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India looks at reopening mission in Kabul minus senior diplomats

The plan for reopening does not include sending diplomats at senior levels — the embassy will likely function only with personnel for liaison purposes that may extend to consular services, the sources said. It would not mean a recognition of the Taliban regime.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: May 17, 2022 7:51:49 am
Growing violence in recent months has caused security challenges for the Taliban who took over the country in August as foreign forces withdrew.

India is exploring the possibility of reopening its embassy in Afghanistan soon, but without top-level diplomatic representation, according to sources.

The Indian Express has learnt that a team of security officials flew to Kabul in February to assess the ground situation.

The plan for reopening does not include sending diplomats at senior levels — the embassy will likely function only with personnel for liaison purposes that may extend to consular services, the sources said. It would not mean a recognition of the Taliban regime.

India shut down its embassy in Kabul on August 17, two days after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Since then, Delhi has debated whether that was the right decision. Some sections of the security establishment and Ministry of External Affairs have maintained that continuing there would have put the lives of Indian personnel at risk, pointing to the 1998 incident in which Iranian diplomats at Iran’s Mazar-i-Sharif consulate were abducted by the Taliban during its previous stint in power, and never found.

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Others have made the case that shutting down the mission has left India alone among regional countries with no representation in Kabul. On Monday, as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure group met in Delhi, with Afghanistan top on the agenda, host India was the only country at the table that had not yet reopened its mission in Kabul.

This is a key factor for Delhi in its consideration of a return to Kabul. As many as 16 countries have reopened their embassies there, including the EU which has a small presence to oversee work relating to its humanitarian assistance. The view is that India needs to do so too in its own interests.

The Pakistan, Chinese and Russian and Iranian missions did not shut down during the chaos of the Taliban takeover.

These countries see key roles for themselves in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and began positioning themselves early. All five Central Asian countries have diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. The US signed an agreement with Qatar in April making it the “protecting power” for its interests. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also returned. But none has yet recognised the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.

Developments on the ground also seem to be influencing the view in Delhi that India needs some presence in Kabul quickly. Aside from the emergence of various Taliban factions, and the Haqqani network working towards repairing their international image, Tolo News reported earlier this month that a loya jirga would be held, though no dates have yet been mentioned. It is believed that under pressure to show a move towards an inclusive government, the Taliban have signalled a willingness to convene this traditional Afghan assembly, something former President Hamid Karzai has been advocating since last year as the only way to resolve the impasse in which the Taliban regime finds itself.

Further, the thinking in Delhi is that India’s new outreach to the Central Asian republics would mean little without Afghanistan. Last year, the Pakistan government opened the land route to Afghanistan from the Wagah-Attari border for India to send 50,000 tonnes of foodgrains, underlining that the route was being provided purely for a humanitarian reason. The Taliban also made much of allowing an Indian trader to transport 140 tonnes of sugar through Afghan territory to Uzbekistan. The consignment had been sent from Mumbai to Karachi port, and from there to Afghanistan via the Torkham border. Uzbekistan and Pakistan are already talking about a rail link overland via Mazar-i-Sharif, up to which there is already a link, all the way to Karachi port.

In the current flurry of Track Two India-Pakistan talks, there has been some discussion on the India-Pakistan land transit treaty, long denied to Delhi by Islamabad, as a possible instrument of constructive cooperation in Afghanistan between the two hostile neighbours.

The Indian security team that visited Kabul in February would have sought travel clearances from Taliban, and according to sources, met officials in the Taliban government. The safety of the mission and the personnel posted there would be top priority in any plan to reopen, sources said.

The 2008 bombing of the Indian mission in Kabul, in which the military adviser, a senior diplomat and two personnel of the ITBP guarding the embassy were killed, is still a raw wound for the Indian security establishment. The Afghan government at the time alleged that the Pakistan Army and ISI were behind the attack. The New York Times reported then that US officials had confronted Pakistan with evidence that ISI had used the Haqqani Network for the job.

While the Taliban have said more than once in recent months that they would provide a secure environment for India to reopen its mission, India would be looking for solid guarantees from the regime on this front. It is learnt that Taliban did inspect the embassy premises vacated by India last August, as it did other embassies, but the building is intact, and there is no damage to it.

Although the Taliban have refused permission to Karzai to leave Kabul, including for the funeral of the UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the regime recently permitted Afghan leader Abdullah Abdullah to visit his family, who live in India, for Eid. Abdullah has been in the country since May 2, and there has been speculation that he might have brought a message from the Taliban.

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