India must directly engage with Taliban 2.0
- The present development is taking place in the background of the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan which has resulted in Afghanistan going into a full-blown civil war.
- In order to protect its civilian assets, India has decided to temporarily close its consulate in Kandahar and to evacuate its diplomats and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel stationed in Kandahar.
- India has also decided to suspend operations in the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat (now left only with the Embassy in Kabul and the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif)
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WITHDRAWALS
- New Delhi’s decision to partially withdraw from Afghanistan shows New Delhi realisation about the threat possessed by Taliban poses to Indian assets. It also points out the fact that relying only on the government in Kabul was a big mistake.
- The developments point out that India’s Afghan policy is at a major crossroads with challenges like the need to protect its civilian assets and stay relevant in the unfolding ‘great game’.
- Need of the hour is that India should give up hesitant, half-embarrassed backchannel parleys and open talks with the Taliban before it is too late. However, talking “openly” does not mean recognizing the Taliban as it is only one of the parties in Afghanistan. It is neither the Afghan government, nor a part of it.
- India in the past have shown half-hearted, half-embarrassed, ideologically-hesitant meandering outreach to the Taliban.
- In late 2018, when Moscow organised a conference which also had the Taliban and members of the Afghan High Peace Council, India sent a ‘non-official delegation’ of two retired diplomats to Moscow.
- Similarly in September last year, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar joined the inaugural session of the Intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha.
- Last month also, there was indirect reaching out to the Taliban which was confirmed by the Ministry of External Affairs.
- Problem however with such half hearted measures is that they are insufficient to safeguard Indian interests in a rapidly shifting Afghan geopolitical landscape.
- India should understand that Open dialogue with the Taliban is a strategic necessity and should no longer be a taboo.
WHY NEW DELHI IS HESITANT
- India is concerned that if New Delhi chooses to engage the Taliban directly, it could unease Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, so far India’s trusted partner and potentially nudge him to look towards China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) for national security and personal political survival.
- Secondly, decision makers in New Delhi have a dilemma of who to talk to within the Taliban given that it is hardly a monolith.
- There is lack of evidence about whether the Taliban in its new Avatar have changed or not.
- India is also concerned about the possibility of Pakistan acting out against India in Kashmir by establishing deeper links with the Taliban.
WHY INDIA SHOULD ENGAGE:
- New Delhi should understand the Taliban in one way or another is going to be part of the political scheme of things in Afghanistan and unlike in 1996 more players in the international community will be ready to do business with the Taliban.
- Secondly, the Taliban is looking for regional and global partners for recognition and legitimacy. Non engagement may result in the Taliban developing exclusive deals with Pakistani deep state.
- Thirdly, it would be a mistake to think that the worldly-wise and internationally-exposed Taliban 2.0 will continue to be Pakistan’s servile followers upon gaining power in Kabul. Sooner or later it would develop its own agency and sovereign claims like legitimacy of the Durand Line.
- For India, it makes neither strategic nor economic sense to withdraw from Afghanistan after spending over $3 billion.
- Last but not the least, if India is not proactive in Afghanistan, other countries like Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China will emerge as the shapers of Afghanistan’s political and geopolitical destiny which will be detrimental to Indian interests.
- Opening up the congested north-western frontier is key to bringing India’s continental grand strategy which New Delhi has already started through backchannel talks with Pakistan, ceasefire on the Line of Control, and political dialogue with the mainstream Kashmiri leadership. Proactive engagement with the Taliban is an important part of this strategy.
- It is true that the Taliban, given its bloody past, should not have been anywhere near governing Afghanistan. But considering the reality that Taliban is going to be in power, New Delhi must exorcise the demons of IC-814 hijacking (December 1999) from its collective memory and engage with the Taliban 2.0.
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