“To engage, or not to engage,” much like Prince Hamlet, is the question that India is grappling with after the fall of the Abdul Ghani government and a new dispensation taking guard after the swift takeover of Kabul by the Taliban.
Unsure of the nature of phoenix that would rise from the ashes of democracy and its geopolitical repercussions, the government of India has decided to take refuge in a “wait and watch” policy which basically is a euphemism for indecision, taking a cue from former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao who famously said, “not taking a decision is also a decision.”
It has been over a month now since the fall of Kabul. New Delhi is still unsure of the approach to adopt for dealing with the catastrophe unraveling in Afghanistan. In contrast, the canons of diplomacy dictate that we should have been the first responders to this development. Not only are we in close proximity to the event, but it has severe security and geopolitical ramifications for us.
If handled lackadaisically and with complacency, the Kabul conundrum, a hallmark of Indian foreign policy, will affect us adversely from a geostrategic perspective by restricting our access to Central Asia and geopolitically weaken our position in the region. Swinging between clandestine meetings with the Taliban in Doha and a silent refusal to recognise the regime, the Indian foreign policy establishment, as usual, seems to be in a quandary and functioning like a deer caught in the glare of headlight.
This article attempts to provide clarity to the debate by separating the wheat from the chaff, weighing the pros and cons meticulously, and arriving at an informed conclusion.
The arguments favoring engagement are based on pragmatism. First and foremost, India should engage with the Taliban because we have invested around 3 billion dollars in different developmental projects in Afghanistan that are in different stages of completion over the past decade. We need our presence there to ensure that they are completed before being handed over to the people of Afghanistan for their use.
These projects have not only earned a lot of goodwill for us among the Afghans but made us eligible for a role in matters of state as developments there directly affect our geopolitical calculus as far as our connectivity to central Asia is concerned.
Secondly, given the fact that many factions within the Taliban, namely the Haqqani network, are avowedly and overtly inimical to India, it is imperative that we maintain some level of operational contact there to ensure that Afghanistan is not used for terrorist activities against India, especially for fomenting secessionism in Kashmir. Not engaging would leave the field wide open for Pakistan, giving it free rein to carry out its nefarious intentions against India uninhibitedly.
Moreover, China has already committed 30 million dollars in development aid to Afghanistan. Given the deadlock over Galwan in Ladakh, we cannot allow China to seize the initiative and gain a strategic advantage over us on the western front.
Many Indian nationals and people of Indian origin (Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan), and Afghans who are not welcome by the new regime are stranded. They need to be evacuated, which is not possible without approval from the Taliban as they are in control of not just the airport but the overall security of the country.
A prominent reason meted out for outreach is that many security and defence analysts believe that the present Taliban is very different from the one that took over Kabul in 1996 under the leadership of Mullah Omar and that they are only focused on Afghanistan. If they promise and keep their promise that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used for terrorist purposes or waging wars against other nations, it is safe to engage and recognize them.
The arguments against any kind of engagement are based on principles. The Taliban was born out of an extremist ideology and nurtured in the madrassas. Historical research of such movements does not provide any evidence to suggest that these movements compromise with their ideological positions over time. Hence, this whole idea of a new Taliban is nothing but old wine in a new bottle.
Moreover, for the last two decades, the Taliban has not only been provided shelter in Pakistan by the ISI, but they have been trained and equipped by them as well. In many ways, it can be safely said that the Taliban is the illegitimate child of the Pakistan army and ISI. As a result, they are indebted to them and act like the handmaiden of ISI and hence are decidedly inimical to India. Any engagement with them would be playing into the hands of the ISI.
Most of the Taliban leadership are designated terrorists of the United Nations, and some of them are on the most wanted list of United States of America. Engaging with them overtly would put a question mark on our integrity vis-à-vis terrorism as we fight them on our soil and share conference tables outside the country.
On the face of it, India is faced with a Hobson’s choice when it comes to engaging with the Taliban. A way out of this precarious situation is to draw a clear distinction between engagement and recognition.
Tactical engagement to ensure continuity of our relationship with the people of Afghanistan is desirable and necessary as a recent Pew survey showed that India is the country most loved by Afghans, which creates a moral responsibility to stand by them when they need help.
As far as recognizing the Taliban regime is concerned, it can be made conditional to the Taliban forming an inclusive and representative government, gender rights, and paying heed to India’s concerns in the region.