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Talking to the Taliban is Indian challenge

The longer the period of turmoil, the greater the instability in the region.

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi |

The world watches as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan leaving the country in the throes of civil war. It will complete its withdrawal in the next few weeks by when clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces would be at its peak.

David Petraeus, an ex-commander of the US in Afghanistan as also ex-director of CIA and former President George Bush were the latest to criticise Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw, commenting that the US would subsequently regret its actions.

Bush added civilians would be ‘slaughtered,’ while David Petraeus emphasised that without US support the Afghan army would find it difficult to hold the Taliban at bay. Similar views exist across the globe as violence levels rise in the country.

The Pakistani army spokesperson, Major General Babar Iftikhar, in an interview with Pakistan-based ARY news stated, “Indian investments in Afghanistan seem to be sinking.” He accused India of employing its consulates in Afghanistan to target Pakistan. It is Pakistan’s methodology of diverting public attention away from its own rising concerns flowing from an unstable Afghanistan.

Petraeus added, “It will make it more difficult for India to carry out diplomatic activity, development and other assistance.” Indian investments were never intended for profit. India gifted Afghanistan developmental projects, seeking nothing in return except goodwill. Indian consulates remain temporarily closed, mainly due to the prevailing security environment. How they would operate in the future is uncertain.

When India opened discussions with the Taliban, it was Pakistan which was most concerned. Its NSA, Moeed Yusuf, stated in a TV interview that India should be ashamed of talking to the Taliban. The reason given was, “Indians kept having the Taliban killed daily and kept giving funds for operations against them and today they have reached there to have talks.” Pakistan supported Taliban’s violence with resources and sanctuary for decades intending for it to rule and yet claims it seeks a coalition government in Afghanistan. Pakistan is aware that India has far more to offer Afghanistan than it ever could.

Pakistan is also aware that as civil war rages, it would face the brunt as is evident with rising attacks on Pakistani troops along the Durand Line, as also the increasing flood of refugees. As Petraeus stated, “I am not certain how inclined the Taliban will be to appear accommodating to Pakistan.”

It will be some time before the Taliban are able to capture major cities, though they already control the countryside. Afghanistan has never been a nation state, but a collection of nations (ethnicities), where regional affinities reign supreme and warlords rule. Warlord-controlled militias would either support the Taliban or the government in Kabul. Even If the Taliban capture Kabul, there would be large pockets which it would need to wrest from other terrorist groups like the ISIS, ETIM (comprising of Uighur militants) etc, as also warlords who refuse to toe the Taliban line. Hence, Afghanistan is unlikely to be an integrated nation-state.

The longer the period of turmoil, the greater the instability in the region.

The Taliban have taken pains to assure every government with whom they have had interactions, US, Russia and China amongst others, that they would not permit terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan. They have also projected that they are not outward looking and only seek to control their own country. Indian discussions with the Taliban have remained on low key as New Delhi watches the situation develop. The Taliban would have given similar assurances to the Indian government. Doubts remain, based on the scenario of early nineties, when Afghan militants entered Kashmir. There has been a vast change in the security environment since then.

India continues to back the Kabul government as also insists that talks, not violence, are the way forward. Indian investments within Afghanistan, apart f be rom funds, include goodwill generated by scholarships as also training and equipping its army. Any new government in Afghanistan would need administrators, many of which would be products of Indian universities. The Indian infrastructure constructed and gifted to Afghanistan will continue to be utilized by any government in power. Hence, no matter who rules Afghanistan, the Indian footprint will be omnipresent, and its investments and goodwill will never be lost.

With increasing violence, control over the country is currently split between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban is now a major player. Thus, India needs to engage with the Taliban based on a broad strategy. Firstly, it should insist that talks remain the best solution to establishing a recognised government. A government seizing control by violence may not gain global acceptance. Simultaneously, India must continue supporting the democratically elected government.

Secondly, India’s ties with the Taliban must be steadily built, based on an assurance of not supporting anti-India terrorist groups on its soil. Like the rest of the world, within India too there are doubts on whether the Taliban would adhere to its promise. Thirdly, India should offer to support reconstruction and development in Afghanistan provided the government creates a conducive environment leading to India re-opening its consulates. With the development of the Chabahar port, India can provide an alternative avenue for Afghanistan, reducing its dependency on Pakistan.

The intention must be to convey that India is a partner in development and not exploitation as China seeks to be. India has no intention of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal matters, contrary to nations like Pakistan. The strategy should be to project India as a better partner in development than others.

India, like the rest of the world remains sceptical on how the future Afghanistan will pan out. There is no doubt that the Taliban will remain a major player. If it forgets its promise of not supporting terrorist groups, this could enhance insecurity in an entire region, spreading from India, China, Pakistan, Central Asian Republics and West Asia. Nations across the region are engaging the Taliban seeking to push it to adhere to its commitment. Indian engagement with the Taliban must aim at conveying positive thought processes and setting an agenda for reconstruction of the country.

The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army.