As the United States prepares to pull out the entirety of its remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan, the onus for security and stability will fall on the region’s neighbors.
However, this is a window of opportunity in which India can lead the way. It will not be an easy or simple process. As the Taliban become increasingly assertive in the ongoing peace talks and potentially set to govern the country again someday, it is vital that New Delhi carves a channel for diplomatic dealings.
So far there have been some evident efforts in that direction. Indian officials are taking an increasingly visible role in the various meetings concerning Afghanistan’s future, of which Taliban members have been party.
Of course, India’s history with the Taliban – for instance when it was poised at the Kabul helm from 1996 to 2001 – has been a turbulent one. This is not surprising given the Taliban’s protracted policy of directly and indirectly supporting Pakistani terrorist groups, a policy which has resulted among other things in various skirmishes in Jammu and Kashmir.
Moreover, it is hard to forget the painful hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999 by five Taliban gunmen, resulting in one passenger being fatally stabbed and 17 being wounded (Joshi, 2020). Allegations of involvement by the Pakistani ISI inflamed the aftermath.
And certainly, the Taliban’s tendency for violence and the ruthless targeting of both Afghan forces and civilians in recent years reminds all the sobering reality that their overarching tactical approach remains unchanged.
Furthermore and of course, India’s leaders cannot enthusiastically align with a political faction that ideologically limits the education and vocational opportunities for women and endorses extremist values that amount to violence and terrorism.
The diplomatic dance with the Taliban must therefore be delicate, but not dismissive. Uncomfortable facts are facts nonetheless, and India will need to work with the reality on the ground if – or when – the Taliban resume a potent palace position.
India has built up a robust portfolio of strategic interests in Afghanistan – despite its conflicts and volatility. A good example is the $100 million enlargement of the Chabahar port to serve as an import-export core between Central Asia and Afghanistan.
By opting to play a more pervasive part in Afghanistan, India also stands to secure even closer strategic ties to the United States. Washington has vowed to maintain its diplomatic and humanitarian endeavours in Afghanistan after the military exit, and President Biden has expressed a desire to see neighbouring nations play more prominent roles.
India can also coordinate its strategy and act as something of an interlocutor for all countries directly impacted by security affairs in Afghanistan – China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar and beyond.
While India cannot control who takes power in Kabul, it is in India’s best interests to keep the door open to whomever wins the stakes in the months and years to come, keeping in mind the Taliban’s tenacity over the past two decades of US occupation, and the fact that it is a force which is here to stay.
(The writer is a war crimes investigator and author of “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield”. The opinion appeared in IANS)