India’s new approach: Afghans first
Though shut out by the Pakistan-backed Taliban, India has a very strong ally in Afghanistan — the Afghan people. And New Delhi might try and figure out a way of building on that equity that, frankly, few other neighbours of Afghanistan can claim credibly. Least of all Pakistan.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar may have already started pointing India’s Afghanistan policy in that direction. Asked during a recent visit to the United Nations (UN) if India will engage with the Taliban or a Taliban-dominated government, he said that India has had a “historical relationship with the Afghan people” and that “relationship with the Afghan people (is) obviously continuous and that will guide our approach to Afghanistan”. In short: India has a relationship with the Afghan people that transcends, or circumvents as needed, the ruling dispensation.
Indian permanent representative to the UN, TS Tirumurti, built on that line, during a discussion on Afghanistan in the Security Council on Thursday, when he attributed India’s concern with the situation in Afghanistan to it being an “immediate neighbour and a friend of its people”.
Despite its recent engagement with the Taliban in Doha, India is differentiating between the Taliban, which has taken power in Kabul by force, and the Afghan people, who have been compelled to embrace the return of a brutal regime driven by a regressive ideology. The Taliban does not speak for all of Afghan people and, perhaps, not even for all Pashtuns, the ethnic community that dominates the group. Former presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani are both Pashtuns, for instance.
This is an important difference. India’s involvement in Afghanistan over the last 20 years bears testimony to the strength of the relationship it forged with the Afghans. India has spent an estimated $3 billion on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, starting immediately after the Taliban fled in October of 2001. None of that was on military hardware, which would have had its uses as well.
India constructed a brand new parliament building, rebuilt hospitals, repaired schools, and built the Salma Dam power generation project, a 218km Zaranj-Delaram highway, and transmission lines. It helped Kabul start its public transport system with Tata and Ashok Leyland buses, started the Indira Gandhi children’s hospital in Kabul, lent a shoulder to the teetering central bank, and made it possible for Ariana Afghan Airlines, the national carrier of Afghanistan, to become airborne once again with aircraft gifted by India. And at least 20 Indians were killed while serving in Afghanistan over the past 20 years — doctors, diplomats, engineers and security personnel.
Afghanistan is not an investment for India, as Jaishankar pointed out. It is a relationship. And it is relationship symbolised by what binds us. Special envoy Satish Lambah landed in Kabul on November 21, 2001, heading the first Indian delegation after the fall of the Taliban regime. In the belly of the military transport aircraft was a container packed with a special gift for entertainment-starved Afghan people: DVDs of the year’s biggest Bollywood hit, Lagaan.