On June 2, the Ministry of External Affairs announced that a team led by J P Singh, Joint Secretary (PAI) “is currently on a visit to Kabul to oversee the delivery operations of our humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan”. While conceding that the delegation would meet “senior members of the Taliban”, the MEA clearly implied that this engagement should be seen only in the limited context of assistance to the Afghan people with whom, it said, “India has historical and civilisational ties” and that these “long-standing linkages will continue to guide our approach”. Later, that day, the MEA spokesperson cautioned the media not to read too much into the visit.
If the government has been coy about the implications of the Singh visit, the Taliban has shown no inhibitions about its connotations. While this is not surprising because the Taliban, the de-facto ruler of Afghanistan, is keen to gain international recognition, the outfit’s attitude also indicates that it is not averse to developing ties with New Delhi, despite whatever concerns Pakistan may have regarding an Indian presence in Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesperson tweeted after Singh’s meeting with acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi that diplomatic relations between the two countries, and trade and humanitarian assistance were discussed. Muttaqi also called Singh’s visit a good beginning in the ties between the two countries. Muttaqi’s deputy, the Indian Military Academy-trained former Afghan army officer, Abbas Stanikzai, whom Singh also met, reportedly stressed that bilateral ties would not be influenced by rivalries with other countries. This was an obvious indication of the Taliban’s desire to develop independent ties with India despite its bonds with Pakistan. This would also be in keeping with the Afghan character.
Notwithstanding the diffidence of the MEA statement on Singh’s Kabul visit, the fact is that the Narendra Modi government has made a major move towards the Taliban. Indeed, it would have been pointless to send Singh to Kabul if his trip and meetings with senior Taliban members were not part of a plan for a larger engagement with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The continuance of humanitarian assistance can be only one, though an important, segment of that interaction; other aspects, especially security issues and later, connectivity and investments, as Afghanistan stabilises, have to be part of the dialogue with the Taliban.
Afghanistan impacts India’s security. It has, in the past, provided space to al Qaeda with which the Taliban had a special relationship. Afghanistan has an ISIS presence too, though the Taliban is at odds with it. Of special concern to India are the Taliban’s ties with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. A recent United Nations report has emphasised that the Taliban’s connections with these groups have not been severed. Indeed, it is unlikely that the Taliban would entirely turn its back on them. In these circumstances should India shun the Taliban? More importantly, should it reject the idea of establishing a permanent presence in Kabul at this juncture?
Those who argue that both “principle and pragmatism” demand that India should not do business with the Taliban obviously overlook the fact that Pakistan has continued to sponsor terror for the past three decades and more —indeed it has made the use of terror a part of its security doctrine on India – and yet India has continued to engage it and has maintained a diplomatic presence in Islamabad. The argument that the diplomatic door must be kept open for Pakistan because it’s a neighbour while it can be shut on the Taliban is facile because Afghanistan directly impacts Indian security. An engagement with the Taliban would at least give an opportunity to convey Indian concerns directly and encourage those elements within the group who wish to open up its diplomatic choices.
Far from being a monolith, the Taliban has significant tribal and regional contradictions. While wedded to its mixture of Deobandi and Wahhabi theologies, it has pragmatists too. These sections are aware of the wider world and of the need to moderate the group’s entrenched approaches on gender and minorities and perhaps even its harsh and retrogressive theology. It is unlikely though if they will be able to prevail anytime soon. The question, therefore, is if India should leave the Afghan arena entirely to Pakistan and China because of the social manifestation of Taliban theology on the Afghan people? It is good that India has extended humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan at this time through international agencies and not let its unhappiness with the Taliban’s policies come in the way.
There are indications of the development of some opposition to the Taliban in the Panjshir valley. However, it would be futile for Indian policy makers to consider this as becoming effective. At most it will remain an irritant to the Taliban. There is also no indication of a popular countrywide upsurge which could push them out. Thus, the Taliban is here to stay and for India, there is no alternative but to deal with it even while repeating, if it wishes, the mantra of inclusive government. There would also be nothing wrong in maintaining contacts with some of the leaders of the ousted Republic, especially as the Taliban itself wants them to return to the country.
All in all, the sooner India establishes a permanent presence in Kabul the better for the pursuit of national interests in the external sphere. This is not an exercise in evangelism but the cold and undeterred pursuit of interests, which often requires supping with the devil — of course, with a long spoon.
The writer is a former diplomat