Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India’s engagement with the Taliban: what’s next?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India’s engagement with the Taliban: what’s next?

In this episode, we examine the latest meeting of senior M.E.A. officials with the Taliban in Kabul and what this engagement means for the two countries.

In a sudden move, the Modi government sent a senior M.E.A. official and diplomat to Kabul on Thursday, to meet with the Taliban regime’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Mottaqi. Thus far, Delhi, which doesn’t have an embassy in Kabul and like other countries doesn’t recognise the Taliban regime had not sent a former delegation, which many countries have.

The M.E.A. said that the visit was about humanitarian assistance. In a statement announcing the visit, its said that the team, led by Jt Secretary JP Singh and consisting of a number of diplomatic and security officials met with Mr. Mottaqi and also toured India-funded facilities like the Chimtala power plant, a hospital and a school.

What has India’s humanitarian assistance been?

India has sent assistance to Afghanistan mainly to international agencies working there. This includes:

1. About 20,000 Metric tonnes of wheat so far out of a commitment of 50,000 MT, is being taken by trucks, with the permission of the Pakistan government and handed over to the World Food Programme

2. 13 tonnes of medicines and 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, as well as another million doses of Covaxin for Afghan refugees in Iran. Another 60 million doses of polio vaccine have been handed over to UNICEF

3. Winter clothing and other essentials were handed over to other UN agencies

However, it is clear that this is not the only reason a multi-ministerial meeting would visit Kabul.

1. To begin with, the visit is a first, a major step toward the Taliban, which will give the regime that took power from the Ghani government last August more legitimacy

2. With the ice broken, it is clear that more such visits are being planned- with Mr. Singh, who had earlier attended the start of Taliban-Afghan talks in Doha and then met with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi in Moscow last year, as a quasi special envoy

3. The big question now is whether India will restart the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which was shut down after the Taliban takeover when all 200 Indian diplomats were evacuated and subsequently maintained by local staffers. Remember, no country recognises the Taliban government in Afghanistan, even so, there are 13 missions in Kabul: Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The EU has a delegation based in Kabul and the US has deputed Qatar to officiate for it.

Speaking to The Hindu, Taliban spokesperson Sohail Shaheen said it had been raised, and the Taliban is willing to give security guarantees for an Indian mission. And remember Afghanistan still maintains an Embassy in Delhi, which regularly interacts with the government in Delhi.

When asked about whether the visit and official talks mean a softening of stand by India towards the Taliban government, however here is what the M.E.A. spokesperson said, indicating that the government is still shy of acknowledging that it is opening up ties with the Taliban.

But in diplomacy, what is not said is often as important as what is said, and what precedes it.

The visit to Kabul was also preceded by a number of other indicators:

1. The government’s Central Asian outreach- that began with a National Security Advisor’s conference on Afghanistan, held in Delhi in November, the FM conference in December and the PM’s virtual summit with Central Asian leaders in January- all of which pitched for a stronger engagement with Afghanistan, particularly given the triple threats of terrorism, drugs, and refugees emanating from there.

2. The Taliban’s decision to allow the former CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to visit Delhi to meet his family was seen as a positive signal, and the expectation is that he carried a message to Delhi

3. More recently, US Special Envoy on Afghanistan Thomas West made a visit and met with JP Singh, and other officials to discuss the situation. West also met Dr. Abdullah.

4. And then NSA Doval travelled to Dushanbe where he spoke of the situation in Afghanistan- saying very significantly that it was the duty of regional countries “to enhance the capability of Afghanistan to counter terrorism and terrorist groups which pose a threat to regional peace and security”, something that was read as India’s willingness to distinguish between those in control of Afghanistan and terror groups there.

5. Finally, we have seen a progression in the back channel talks between India and Pakistan, and apart from the transit trade negotiated, seen other movements, especially since the new government came into power. PM Modi greeted the Pakistan PM in a rare exchange, the ceasefire line continues to be maintained, and in the past month 2 Pakistani delegations, one on regional terror and one on the Indus Water talks visited Delhi. Now the question is, will better ties with the Taliban be welcomed by the Military establishment in Pakistan, or not?

So then, what are the downsides to India’s latest move to engage with the Taliban?

1. Regardless of how the government characterises the visit, it is clear that sending an official delegation to Kabul to meet officials belonging to the Taliban regime is a clear shift from the past 9 months for the government- and if nothing else, legitimises the Taliban’s government there, and shows an inconsistency in policy.

2. Since August, the Taliban has not changed, however, or even kept any of the promises it has made- it has not formed a more inclusive government, nor has it allowed girls 6th grade upwards back to school, it has imposed even tighter restrictions on women- from enforcing a full veil to stopping women from travelling without male family members. Neither have attacks on minorities stopped. So why has India changed its position?

3. A new UN report shows that not only are terror groups continuing to find safe haven on Afghan soil, but they also do so with the Taliban’s support. Groups like the LeT and JeM, which only target India continue to work out of Nangarhar province and other areas, and yet there is no sign that these issues have been raised with the Taliban, before or during the visiting

4. As violence in Jammu and Kashmir continues to rise, security agencies will be increasingly concerned about the infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it will be difficult to explain this step towards diplomacy if violence escalates.

5. What does the possible restart of an Indian mission mean about the Indian policymakers’ decision to pull out all Indians and shut down the embassy in August last year? Despite all the preparation, there is a need to review the government’s policy processes on Afghanistan if it plans to reverse its decisions.

Either way, the government must abandon its policy of ambush and surprise for a more considered and well communicated foreign policy that engages the people of India in their plans. This will also cut out the unnecessary rhetoric in domestic politics that hampers foreign policy and prepare public opinion better for its decision to follow a more muscular posture towards India’s western neighbours with a softer engagement.

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