Written by Ameya Pratap Singh
One of the many issues thrown up by the Taliban’s seizure of power has been the question of providing official recognition to the Taliban-led government or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Should the Indian government provide diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government? Or should it refuse to recognise the Taliban on grounds of its violent overthrow of the previous Afghan government and the unreserved use of terrorism (both, locally and abroad)? This, of course, is quite different from mere engagement or dialogue with the Taliban. States are frequently compelled to interact and negotiate with a wide variety of non-state actors to serve their interests whilst still denying them legitimacy on the global stage. What should India’s policy be moving forward?
One line of thought would argue that India must accept the ground realities in Kabul. It is an obvious fact that the Taliban is in control and so recognition must logically flow from that. Consideration of values should not cloud New Delhi’s judgement. After all, there are a whole host of Islamic states that have questionable human rights records that India recognises and fruitfully engages with. There are two other compelling reasons. First, India has significant interests at stake that may be harmed by delayed recognition or non-recognition. Concerns over cross-border terrorism, radicalisation, drug trade, etc. can hardly be addressed in the absence of a sustained dialogue with whoever occupies the seat of power in Kabul. Second, if India refuses to recognise the Taliban, it may strengthen the hand of its regional rivals—Pakistan and China—leading to a further intensification of national security threats on its northern frontier.
However, such arguments and their underlying assumptions are somewhat flawed. India had adopted precisely this line of reasoning in 1949 with communist China and failed. The Nehru government felt compelled to provide early recognition to the communists despite close ties with the previous Kuomintang government and Chiang Kai-Shek during the interwar period. There were many similar forces in play. Nehru believed communist China’s goodwill was crucial to ensure a peaceful border settlement and to prevent the rise of communists in India. The reticence to provide similar recognition to the Bolsheviks in 1918 by the West, Nehru argued, was the main reason behind the inability of the Western powers and Russia to forge a common alliance to effectively counter Nazi Germany. So, Nehru proceeded to provide early and unconditional recognition and also chose to maintain India’s diplomatic mission in Beijing. He then successfully persuaded Commonwealth countries to follow suit, despite strong reservations about whether the communists would honour China’s previous international legal obligations and would refrain from the use of force across the Taiwan straits as well as in Tibet and Hong Kong. Nehru also championed the cause of communist China’s UN membership.
But did early recognition change anything in communist China’s policy? No. Communist China continued to be suspicious of India’s intentions in Tibet and the bourgeois nature of its regime and elites. Moreover, it was India’s early recognition that gave Mao Zedong confidence in his plans to annex Tibet through force in 1950. Goodwill proved to be an ineffective tool of deterrence. Mao did not risk such offensives in Hong Kong or Taiwan. A very different trajectory can be seen in Pakistan-China ties. Being overzealous in its pursuit of US military aid, Pakistan ceded closer ties with communist China initially. They made no attempt to build goodwill or provide any reassurances to the latter. Still, when the opportunity for collaboration against India arose after the 1962 War, the two were not bogged down by previous inhibitions.
The lesson here is clear: In the absence of compelling shared interests, building mere goodwill through early recognition provides no returns. Does India have any such compelling shared interests with the Taliban?
All Nehru’s early recognition did was to cede India’s only leverage vis-à-vis communist China. This is one of the key takeaways from Vijay Gokhale’s new book The Long Game: How the Chinese negotiate with India. Nehru could have used recognition of communist China to draw concessions on the disputed frontier or at the very least to restrain China’s dealings with Tibet. Similarly, it is far from clear if early and unconditional recognition of the Taliban government will help India achieve any of its regional security objectives. In fact, it may compromise the only leverage the international community and India have. With its rhetorical efforts to appear “moderate”, the Taliban has not demonstrated sincerity, but rather a reluctant acceptance of the fact that legitimacy on the global stage is a social good that cannot be achieved through force. Surely, New Delhi must engage the Taliban. But in a manner that uses the Taliban’s need for social recognition to draw concrete concessions on key interest areas.
The writer is reading for a DPhil in Area Studies at the University of Oxford and is the Managing Editor of Statecraft Daily.