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India must rethink ‘wait and watch’ Afghan policy

Vivek Katju writes: ‘Strategic patience’ cannot be an alibi for inaction

Written by Vivek Katju |
Updated: September 2, 2021 7:14:49 am
Taliban fighters arrive inside the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the US military's withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan (AP)

Referring to the evolving situation in Afghanistan, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told the Rajya Sabha on July 29, “We will work with the international community to ensure that political negotiation[s] for settlement are pursued and we will never accept any outcome which is decided by force.” Now, only a month later, as the last US aircraft left the Kabul airport, if the erudite Jaishankar reflects on India’s policy towards Afghanistan in the recent past, he would ponder over the cruelty of categorical assertions in fluid situations.

By end-July, the Kabul political elite was crumbling. At its head was a president to whom India had inexplicably attached itself. Indian policymakers obviously thought much of this man, who scooted from the Afghan capital when his people needed him the most. It was also clear by then that the Taliban had gained unstoppable military momentum. Was it conceivable, then, that its military success would not translate into political dominance?

Jaishankar’s strong comment becomes all the more intriguing because at least one branch of government had reached the conclusion that the Taliban would take over Kabul. Speaking at a think-tank on August 25, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said: “From India’s perspective, we were anticipating a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.”

He went on to add, “Yes, the timelines certainly surprised us. We were anticipating this thing happening a couple of months down the line.” General Rawat would, perhaps, not have been taken by surprise if the Indian army had studied the nature of warfighting in Afghanistan and also the ethos of the main body of the Afghan security forces built up under the Americans. This only emphasises the need for closer scrutiny of the nature of military forces in regions of concern to our security interests.

The Taliban are now in Kabul. The Panjshiri defiance led by former Vice-President Amrullah Saleh is unlikely to go anywhere without considerable and abiding support from the US and a firm commitment from Tajikistan. Amrullah is courageous and resolute but these qualities alone in an individual or a group cannot sustain insurgencies.

The Taliban grip over Afghanistan will only strengthen unless there is a popular revolt against it in the cities and non-Pashtun areas. Such a revolt occurred in 1997 in Mazar-e-Sharif against the Taliban but at that stage, there was a unique set of factors that led to it. Thus, the chances of an uprising of the non-Pashtun people against the Taliban is remote, especially as the evidence suggests that the group has gained ground among them too.

After a flurry of activity between leaders of the extinguished Afghan Republic and the Taliban on central government formation, there has been no news of the process for more than a week. It would seem that the Taliban has remained rigid on its core positions. However, there is continuous pressure on Taliban leaders and Pakistan from the Western donor community for the formation of a government acceptable to it.

Certainly, assurances would be sought from the Taliban not only by the West but also by Russia and, perhaps, China that there will be no attempt to put in place the 1990s practices of the Islamic Emirate on gender issues and the more medieval manifestations of the Sharia. Some Taliban leaders would want financial flows to continue to prevent a collapse of the Afghan economy. But will they be able to persuade their more insular colleagues to pay heed to these demands? Certainly, Pakistan, fearful of large refugee movements across the Durand Line, can be expected to lean on these leaders on government formation and to put forward a more moderate face.

It is certain that the US will keep close scrutiny on the Taliban to honour its commitment on al Qaeda and will demand that it continues to cooperate on ISIS-K extermination, an objective shared by Russia. The US will also not hesitate to take further aerial action against targets on Afghan soil. Diplomatic recognition of a Taliban government, including allowing it to occupy the United Nations seat in the forthcoming future will depend on its acceptability. However, the US and EU will not be reluctant to maintain open and direct contact with a Taliban government. Some influential countries, like China, though may be more aggressive on the diplomatic recognition front.

India continues to “wait and watch” Afghan developments. While it does so, many new terms are being added to the Indian diplomatic lexicon by supporters of such an approach. These include “strategic patience” and not granting “legitimacy”. While some members of the Indian foreign policy and strategic community now seem willing to accept the need for open contact with the Taliban by the government, others are not willing to go so far. The latter are suggesting out-of-sight contacts would be preferable. The external affairs minister has indirectly conceded that there have been such contacts with the Taliban, if only for functional reasons.

What is being overlooked is that “strategic patience” cannot be an alibi for inaction. The invocation of the British Raj policy of “masterly inactivity” by some scholars defies logic for it applied in a completely different context. In any event, it accepted the person who controlled Kabul.

Besides, while diplomatic recognition or its denial is a specific act of a country in inter-state relations, “legitimacy” is more applicable in the internal jurisdiction of countries. Its application in inter-state relations can open a box best left closed. Finally, India “waited and watched” Afghan developments from the sidelines, at least since the US-Taliban deal. It apparently hoped that the day of the withdrawal of US forces would not come. How long will India continue to “wait and watch”?

The Taliban spokespersons have been equivocal while speaking about India. Some have warned this country not to interfere in Afghan affairs while others have welcomed India’s continuing involvement in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan. They have stressed that Afghan soil will not be used against third countries. All this cannot be taken at face value, but to explore the Taliban’s approaches towards India there is an obvious need to establish open and direct contacts with it. That will also allow India to convey its red lines. This should not be confused with diplomatic recognition.

The establishment of open contacts with the Taliban will not be contradictory to actively welcoming those Afghans, irrespective of their faith, who are closely connected with India. It would damage India’s reputation greatly and into the future, if perceptions grow, as they are growing, that India has abandoned its friends in Afghanistan at the time of their need.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 1, 2021 under the title ‘To engage Taliban, or not to’. The writer is a former diplomat

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