India is losing out in Afghanistan
There is a strategic paralysis in Delhi, even as other strategic challenges are growing. All other powers are talking to the Taliban and securing their interests
India doesn’t have a coherent Afghanistan policy at the moment. This is being justified by a section of India’s strategic community as an exercise in strategic patience. What is really being witnessed though is strategic paralysis.
In Delhi, on July 28, external affairs minister S Jaishankar and United States (US) secretary of state Antony Blinken strongly endorsed the need for a peaceful and negotiated settlement to end the Afghan conflict.
On the same day, in the Chinese city of Tianjin, foreign minister Wang Yi met a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Wang Yi expressed the “hope” that the group would “hold high the banner of peace talks”. However, more importantly, he extracted a Taliban commitment that its territory would not be used by the Uighur militant group, ETIM, against China. The Taliban has also assured the US that it would not allow global terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan.
Naturally, both the US and China will monitor Taliban actions and not take its commitments at face value. Their direct and high-level engagement with the Taliban enables them to convey their individual interests to its leadership. Such engagement also enables them to inform the Taliban of the international community’s expectations of it.
India is the only major power which is still unable to do so. It need not have come to such a pass if Indian policymakers had looked at the Afghan scene dispassionately especially after the US began talking to the Taliban in Doha in 2018. What is strange is that even after the US-Taliban deal in February 2020, Indian strategists, instead of making up for lost time, continued to ignore emerging realities. Stranger still, Kabul-based senior political personalities, who have recently interacted with the Indian leadership, say that India continues to have a “wait and watch” approach. What they are leaving unsaid is that India has become a bystander in Afghanistan, not knowing which way to turn.
Some analysts are railing against countries which are engaging the Taliban. They believe that these countries will pay a price for not understanding the true nature of the group. They argue that the Taliban has not evolved and is bent on re-creating the Islamic Emirate as it existed between 1996 and 2001. They suggest that India should patiently wait for contradictions to emerge and for the Taliban to become a “pariah”. The present thinking in official Delhi also seems to favour the approach of letting the “true nature” of the Taliban-Pakistan combine to surface and do little to re-orient India’s Afghan policy.
Jaishankar, sitting alongside Blinken, said on July 28 “I think in diplomacy you deal with what you have”. That is of course an indication that realism should dictate policy but there has been no manifestation of such realism infusing India’s Afghan policy till now.
On July 28, Jaishankar also said, “We don’t think [the] outcome should be decided by force on the battlefield”. He reiterated the assertion with greater force in the Rajya Sabha on July 29 when he said, “We would never accept any outcome which is decided by force”. Of course, it should not, but is India preparing for the eventuality that force becomes the arbiter of Afghanistan’s destiny? Never is appropriate for a slogan, not policy.
Besides, even if Afghanistan’s fate is not decided on the battlefield, the fact remains that the Taliban is going to continue to be, at a minimum, what Wang Yi said “an important military and political force in Afghanistan”. Why India continues to deny itself open, direct and high-level contacts with such a force remains inexplicable? Behind-the-scenes meetings of intelligence officials with the Taliban cannot be a substitute for open meetings.
Jaishankar also called for an Afghanistan “free from malign influences”. The direction of this remark is not obscure. Pakistan’s aims in Afghanistan and its desire to influence Kabul’s India policy is not a secret. Is the way to deal with it to rely on the hope that a divided Kabul elite will, through an alchemical process, glue itself together to ride out the Taliban storm? Or is to recognise the Taliban reality and persuade a high-level Taliban delegation to visit Delhi and convey India’s concerns clearly and openly?
Taliban representatives had, in the past, told Indian interlocutors that they are Afghan nationalists. The group should be engaged on that basis while taking every precaution needed to protect Indian interests. While pursuing such an approach, India does not have to reduce its engagement with the Kabul elite in any way.
India should seek a stable Afghanistan that is not hostile to it and let Afghans decide the nature of their polity. That would be the path of wisdom as China is seeking to integrate the countries to India’s west in an integrated framework. Pakistan is now almost China’s client-State. China is seeking to bring Iran within its economic and connectivity embrace. China’s relations with Central Asian states are becoming close, despite the influence of Russia. In this geographic sweep, China is bound to make a play for Afghanistan which is the missing piece as yet. That is where Indian eyes should be focused above all else.
Vivek Katju is a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. He has extensively dealt with Pakistan and Afghanistan in the ministry of external affairs, and was among India’s negotiators in Kandahar during the IC-814 hijack
The views expressed are personal