Explained: How India Should Engage With The Taliban In Afghanistan

India's policy paralysis has led to a situation where they will need to engage with the Taliban out of need.

Govindraj Ethiraj
Update: 2021-09-09 09:26 GMT

India's policy paralysis has led to a situation where they will need to engage with the Taliban out of need, according to Dr Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, Founding Professor at the Kautilya School of Public Policy, at GITAM University Hyderabad.

After coming back to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have announced a government and has expressed its desire to have friendly relations with countries. Pakistan and China hold considerable influence in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan which will weaken India's position in the region.

Dr D'Souza, who is also the founder and president of the think tank Mantraya, opines that India's reliance on US security in Afghanistan has contributed to its current situation in the country.

"The fundamental reality is that India functioned under the UN's security umbrella. And as there were calls for the US exit from President Obama from 2014 till now, India was not really prepared for this scenario," Dr D'Souza told BOOM.

"We were completely caught on a back foot and generally followed a wait and watch policy which was more of a policy paralysis rather than actually acting. And therein, India lost a considerable amount of leverage that it had in Afghanistan. Right from the security sector, India could have definitely done more, more than training the Afghans, I think they needed more advice on how to conduct counter insurgency operations," she said.

Stating that even though India will have to engage with the Taliban out of need, Dr D'Souza believes that it shouldn't translate into giving the Taliban government legitimacy.

"I think immediately India will have to engage with the Taliban at a certain level more out of need, pragmatism and necessity because we also need to look at the possibility of keeping the embassy open, having our projects running there, and also evacuation of those Afghan nationals who have helped India in various forms. So there is an immediate need, be it in terms of helping the Afghans and also averting a humanitarian crisis there," she said.

"But the engagement need not translate into recognition and that is a distinction that India needs to make. Because over the last two decades, India has had considerable influence in Afghanistan among most of the major ethnic groups," she said.

Edited excerpts of the interview follow

Why should India worry about Afghanistan at this point?

Dr Shanthie Mariet D'Souza: I think Afghanistan is an important area of concern. One in terms of security; the fact that there is a complete capture of power by Taliban and its linkages with international terrorism and anti-India groups is a major concern. Secondly, there is also concern about how the Taliban will look at the Kashmir issue. Though they have made contradictory statements, we cannot go from there. More importantly, the space that anti-India groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed will find once again in Afghanistan will be worrisome for India.

The second is in terms of economic interest and India's Central Asia Connect policy whereby Afghanistan sits at a critical juncture, connecting India to Central Asia. So that would come under area of concern. Thirdly, it is in terms of the political dynamics and the regional power play.

So what is happening there has been a strategic game over for India in many ways and it is also a strategic sphere in which China and Pakistan seem to be on ascendance. And given the fact that there is going to be a Chinese presence in addition to the Pakistani influence out there, which would put considerable strategic pressure on India from the West.

How engaged have we been with Afghanistan before Americans came in 2001? What has changed since then?

SMD: Before that India and Afghanistan had a long traditional civilizational relationship. And that has been seen in various forms in literature from Kabuliwallah, to what we have images about Afghans in India. But the fact is that during the 1960s and the 70s there was a very close relationship particularly during Indira Gandhi's time where President Daoud Khan would actually consult Indira Gandhi and that alliance was very important for India because it was a counterpoint towards Pakistan.

Also the fact that during the Soviet intervention, India actually did not take a position favouring the Afghans and that was one of the let downs at that period of time. But India did try to bridge the gap and India has been a home to a lot of the political elite who left Afghanistan — be it from Najibullah's time to later on. So, India has been a natural home.

There is a natural connect, there is a civilizational connect, and also a cultural connect. And that has helped India and Afghanistan maintain its ties despite the break in linkages that came when Taliban captured power in 1996. But thereafter again India has re-established ties and there is considerable goodwill and connect with India in Afghanistan now.

If we are to be or continue to remain engaged with Afghanistan what will we do at this point and how will we do it?

SMD: I think immediately India will have to engage with the Taliban at a certain level more out of need, pragmatism and necessity because we also need to look at the possibility of keeping the embassy open, having our projects running there, and also evacuation of those Afghan nationals who have helped India in various forms. So there is an immediate need, be it in terms of helping the Afghans and also averting a humanitarian crisis there.

But the engagement need not translate into recognition and that is a distinction that India needs to make. Because over the last two decades, India has had considerable influence in Afghanistan among most of the major ethnic groups. And if you have seen the developments as they have been evolving Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who has taken up the resistance in Panjshir, actually needed India's help and support. And that was not very forthcoming.

I would say that the problem with India's policy has been to put all eggs in one basket and to be working under US-led security assurances and umbrella whereby India has been left in the lurch.

So immediately I think India should look at engaging with the Afghans at a certain level especially with the women's groups who are still there and are major proponents of Indian projects. Secondly, is to engage Afghans to carry out these projects, especially small scale projects. And that is what we can do in Afghanistan given the constraints that India faces now.

But India could do more in terms of regional alliances. Iran has been making calls in terms of revoking international law, calling for elections inside of Afghanistan. Likewise Russia is also making some moves of that sort. It is for India to pick this up and progress. More importantly, with the seat India had in the UN Security Council, India could have done much more and that was more immediate in terms of sanctions on the regime and also in terms of the humanitarian response.

So would you say therefore that the China factor was the one thing that significantly changed from before 2000 to now?

SMD: China had maintained its contact with the Taliban, but it did not play a significant role because it was more interested in the economic interest in Afghanistan in addition to its concerns of radicalisation which would have affected its province of Xinjiang.

But having said that, I think China has moved in largely because it has economic interest now and having maintained contacts with the Taliban from the 1990s onwards has helped it gain some leverage there. Also, with its all-weather friend Pakistan, there is an alliance which has developed and help China move ahead with the Belt and Road Initiative. And if you see the statements that are coming from the Taliban in favour of China, I think China is going to play an important role, but not necessarily a role that Americans had.

As we try and look ahead, how does this all fit in with our foreign policy before the American withdrawal and what changes would we need to bring about to accommodate these changes in the new equation?

SMD: Well, in terms of the foreign policy, I do not see much change. There has been more continuity rather than change. So, broadly India went in in 2001 in that limited space that was available and started with humanitarian projects and worked on a soft power approach and channelized and accrued a lot of goodwill in Afghanistan. It worked very well till now.

But the fundamental reality is that India functioned under the UN's security umbrella. And as there were calls for the US exit from President Obama from 2014 till now, India was not really prepared for this scenario, which should have been on the drawing board because you would know that this scenario would evolve one day and how will you deal with it as you go.

So, we were completely caught on a back foot and generally followed a wait and watch policy which was more of a policy paralysis rather than actually acting. And therein, India lost a considerable amount of leverage that it had in Afghanistan. Right from the security sector, India could have definitely done more, more than training the Afghans, I think they needed more advice on how to conduct counter insurgency operations.

If you look at the political sector, again, there were always problems with elections—fraud-marred contested elections. Added to the crisis of political legitimacy in Afghanistan, I think India could have played a much larger role in terms of the political transition and peace process. And lastly and more importantly in the economic sector, where India did considerable investment, it could have been more useful for India to look at small and medium enterprises and build that Afghan capacity and revenue to sustain their own economy.

So, from now, with the capture of power by the Taliban, I think our options are very limited, and we are still doing the wait and watch policy. I would say that we would need to look at more actors on the ground who are willing to engage India and pick up those actors and channelize them into a forum where they do get a leveraging platform to put up their interest. More importantly, those women and youth groups who are taking on demonstrations. And also looking at regional actors who would partner with India and maybe other democratic countries. I think there are a lot of options but India needs to look beyond the US prism and also needs to move beyond its wait and watch policy.

Do you think Taliban 2.0 is going to be different in any way or would be assuming too much and too soon. And if it is different, how could that difference be of any help to us?

SMD: Well it is different in the way it has been structured. Initially Taliban was a monolith organisation under Mullah Omar. But now we see a lot of differences and internal divisions within the Taliban. It is not a monolithic organisation. It also has the Haqqani network which is a very important component in addition to Al-Qaeda and other groups. So how is it going to function and how it is going to actually impinge on India's interests would be interesting because there are certain segments in the Taliban who are amenable to working with India. And they have been sending those feelers for a considerable amount of time. But India did not actually channelize on that.

But now to reach out to the leadership and recognise them would actually be jumping the gun in the sense of going pre-emptive without really knowing the nature of the regime we are going to deal with. So that would be really a wild card.

So, India has to now look at how the Taliban is forming the government and try to make it more inclusive as possible because they did make these initial outreach attempts and tried to project a very moderate face.

As long as it is inclusive and has other leaders involved in some form and gradually look for areas where you can dilute the extremist agenda, then you would have a workable situation. But if it is a totalitarian group or if the Haqqani Network has precedence then I think our choices are very limited. Inside Afghanistan there are players and there are people who are amenable to India. So it has to tap on those people and build on a network.

You have done a lot of field work in Afghanistan. What is the one, if you have a memory that gives you perhaps some hope of what lies ahead and optimism for the future?

SMD: Well I think, in one of my travels I had gone to the Kandahar province, I had gone to this village in Arghandab. I had met a few of these community elders and some of them have been closely aligned to the Taliban groups. But interestingly they came out with this idea that they want their girl child to be educated. They want them to be dentists.

Because at that point when I visited Khandhar it was 2011, when India had signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. They wanted more girl child education, they wanted women dentists in Khandhar and they wanted more modernisation and economic benefits. And these were people who were aligned to the Taliban in a way. So, I think that is a positive sign.

But personally I think it was also about women--meeting those women provincial councillors in Khandhar and Nangarhār province. And the hope and dreams they had for their country. I think women are now being the stakeholders of peace and stability in Afghanistan. So, I see those as positive images, in addition to a lot of young people. I think those were the positive ...girl children going to school, young people going to offices, and colleges. And even one of the interviews that I did with Maulvi Kalamuddin, who was the Deputy Vice Chief of Taliban who had surrendered, he was also quite open to seeing these changes. But for me it would be interesting to see, now that they have captured power how much would that translate into action.

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