Anand K. Sahay | Is India doing a rethink on role in Afghanistan?

It seems likely that an Indian representation will soon be restored in Kabul, even if this will be small and not at the level of ambassador

Since India evacuated its mission in Afghanistan once the Taliban retook Kabul in August 2021, practically under American aegis, after what came to be called the Taliban’s Doha “negotiations” with the United States, New Delhi is evidently doing a rethink. It seems likely that an Indian representation will soon be restored in Kabul, even if this will be small and not at the level of ambassador.

This is reflective of realistic thinking. Of course, there can be no question at present of according recognition to the Taliban regime. That is likely to happen when a broad consensus amongst the leading powers emerges. Currently, the Taliban government is not helping its own cause of gaining world recognition — which will help it access overseas funds at a time when the country is in dire straits — by imposing severe restrictions on women and girls in serious violation of human rights.

More basic is the issue that the Taliban regime is not considered representative at the domestic level within Afghanistan. If it were to accommodate into the government all Afghan factions and ethnic and political interests, as well as women, the world may view the regime in Kabul differently.

Since the Taliban rode to power militarily and not through an election process, the only plausible way to gain domestic legitimacy is through the holding of a Loya Jirga, the traditional Afghan national assembly that embraces the various ethnic and other political interests and operates on the basis of a negotiated consensus. As recently as last week, Moscow — which carries influence in Afghanistan — counselled the Taliban exactly on these lines. Former President Hamid Karzai, who chose not to leave the country after the Taliban takeover and is practically under house arrest, has advocated this course for months in media interviews.

It’s an open question if the Taliban will heed this well-intended advice. However, Taliban interlocutors have reportedly hinted to the three high-profile hostages — besides Mr Karzai, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, virtually the Prime Minister in the erstwhile Ashraf Ghani government, and former Loya Jirga speaker Fazl Hadi Muslimyar — that a Loya Jirga is on the cards, and the convention could materialise before the summer is out.

If this is not without basis, it would appear that the strong likelihood of India resurrecting its presence in Afghanistan’s capital in a matter of weeks — as suggested in New Delhi — may not be wholly without linkage to the timing of the Taliban holding the Afghan grand assembly. Indeed, in recent months New Delhi and the Taliban authorities are believed to have been in touch at the level of senior security officials. Not long ago, an Indian team was in Kabul. Earlier, India had hosted the Taliban.

There could be other signs that might suggest a loosening up in Kabul. Dr Abdullah was permitted by the Taliban government to quietly visit his family in New Delhi recently on the occasion of Id-ul-Fitr. It was strictly a private visit. Earlier, Mr Muslimyar was allowed to meet his family in the UAE at the urging of Mr Karzai, who remains a central figure.

Interestingly, the former President, who stayed on in Kabul with his family when the Taliban took over, is himself yet to reach an agreement with the authorities to travel abroad for conferences or medical reasons.

Observers believe that when any of the “republican” trio travels out of the country, the other two are his guarantors, effectively speaking. If Mr Karzai too is permitted foreign travel, a message of opening up by the regime is apt to be conveyed. The three Taliban leaders who are said to be interlocutors with the “hostages” are mines minister Shahabuddin Delawar, intelligence chief Abdul Haq Wasiq, and young Anas Haqqani, brother of the powerful Siraj Haqqani, who heads what is now deemed the most influential Taliban faction. These important Taliban figures evidently bear a huge burden of public relations.

When the nearly 200-strong Indian mission in Kabul was being evacuated in a hurry following the re-capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban on August 15 last year, India’s ambassador, Rudrendra Tandon, was on record as saying that the situation in Afghanistan was complex and “quite fluid”.

In the event, the Indians pulled out in toto. In light of terrorist attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul and Indian consulates in Heart, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif at the behest of our western neighbour, there was legitimate concern that Pakistani death squads in newly “liberated” Kabul could target Indians and Indian interests. Ambassador Tandon had reportedly adopted a nuanced stance, however, which would have meant retaining a very limited diplomatic presence alive in Kabul.

In conspicuous contrast with India’s stand, the other powers that had a direct bearing on regional geopolitics — China, Russia, Iran, the UAE and of course Pakistan, did not withdraw their presence from Kabul when the Taliban returned. As for the US, it operated through Qatar’s embassy in Afghanistan. Of course, none of these countries attract visceral Pakistani governmental hostility, as India does.

Evidently, the Indian position is now undergoing a measure of quiet re-calibration. It is likely that India rushing wheat to Afghanistan, where roughly half the population stands on the brink of starvation since the Taliban takeover, made an impression in Kabul even if the food aid was routed via the World Food Programme as Pakistan was dragging its foot on providing road access to Indian aid consignments.

Over the years, before the Taliban reoccupied Kabul, India had been accused by Pakistan of fomenting terrorist trouble against it by using the then Afghan government which was friendly towards New Delhi. Recent events have shown this allegation to be false. Of late, the Pakistan Air Force has been dropping bombs in the eastern Afghanistan provinces of Khost and Kunar to destroy the camps of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which have sought shelter with the government of the (Afghan) Taliban in Kabul in order to escape Pakistani retribution.

When American influence was all-pervasive in Afghanistan before the return of the Taliban, as a fighting politico-military force the Taliban were given sanctuary by Pakistan. This was a conscious policy aimed at eventually dominating Afghanistan if the Taliban returned to rule Kabul. This has now come to pass but Kabul, as before, continues to remain at odds with Islamabad in the security sphere.

In such a complex situation, and with some probability that domestic politics in Kabul may perforce require the Taliban to accommodate other political and ethnic interests in the country, India cannot remain glued to its position of August 2021.

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