It has been a busy summer in the New Delhi policy circles. After a strategic retreat from Kabul following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, India has re-established its diplomatic presence in the conflict-ravaged country. More importantly, it is a signal that New Delhi is back to retrieve its lost leverage in that country. Although the current state of affairs is far from being business as usual, New Delhi’s calculated risk of sending a small technical team to Kabul to deal with the humanitarian crisis following the earthquake in Paktika and Khost provinces as a first responder and reopening its embassy is certainly the beginning of a new chapter. It is bound to be laced with challenges, but with a well-planned and long-term strategy it has the potency of securing many of India’s strategic interests.
At one level, it can be argued that India never abandoned Afghanistan. Even after the closure of its consulates and embassy, it continued to express concerns about the humanitarian crisis in the country, built regional consensus about the threat of terrorism, voiced its support for an inclusive government, and provided aid and assistance to the people of Afghanistan. Much of that is in sync with the Agreement on Strategic Partnership (ASP) India had signed in October 2011. However, New Delhi did signal that it will be difficult to engage, let alone recognise the Taliban unless the latter mends its ways and engages in a course correction. Such posturing continued while the new rulers of Afghanistan interspersed their ruthless policies against women and girls, minorities and elements of the previous government, with welcome calls to India to return and play a constructive role.
With this backdrop, New Delhi’s policy turnaround, the first sign of which was a diplomatic visit to Kabul by a team led by the MEA’s joint secretary in early June, needs to be contextualised. First, there seems to be a definite realisation that the Taliban regime is there to stay and no amount of pressure building will dislodge it from power at least in the near-medium term. Thus, India needs to make a strategic choice of whether to start incrementally building a working relationship with it or to forsake it for an uncertain future. Choosing the latter option would effectively mean abandoning the Afghan people who still look up to India for assistance.
Second, while there is an ongoing debate about the need for engagement and disengagement, there seems to be some convergence in the policy and strategic circles that engagement, not complete detachment, could be the key to securing India’s huge strategic interests in Afghanistan. This needs to be done when the Taliban regime is still isolated internationally and therefore amenable to India’s presence. Having the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, with which India can do business, is better than a regime that can turn avowedly anti-India. Therefore, the repeat of the 1996 scenario, when New Delhi shut its embassy for five long years, reducing Afghanistan to a strategic and intelligence black hole, can be averted. The divisions within the Taliban do provide the space to win over the moderates and dilute the agenda of the hardliners.
Third, New Delhi must choose the timing and context of its return to Kabul and not wait for an elusive international consensus in this regard. As the Western world is preoccupied with the Ukraine war, New Delhi’s absence could be working to the advantage of countries who do not wish it to return and are using the space to restart proxy warfare. The changing geopolitical and regional alignments need to be utilised deftly by India.
The devastating earthquake, therefore, provides a reason for India to revisit its 11-month-old policy. More importantly, it represents the coming together of the needs of both the recognition and resource-starved Islamic Emirate and New Delhi, which has a wide variety of stakes in the future of Afghanistan. For now, the “engagement” formula seems to work for both. Engagement by India, previously a fiercely anti-Taliban entity, will enhance the profile of the former insurgents and may even be the mark of an ice-breaking event following which other countries will follow suit. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Taliban has followed up with two back-to-back statements on strengthening its defence relationship with New Delhi and also offering to welcome former members of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) trained in India back to their jobs.
However, this new beginning is unlikely to translate into a full-blown romance between New Delhi and the Taliban. New Delhi needs to tread cautiously. Relief materials for earthquake victims have been handed over to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) in Kabul. The people of Afghanistan and not the current regime need to remain at the centre of its declared Afghan policy.
Apart from the fact that the Taliban still presides over an extremely regressive and ruthless regime, which must remain an anathema for New Delhi, expectations from a wide range of actors and a negative role played by spoilers can put a spanner in the works. The legitimacy and acceptance of the Taliban by the Afghan people should be the fulcrum of any such engagement. Being a votary of an inclusive government remains the litmus test for India’s aspirations to retain goodwill in the conflict-ridden country. It needs to frame a comprehensive long-term policy of engagement with all the stakeholders to ensure that peace and stability return to Afghanistan.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 5, 2022, under the title, ‘The stakes in Kabul’. The writer is founder and president, Mantraya and visiting fellow, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin