Anand K. Sahay | India’s return to a key role in Kabul: Ticklish issue emerges

The reopening of the embassy in Afghanistan’s capital will by no means be a recognition of the Taliban government by India

New Delhi is in an unenviable position in Afghanistan although that country has strategic significance for it. India is the only major stakeholder which does not physically border the land where the Taliban have returned to rule — a situation which raises the prospect of adjustments in regional geopolitics from which New Delhi may not like to be alienated.

As such, even inadvertent contrary factors would be required to be finessed, and a small niggle does seem to be appearing on the horizon. It is the thinking in informed circles that the issue will melt away before long, probably before India returns to Kabul with its embassy which it had withdrawn in the wake of the Taliban takeover in August 2021. The reopening of the embassy in Afghanistan’s capital will by no means be a recognition of the Taliban government by India.

Recognition by India will not be unilateral. It will likely emanate from a broader understanding among the major powers that the Taliban’s rule embraces key political segments of opinion in the country and does not disregard Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity since it was not established through an election process. Further, international recognition of the present regime in Kabul may require that it is not in discord with the basic principles of the UN Charter, especially those concerning gender justice and human rights more broadly.

This column had revealed that an Indian representation was sought to be restored in Kabul (Is India Doing a Rethink on Role in Afghanistan?; May 13) — a development of some significance given India’s initially negative and now cautious impulses in relation to the Taliban — probably before the summer was out.

Subsequently, in a May 27 interview to an Indian television channel, the influential young Taliban leader Anas Haqqani, brother of Afghanistan’s powerful acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is deemed to be the de facto deputy head of state, disclosed that the Taliban have urged India to reopen its mission in Kabul and re-establish its links with the Afghan people as before, without entertaining any security-related fears. At the regional security dialogue held in New Delhi just weeks ago, national security adviser Ajit Doval declared that India seeks to maintain its ties with the people of Afghanistan.

Over a 15-year period after the Taliban were dislodged from power in 2001, New Delhi was the largest contributor of development assistance to Kabul, not counting the international institutions and the “donor” nations. This earned it goodwill at the level of government and warmth at the level of the people that remains unrivalled. However, after the Taliban retook the country in August 2021, New Delhi withdrew its embassy from Kabul as Pakistan, seen as the Taliban’s mentor during its two-decade exile, was in the ascendant and physical harm to Indian interests was apprehended.

Since then, pursuant to an internal debate, India is thought to be seriously considering restoring its representation in the Afghan capital, although at a lower level than that of ambassador. In what manner India’s return to Afghanistan affects the Taliban-Pakistan dynamics, always seen as tight and terrific, and the tenuous Pakistan-India relationship, is for the future. For now, New Delhi would naturally seek to take every precaution that any positive outcomes for it are not side-tracked on account of unforeseen circumstances in Afghanistan politics, or through an exogenous factor.

An unusual development has come to crease eyebrows in South Block of late. The senior Afghanistan “republican” leader, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and CEO (equivalent to Prime Minister) in the government of former President Ashraf Ghani which collapsed with the Taliban takeover last year, had arrived in New Delhi in early May to join his family to celebrate the Muslim festival of Id-ul-Fitr. Knowledgeable circles in Kabul expected his return to Kabul by the end of May. His longer than expected stay appears to be troubling New Delhi.

Along with former President Hamid Karzai and former Speaker Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, Dr Abdullah has practically been a “hostage” of the Taliban. Mr Karzai’s requests to travel overseas have been turned down by the Taliban government, the most recently to attend the funeral of the UAE ruler. However, earlier Mr Muslimyar was allowed to visit his family residing in Dubai. In like manner, Dr Abdullah was permitted to fly to India. The former Speaker had returned as scheduled, but the former CEO has not.

An undue delay in his return could worry the Taliban regime even if there are perfectly reasonable grounds for him staying on. Those hostile to India’s interests are also apt to exploit the situation.
It is not quite clear if the Taliban regime is using the “hostages” as a card, or as a front that confers respectability in that they have not been harmed. No matter which, whether Dr Abdullah’s longish sojourn in India will adversely impact President Karzai’s status can be a matter of speculation and concern.

When the Taliban retook Kabul in August 2021, its government had unilaterally changed Mr Karzai’s guards. In a show of solidarity, Dr Abdullah had invited the former President and his family to share his residence. This is believed to have raised the former CEO’s political stature in the country. It is not clear if the picture as regards Dr Abdullah’s India visit will alter the status quo in Afghanistan. But a ticklish problem has arisen and Indian diplomacy needs to be activated in subtle ways.

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