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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

In Afghanistan, India needs a seat at the table

New Delhi cannot allow itself to be sidelined in the ongoing Afghan peace process

April 1, 2021 9:57:58 pm
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe. (PTI)

Written by Pranay Kumar Shome

As the Biden administration has signalled its willingness to keep American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and propose a new peace process framework, there are ominous signs that indicate New Delhi may be losing out in this arena. India must get ready to accept some hard reality on the ground and act accordingly. The Taliban has unleashed a summer offensive and is deadlier than ever. Not only does it effectively control half of Afghanistan, but it has also demonstrated the ability to attack vital infrastructure and civilian areas in the heart of the capital, Kabul, and controls some major highways in the country.

Remaining a mute spectator will not suffice New Delhi’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy.

Despite its stated aversion to the Taliban, New Delhi must recognise that the organisation is here to stay and may well return to power should the US ever consider pulling out troops from Afghanistan.

The best thing for India to do in this situation is to accelerate its diplomatic outreach to the Taliban. Such an endeavour presents multiple advantages.

First, it will help India decouple the Taliban from its ideological allies in Rawalpindi, which is of immense strategic value. Given the fact that both India and Pakistan have decided to extend an olive branch to each other in recent days, the Pakistani military establishment’s objections to such an outreach by Delhi may well be muted.

Second, New Delhi needs to be prepared for all eventualities. Avinash Paliwal, in his book My Enemy’s Enemy, has written at length on how external (financial and military) help allowed the mujahideen fighters to topple the Soviet military machine. Since the Taliban is a product of the mujahideen, India cannot rule out foreign interference in Afghanistan in the new scheme of things.

Third, the Taliban consider Saudi Arabia as their religious godfather. Given that Saudi crown prince Muhammed Bin Salman has signalled a move towards a more moderate, inclusive version of Islam, New Delhi must also play a role in this movement towards moderation. India must try and persuade the Taliban to adopt a moderate version of Islam that prioritises women’s empowerment, promotes the principles of liberal democracy, etc.

Finally, the Taliban could act as a bulwark against the more dreaded Islamic State.

All this being said, the road ahead in Afghanistan for India is very difficult. Pakistan, despite offering platitudes that it wants peaceful relations with India, has already set the restoration of statehood for Kashmir as a prerequisite for a resumption of dialogue. India cannot lower its guard. If history is anything to go by, trusting Pakistan has not always yielded good results. New Delhi needs to be cautious while negotiating with the military establishment because they still call the shots in Afghanistan.

“You can change your friends, not your neighbours,” Atal Bihari Vajpayee had eloquently observed. India needs to move cautiously keeping its interests at the core of its diplomatic strategy.

The writer is Research Associate for Defence Research and Studies (DRaS)

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