed for other countries. The first priority is to get all Indian nationals out of Afghanistan. India should also join any international effort to address the humanitarian crisis that is reportedly brewing in Afghanistan. Going forward, if the Taliban act wisely and build an inclusive and stable system, they may be able to win international recognition and reduce their dependence on Pakistan. If, on the other hand, they stick to their old ways, they may end up generating opposition, violence and instability in the country, heightening concerns among Afghanistan’s neighbours. Each scenario will hold openings for India.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2021 under the title ‘Waiting and watching Kabul’. The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. Views are personal

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