Indian delegation led by MEA Joint Secretary (PAI) J.P. Singh during their visit to see Indian developmental projects, in Kabul, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (PTI Photo)
The Indian delegation in Kabul led by J.P. Singh, the joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs who is in charge of the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran (PAI) division, has elicited raised eyebrows. A number of justifications are being presented. It is being argued that the Taliban are today at loggerheads with their old sponsor Pakistan over not curbing the activities of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which targets the Pakistan Army and the state and which India can exploit. Furthermore, that within the Taliban moderate and radical factions have differences which India can play on only by being in the game. Also, that in any case India had been in clandestine contact with the Taliban since before its capture of power in August last year.
All these factors have been in play for months, if not longer. India chairs the UN Security Council’s counter-terrorism committee. The 13th report of the UNSC’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes that "Al Qaeda appears free to pursue its objectives" so long as the Taliban are not embarrassed. It adds that these objectives apparently include "recruitment, training, fundraising and al-Zawahiri’s video communications". This video surfaced in November last year in which al-Zawahiri castigates the United Nations and its permanent members.
That all this was already known to India can be surmised from the deliberations recently in Dushanbe of security officials of South and Central Asia.
India had been keeping the door ajar by sending humanitarian aid to help fend off starvation in a totally mismanaged Afghanistan after the advent of the Taliban government. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, has sought a joint regional counter-terrorism focus due to Afghanistan becoming again the cradle of global jihad. Foreign Policy magazine notes that the TTP has up to 4,000 fighters today as in the past two years it has reabsorbed 17 former affiliates. In addition, the Taliban is harbouring other terror proxies like the Kashmir jihadists, Ansarullah of Tajikistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Simultaneously, the Taliban has been reneging from commitments given during their deal with the United States prior to the takeover in August 2021 rhat the educational and other rights of the girls and women would be protected.
Afghanistan has slowly regressed into the kind of state that existed before the American intervention in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. All through the past two decades India calculated that its development role and investment of over $2 billion in infrastructure would ensure permanent goodwill and leverage.
The sudden US exit left all those calculations null and void as India was barely consulted after the Biden administration decided to exit hurriedly. If anything, the exit was completely disorderly and based on assurances by Taliban interlocutors, some of whom got sidelined after Kabul came under the Taliban’s control.
Why then South Block’s sudden interest in engaging the Taliban at the joint secretary level? Normally, the correct answer is a simple one, generally gazing one in the face. The headlines in most newspapers are about the second migration of Kashmiri Hindus following the targeted killings in the past few weeks.
Union home minister Amit Shah is himself reviewing the situation that obviously embarrasses the BJP after their chest-thumping over The Kashmir Files, a film which graphically depicts the exodus in 1990. It also comes two-and-a-half years after the Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation in October 2019. That was marketed as a historic step to integrate Kashmir into India, which past governments had failed to do. The movie came as a timely addendum to that thesis.
The reason for the Taliban outreach is more internal than external. The militancy began in Jammu and Kashmir as the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and Pakistani jihadi elements returned home by 1990. The Rajiv Gandhi government foolishly tried to fix the 1987 state Assembly election, leaving in its trail disaffection with India. The plot had been set for Pakistan to unleash terrorism in the Valley, already having surplus hordes of jihadis desperate to liberate Kashmir, soon after their victory in Afghanistan. The plot is almost identical now.
The BJP government in New Delhi has failed to assuage the feeling of hurt in the Valley following Jammu and Kashmir’s downgrading to Union territory status and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state. In addition, the recently held delimitation exercise, which adds six new seats in the Hindu-dominated Jammu province, has merely added to the angst. The political outreach to explain the far-reaching steps by the Union government has been minimal.
This is happening while Afghanistan is again in the hands of pro-jihad elements, as happened after the post-Soviet dispensation lost power in the early 1990s.
Will the outreach to the Taliban work? The only carrots India can put on the table are development and financial assistance. But this assistance would have to be transmitted to Afghanistan via Pakistan or Iran. Both are likely to carefully weigh their own concerns about the Taliban and make routes available only if they are satisfied by Taliban’s response. The Taliban are also caught between testy neighbours and twin internal challenges. The insurgency fed by former northern, non-Pashtun leaders as well as the threat from the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) will ensure that the Taliban des not offend AQ affiliates, that it currently tolerates. The Pakistan Army may also change its approach if they find that India is beginning to get traction in Kabul.
The Indian delegation engaged Taliban’s deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammed Abba Stanekzai. He is a former graduate of the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. But his ability to shape the Taliban’s approach to India would depend on his government’s interests and not past friendships. The crux of the problem is the BJP’s handling of Kashmir. Whether the Taliban publicly make it an issue or not is quite immaterial. It will be a part of their ideological agenda for supporting the beleaguered Muslim Umma in South Asia. This is due to their domestic fight against the ISKP, for which they need the goodwill of AQ affiliates. It requires that they are seen as defenders of Islamic Umma.
Seen against this background, the Hindus still living in the Valley are collateral damage in the fight between the BJP’s vision of an integrated Kashmir and the Kashmiri sense of autonomy promised to them under the Indian Constitution. Kabul may tactically and temporarily control the jihadis seeking to liberate Kashmir by force. But they will never abandon them completely. The solution lies at home.