External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s words at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Foreign Ministers’ meeting at Dushanbe that the “future of Afghanistan cannot be its past” reflected India’s concern at the swift advance of the Taliban through the country in preparation for a forceful takeover as soon as the Americans complete their departure at the end of August, in a reprise of their violent capture of power in 1996. However, it is moot how much these concerns are shared by the big powers in the regional grouping. After all, Russia and China were not unhappy to see the Americans leave. Both appear to have found some modus vivendi with the Taliban, which has assured these two powers as well the smaller central Asian republics that they have nothing to fear from it. Delegations of Taliban have been visiting these capitals over the last two years, welcomed by leaders who saw the writing on the wall. Pakistan, to which Taliban is tied by an umbilical cord, which knows better than most the violent potential of the Taliban, and the dangers of a spillover on its territory, seems less worried about that and more triumphant at succeeding in clipping India’s wings in Afghanistan.
It now seems that India’s tentative and belated attempts to reach out to the Taliban have not yielded the desired results. Delhi’s decision to pull out Indian nationals from its diplomatic outpost in Kandahar indicated it had failed to get from the Taliban, either directly or through interlocutors, even the minimum assurance of safety for its personnel at the consulate. It is debatable if India should be making the effort to make contact at all with such a group, or, alternatively, if it should have done so earlier, at the time when the Trump administration launched serious efforts at negotiations with the group, back in 2017. But then, India appeared to believe that the Americans would never leave, and was also misled by the Blinken plan that urged a regional consensus in Afghanistan under the auspices of the United Nations. But all this is academic now. As the Russian deputy envoy to Delhi has been quoted as saying, the Taliban are the current reality of Afghanistan, and it is for India to decide what role it wants to play.
Much hope is being set on the Doha talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government. But even on the outside chance that these “intra-Afghan” talks might lead to a political resolution, the Taliban, with their military ascendancy, are likely to call the shots in a future dispensation. For now, Delhi can only wait, and hope that the Taliban can be persuaded by its backers in Rawalpindi and elsewhere not to target the infrastructure projects India built over the last two decades.