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‘Indian moves excessively cautious’

At a time when the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will profoundly affect the geopolitics of the region, the former Foreign Secretary of India, Krishnan Srinivasan speaks to Soumyadip Mullick on what policy India must adopt now to tackle the Afghan dilemma.

Soumyadip Mullick | KOLKATA |

Q. The Indian government had claimed its policy is to enhance ties with Afghanistan. In that case, shouldn’t India have played an active role in thwarting the Taliban take over, or at least now back Amrullah Saleh and resistance fighters in Panjshir Valley to push the Taliban back?

A: There was no means of thwarting the Taliban whose takeover was facilitated by the USA and Pakistan. It is not practical to consider support to any resistance movement which is hardly likely to succeed. The best prospect for the Afghan people is a period of peace and stability, the absence of civil war and foreign intervention, and emphasis on reconstruction and development. These will be huge challenges, and India should carefully assess how to assist in this process.

Q. If India now goes into negotiations with Taliban wouldn’t it be violating the oath we took in the United Nations Security Council to show “zero tolerance” towards terrorism?

A. Recent UN Security Council resolutions do not describe the Taliban as a terrorist organisation. This is a reflection of the reality on the ground, which all countries, Western and non-Western, are recognising. India has apparently held discussions with the Taliban previously but has now decided to make this dialogue public. It seems a case of better late than never. Diplomatic doctrine is to recognise the authority that controls the major part of any country.

Q. Does the fall of Afghanistan into the hands of Taliban give Pakistan leverage over India since the ISI backing of the Taliban may be too obvious to rule out?

A. It is correct that Pakistan not only sheltered many elements of the Taliban over the years but gave them many-sided support in their take-over. As such, it can be assumed that Pakistan enjoys considerable influence in Afghanistan at present. But the Taliban is an omnibus description that covers a large number of factions and elements ranging from moderate and international to extreme and reactionary. The majority of what is called Taliban have never been in Pakistan or been trained by Pakistan. It need not be assumed that Pakistani influence in Afghanistan will supervene the Afghan national self-interest or be long-lasting, once the Taliban regime develops other international connections.

Q. China is reportedly rushing in to negotiate with the Taliban after the US withdrawal. If it succeeds in this endeavour what will be the consequences for India in respect to its geopolitical status in the region?

A. There is no doubt that China like all other regional players, other than India, has been quick to establish contact with the Taliban regime. Like other countries in the region, China, too, has apprehensions of future Afghan policy under Taliban rule, especially concerning militancy in its Muslim-majority areas. Whether it is the future Chinese role or the presence of other influential countries in Afghanistan, or the nature of the Taliban regime, it is true that current developments are to India’s geo-strategic disadvantage. This will require very decisive decision-making in Delhi and deft diplomacy to stake out our interests.

The initial steps taken by the Indian government have been excessively cautious and not befitting our tremendous power and influence as the leading country in South Asia. India seems to have prioritised safety over strategic advantage thus far, and this despite the Taliban’s own encouragement to India to be more proactive. The immediate future will be very important for India-Afghan ties.

Q. The present foreign policy of India shows an apparent inclination towards the United States and a consequent digression from Russia and China. Do you feel India needs to reorient its foreign policy in the wake of the Afghan crisis?

A. The policy since the Manmohan Singh period has shown a definite tilt towards the United States and this is seen most especially in participation in the so-called Quad. This marks a move away from the emphasis on a multi-polar world that was considered the previous priority of various Indian governments.

Foreign policy is an instrument with which a country operates in a global environment, and therefore cannot be dependent on events in one or a handful of countries alone. The situation in Afghanistan would call for a revision of policy frameworks with a wide range of countries including the Security Council permanent members, Europe, the Middle East and South Asian neighbours. This does not necessarily mean distancing from the USA but closer and more candid discussions with other power centres.

Q. The world witnessed an exodus of Afghans who were desperate to flee their homeland to escape the Taliban. Do you think it was prudent of the US to have gone into direct negotiations with the Taliban, in Doha, keeping the elected Afghan government in the dark?

A. There will be many post-mortems about the US role in Afghanistan. Better for us to leave that story for the future. It appears that the Ghani government was doomed when the US-Taliban talks in Doha took place without Ghani’s involvement. There never was the involvement of Ghani personally in the Doha talks and the Americans did not make this a precondition. They must have known his presence would make any agreement with the Taliban much more difficult.

Q. Do you feel the criticisms against Ashraf Ghani for fleeing the country, and Afghan security forces for their lightning surrender to the Taliban, hold any water when the elected government was hardly ever made to feel empowered by the US who only pumped in millions of dollars for training the forces to protect Afghanistan?

A. There is a wide realisation now about the widescale corruption in Afghanistan but this was not much aired publicly during the pre-Taliban period. You could say it was hushed up by the Americans and their media. The Afghan people knew about it, of course, since their daily life involved a lot of bribery.

As for the Karzai and Ghani governments, their legitimacy was always in doubt, their so-called democratic victories were suspect and they were believed to be in power thanks only to American support. So it is hardly surprising that leaders like Ghani fled for their lives. We have to see if those that stayed behind like Karzai and Abdullah would find some role in the Taliban-led government. More likely, along with the Northern Alliance leaders, they will be happy to have survived the Taliban takeover with their lives and assets intact.