Dealing with the Taliban: Engage, don’t endorse

India has remained a friend of Afghanistan since time immemorial

By K.S. Tomar

“We can change our friends but not neighbors,” said former prime minister late Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 about Pakistan. His wisdom and statesmanship are considered timeless and his observations remain relevant.

An Indian delegation visiting Kabul after Taliban 2.0 took over clearly hints at the continuation of the line of Vajpayee in the foreign policy by the Narendra Modi government where engagement, not the iron wall is the rule. The step is expected to go a long way in normalizing relations with Afghanistan with its historical and cultural ties binding the two countries for centuries.

India: A friend to Afghan People

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) created the Frankenstein called Taliban in 1994 when they saw that traditional tribal leadership would no longer bow before them in the long run. They destroyed the community leadership and replaced it with madrasa-educated fanatics with traditional Islam as their shield to cover every atrocity on the people and their country.

India has remained a friend of Afghanistan since time immemorial. She enjoys goodwill amongst the people of Afghanistan, and the Indian government has invested more than $3 billion in the past two decades on various development projects including Salma Dam and the parliament building. India’s partnership with Afghanistan in recent times includes more than five hundred projects spread across each of the 34 provinces in fields like power, water supply, road connectivity, healthcare, education, agriculture, and capacity building.

In August 2021, when the rechristened version of the Taliban took over, they tried to shed their traditional image and appealed to India not to evacuate. They also appreciated India’s contributions to the development of the country. Wary of the activities of ISI and the impact of China on the new regime, India decided to withdraw for the time being but supported the evacuation of Sikhs from the war-ravaged country.

Engagement is a logical step forward

An official delegation led by a senior diplomat JP Singh recently visited Kabul and held the talks with Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. “The meeting focused on India-Afghan diplomatic relations, bilateral trade, and humanitarian aid,” Muttaqi tweeted.

India had closed its embassy in Afghanistan last August and its initiative reflects the keenness to retain ties though nothing is certain about the timing of normalization of diplomatic ties. The local staff of the embassy continues to function and ensure proper maintenance and upkeep of its premises in Kabul which shows India’s willingness to reopen the embassy in near future.

India’s initiative to break the ice with the Taliban has been appreciated by Kabul who described it as a good beginning to cement ties between the two countries. Though India is very much interested but treading cautiously. “It will not be fair to read too much into the visit of the foreign ministry officials,” quipped, Arindam Bagchi, Indian foreign ministry spokesman.

Though India missed the bus for the Doha deliberation with the Taliban or perhaps was kept out due to scheming of Pakistan and China but last minutes of maneuvering save the day for the Indian diplomacy. Beijing had tried to downplay the significance of the meeting between the Indian ambassador to Qatar and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the head of the Taliban’s Political Office. Stanekzai had been a cadet of the National Defense Academy (NDA) of India.

Chinese plan goes awry

The US dollars pumped into Afghanistan via Pakistan since the cold war have essentially one beneficiary – Pakistan Army and its establishment. With the US no longer interested in putting up bills for Pakistan and underwriting weapon supplies, Pakistan needed to replace the master.

Lured by natural resources, minerals, and fresh water with aim of hedging its bet over increasing pressure over the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinxiang province and its ambition to secure a safe route to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Afghanistan was an attractive deal for China. More importantly, China looks upon Pakistan as its vassal state, so the situation on the face looked under complete control.

China’s diplomatic moves and calibrated actions of encouraging the Taliban after the US withdrawal was aimed at harnessing its rich mineral wealth which comprise of estimated 60 million metric tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements, and veins of aluminum, gold, silver, etc.

But China soon realized that security on the ground is not affable for large-scale investment in copper mining or exploiting other natural resources. Attack on Chinese workers by Baluch revolutionaries in Karachi and Gwadar has become added pressure on the Chinese, and in turn, made Pakistan face the music from the new master.

Pak-China Axis

China wants to expand its plan to finance and build infrastructure across the region which will lead to the extension of the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) access to markets in the Middle East, and central Asia. China dreaming of bypassing Malacca’s straight dilemma for its oil supplies from the Middle East through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), gas supplies from central Asia, and warm water access to the Indian Ocean has fallen for the Pakistani trap which has already started unrevealing itself.

Though a helping hand from China comes with costs that Sri Lank in the south is experiencing but Pakistan has nothing to lose and everything to gain in the gamble except for the breakdown of social and economic order and descend into lawlessness. “If Pak`s establishment does not make the right decisions, the country could split into three parts,” said, former Prime Minister Imran Khan recently.

Diversity is a key feature of Afghanistan       

Pakistan with its financiers – one or another, ruling Afghanistan through proxies under the veneer of Islamic rule is not sustainable as Afghanistan is not a monolithic country. The country has 14 distinct ethnic and linguistic denominations, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Baloch, Turkmen, and Uzbeks. History shows that the iron hand approach in Afghanistan has not worked since time immemorial.

Taliban are largely Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Pashtuns constitute 40.9 percent of the population mainly in southern Afghanistan where they oppose the Durand Line and claim territory of Pashtunistan on both sides of the line. The Tajiks in the north constitute 37-39 percent and live in northern Afghanistan bordering Central Asia.

The way ahead for India

The composition of Taliban 2.0 was not a welcome sign for India as Pakistan had played an active role in the induction of the Haqqani network into the government. The ascendency of Haqqani, a specially designated global terrorist by the UNSC with a bounty on his head proved the hold of ISI over the new government.

However, India has been continuing its efforts to enhance bilateral trade with Afghanistan via Dubai and its banks. India is one of the biggest importers of Afghan spices and dried fruits, apricots, and figs besides a destination for Indian sugar. According to figures available on the Indian embassy’s website, her exports to Afghanistan were nearly $1 billion whereas India’s imports from Afghanistan were around $530 million.

Trade and people-to-people contact has remained the mainstay of India-Afghanistan relations for decades. However, India’s internal political squabbling and reflections of extreme religious polarization have the potential to jeopardize the apple cart of diplomacy.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Shimla, India)

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

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