India and the great power game over Afghanistan

India needs to accept the reality of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan and rethink its Afghan policy accordingly, some foreign affairs experts have said. File Photo: Reuters

As Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was wrapping up his talks with senior US officials in Washington on the evolving situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan rushed its ISI chief General Faiz Hameed to Kabul to ensure the inclusion of people it had backed for decades in the new Taliban government. The two contrasting pictures summed up the altered great power game over Afghanistan since the Taliban took over the country.

While India is trying to explore how to realign its Afghan policy and recover the ground it has laid with the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani by investing USD 3 billion in assistance over the last two decades, Pakistan is seeking to influence the composition of a new dispensation in that country it has always considered a “strategic depth,” after remaining on the margins since the previous Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.

One of the main purposes of Shringla’s US visit was how to come out with a coordinated strategy to take out their nationals stranded in Afghanistan unharmed, and to deal with the new regime in Kabul that appears to be tilting towards the China-Pakistan axis. His talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman provided an opportunity to exchange views on the Taliban’s second accession to power in Afghanistan.

Shringla’s visit to the US came hot on the heels of the first official contact between India and the Taliban on August 31, when Indian Ambassador to Qatar Deepak Mittal had a meeting with the Taliban’s Deputy Political Head Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai in Doha at the latter’s request. The terse readout issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs after the meeting spoke about India raising its concerns with Stanikzai over the safety of Indians and religious minorities in Afghanistan, and terror groups operating from that country against India and other countries. Shringla was a little more elaborative when he told the media in Washington that although India’s engagement with the Taliban was “limited,” the latter had indicated that they would be “reasonable” in handling things.

At the same time, the Indian foreign secretary made it clear that New Delhi would like to continue to be in wait-and-watch mode as far as the Taliban was concerned. The question is: How long will India be in the wait-and-watch mode? Former Indian diplomat Vivek Katju is among those Indian foreign policy experts and strategic thinkers who have disfavoured shunning the Taliban and want New Delhi to accept the reality of having to deal with the group.

Having little clout with the Taliban, it is now pretty clear that India is aligning its future Afghan policy with those of the US and the European Union. Notably, around the time Shringla was in the US, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was in Slovenia attending a meeting of the EU which, among other things, dealt with the Afghan developments. There is a compelling case for that. The one key area of convergence between India, the US and the EU is to put pressure on the Taliban to not allow terror groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammed, ISIS (Khorasan) and Pakistan-based Haqqani network to operate in Afghanistan. The Taliban has gone on record saying it would look to China to bankroll the Afghan economy, but it cannot afford to leave out the US, the EU and India, for that matter, when it comes to pumping in aid. Besides, the Taliban has assets amounting to USD 10 billion in the US, which could be frozen if it does not cater to the major security interests of the American and western countries. The last thing the Taliban would want is a collapse of the crumbling Afghan economy.

This is an area where the Taliban knows Pakistan cannot help in any way. So if the Taliban does not improve its acceptability to the US and the West, it cannot expect that aid and cash would flow into Afghanistan. The Taliban has to decide if it would dance to the tunes of Pakistan and allow terror groups to have free ingress in Afghanistan at the risk of earning economical reprisals of much of the international community.

New Delhi would like all the assurances Stanikzai gave to Mittal to be translated on the ground before it takes the next steps to deal with the new regime in Afghanistan. But the Taliban has so far been sending contradictory signals. While some Taliban leaders have said that it views the Kashmir issue as a bilateral one between India and Pakistan, some others have said they have the right to flag the issue of Muslims in Kashmir. Foreign policy analysts like Katju and C Raja Mohan believe the US and the EU have given enough hints that they would not be averse to opening contacts with the Taliban. This is most succinctly brought out by the fact that while on August 2, the UN Security Council—under India’s presidentship—had warned the outfit against going for forced capture of power to establish an Islamic Emirate, it made no mention of either of the issues in its resolution of August 16, a day after the Taliban captured Kabul. India was the president of the UNSC during August.

The US, under Barack Obama, had once propagated a distinction between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” in order to help solve the Afghan muddle and pull its military out of Afghanistan. At that time, India had rejected any distinction between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists” on the ground that it is a specious and self-serving argument. New Delhi may have to revisit some components of its known stand and come up with a reworked diplomatic template in order to come to terms with a new reality in Afghanistan.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.

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