Why Afghanistan is not a lost cause

Afghan nationals protesting against the Taliban’s takeover in New Delhi. It is imperative for India to maintain its people-to-people ties, and even trade, with Afghanistan. (Photo: AFP)

There is a widespread belief within India that our 25-year-old Afghanistan policy is in a shambles, that an earlier outreach to the Taliban would have protected our interests better, and that with the Taliban in power and much of the western and Islamic world looking for excuses to deal with the new regime—and China ready to protect and even bankroll it up to a point by bringing it into its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) orbit—India has no choice but to live with this new reality and adjust to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Much of this is questionable, although there are shades of truth in it as well. Over the last 20 years, there are many things that India did well, such as its well-designed development assistance and scholarship programs that earned it enormous public goodwill, but also many things it did not do.

India’s $3 billion ‘investment’ in Afghanistan got it the goodwill and emotional returns that it sought but not any serious political leverage. Manoeuvering between the largely non-Pashtun friends of the Northern Alliance of the 1990s and the need to recover lost ground among the Pashtuns was a difficult challenge and we did not always manage it successfully.

India’s missed steps in Afghanistan range from not using its good relations with all the ethnic and political forces to play a more active political role in promoting national unity to not going beyond development aid and trade promotion efforts towards investment and value addition in the mineral and rural agri-horti (agriculture, horticulture) and related sectors, which could have enabled India to make real partners in the war-torn country. India could have also played a more active diplomatic role in warning the US about its disastrous ‘peace’ process.

Afghan nationals protesting against the Taliban’s takeover in New Delhi
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Afghan nationals protesting against the Taliban’s takeover in New Delhi (Photo: AFP)

However, it is highly doubtful that even if India had done everything right, it would have made a material difference to the situation in Afghanistan. The reasons for this lie first in the sheer weight and tutelage of the US over Afghanistan due to the presence of its forces and the scale of its economic expenditure in Afghanistan; and second, in Pakistan’s covert and increasingly sophisticated hybrid war against Afghanistan.

In the final analysis, there is no denying that the outcome of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could not have been more negative for India. But given the ground reality and what lies in the days ahead, what can India do?

India’s options now

With the announcement of the Taliban government consisting of ultra-conservative and extreme militant elements—including conspicuously Sirajuddin and Khalil Haqqani and others who are in various UN and US-designated terrorist lists with known ties to Al-Qaeda—the best-case scenario of an inclusive government that many were gullible enough to believe in is already ruled out. The message from the hardliners within the government is that far from inclusion and reconciliation with the post-2001 Afghanistan, the ‘jehad’ (holy war) will not end with the departure of US troops. It will turn inwards against Afghans, and outwards through its many affiliates to the region.

India should not countenance normal relations with a government that is not internally inclusive and continues to repress its own people and is packed with elements known to be close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K)—which have attacked Indian interests in Afghanistan in the past.

At the same time, it is in India’s interest to preserve its people-to-people ties with Afghanistan, exploring a space for ‘minimal engagement’ that is short of legitimizing the Taliban government as an ‘Afghan’ government, let alone recognizing it, to the extent possible. It should not make the mistake of a total disengagement with the Taliban as it did in 1996-2001 when the Taliban were strictly speaking not yet a ‘terrorist’ organization and more an ultra-conservative and repressive religious militia recognized by only three countries.

It is possible to explore arrangements such as an interests section in a friendly embassy that has a presence there, or even a liaison office. Of course, such a space between ‘engagement’ (that could include exploring differences within the Taliban and between factions of the Taliban and Pakistan) and ‘legitimization’ is something that would have to be negotiated and might necessitate some pragmatic adjustments without betraying those struggling to preserve the gains of the last 20 years.

India is the one country that matters to Afghanistan, especially the Pashtuns, that is yet to legitimize the new government. This should not be bartered cheaply.

The Taliban has also indicated that they want to continue to trade with India, Afghanistan’s largest and traditional market for its agri-horti products. Unlike between 1996-2001 when there was virtually no reconstruction let alone development, Taliban 2.0 seems to value international funding, development assistance and investments—it is already courting China for it. It will also need humanitarian assistance. While the Taliban will try to leverage our interest in helping the Afghans with much needed humanitarian assistance and a people-to-people relationship for recognition and/or development assistance, we should try to avoid such a trade-off. Development assistance in Afghanistan that will strengthen the Taliban politically should be held back until a more inclusive political settlement.

Afghan nationals protesting against the Taliban’s takeover in New Delhi
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Afghan nationals protesting against the Taliban’s takeover in New Delhi (Photo: AP)

Instead of extending humanitarian assistance directly to the Taliban government, which it might misuse, India should try to use its position in the United Nations Security Council to channelize all global aid, or at least aid from the democratic world, through the UN and other international agencies, as we did with our 1 million tonne wheat donations in the early 2000s. After Pakistan disallowed the transit of Tata trucks carrying the wheat through its territory on account of the attention they attracted, this wheat was converted into high protein biscuits and distributed to schools all over Afghanistan for their mid-day meal program with the WFP (World Food Programme) logo and the Indian flag to great effect.

There will be elements among Afghanistan’s pro-India and anti-Taliban constituencies who will feel disappointed, if not betrayed, by any kind of dealing between India and the Taliban. They will have to understand that one of Pakistan’s objectives in setting the Taliban in Afghanistan is to try and sever India’s traditional and recent trade, economic and cultural ties with the country and reorient it, with the help of China, towards central Asia and China using the language of ‘geo-economics’.

It is much in India’s interest to pre-empt and keep these historic ties going, along with its recent people-to-people relations and trade ties. Such an opening can also be used to extend humanitarian assistance to internally displaced Afghans and those facing severe economic hardships as a result of the Taliban takeover.

The visa policy

India must, therefore, keep an open door for those Afghans seeking to escape the repressive rule of the Taliban for the sake of their life, liberty, security, education, medical treatment, trade and travel.

When the rest of the world has virtually abandoned and betrayed freedom-loving Afghans, India must sustain and uphold the idea of freedom from fear and extremist Islamist rule—within India if not in Afghanistan itself. We must pursue a much more liberal visa policy towards political, cultural, intellectual and media figures. Such an approach would multiply the pro-India constituency in Afghanistan manifold.

Unfortunately, the emergency e-Visa policy announced with some fanfare for Afghans that raised hopes about an enlightened Indian policy towards Afghans seeking escape from tyranny has been unduly slow and harshly restrictive even as commercial flight operations are opening up. Only a few dozen visas have been issued, while valid visas issued in the past have been cancelled causing unnecessary hardship. In certain cases, there have been reports of even high-level visitors with diplomatic passports facing hardships on arrival.

Although efforts to make amends were made with fresh offers of emergency e-visas, if true, this would be tantamount to a derecognition of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that we have not done.

Worse still, there are suspicions that this highly restrictive approach to visas for Afghans is being done with political and communal motives and with the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections in mind—in effect, an attempt to mobilize the Hindu right-wing to project Afghans in India as ‘refugees’ excluded under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and treating them as illegal migrants.

Looking at Afghans coming to India through a religious prism or as ‘refugees’ would be catastrophic mistake. Afghans seeking temporary stay in India to escape persecution share precisely the values of moderation, freedom, and civil and political liberties that we share against the religious extremism of the Taliban. It would be the ultimate irony and tragedy if we were to close our doors to them when they face choices between life, death and liberty, and it would essentially amount to going along with a misled world in legitimizing an extremist Pakistani creation that has taken hold of Kabul.

Such a capitulation to the Taliban would erase our $3 billion investment in emotional capital in Afghanistan in one stroke. It should be pre-empted at the highest levels. The last time, the Taliban lasted five years. This time, it might be less.

National uprising

India’s options in Afghanistan do not end with opening its doors to certain categories of temporary visa applicants, humanitarian assistance and trade. It could take the next step of supporting the ‘national uprising’ called for by Ahmad Massoud that has widespread emotional resonance in Afghanistan, although the sheer shock of the lightning Pak-Taliban takeover, disorganization and confusion in the political class, and fear of the Taliban is preventing its wider manifestation. It is bound to come.

India should have no doubt that freedom-loving Afghans are an overwhelming majority in Afghanistan, even in rural Pashtun areas, and that the Taliban do not have an organic presence in Afghanistan.

Already, Afghan women are taking the lead. India should be firmly aligned with the resistance even if it has to wait for 20 years as Pakistan did with the Taliban.

Although the lack of physical contiguity may limit what can be done physically or militarily, India is not out of options. A little help to the resistance in Panjshir to open up the route to Tajikistan or from Uzbekistan to Mazar-e-Sharif or from Iran to Herat and western Afghanistan could change the complexion of the struggle.

And as the Taliban show their true Islamist and Pakistani colours, it is but a matter of time that apart from Tajikistan—where India has access to the Aini military airfield at Gissar)—which has already made noises in support of the Tajiks, and Iran, which has sternly criticized the presence of ‘foreign’ (read Pakistani) forces in Panjshir and feels a special responsibility to Afghanistan’s Hazaras and other Shias as well as its Persian Farsiban heritage, Russia and other central Asian republics too might come around once they realize that the Taliban have no intention or capacity to protect its neighbours from the Islamic State or the multitude of central Asian radical outfits that threaten them.

Russia has already declined to attend the swearing in of the Taliban government. A more active pro-resistance policy may disturb the ‘minimal engagement’ policy advocated earlier, but we should be prepared to pay the short-term price for longer term gains.

But that is not all. India could take one further and even bolder step by hosting an Afghan parliament or even a government in exile, as we do for the Tibetans. Such an initiative could bring together the Afghan political diaspora and the new generation of Afghans currently dispersed worldwide that embody the gains of the last 20 years.

It would also chart a new approach to realist diplomacy, one not overly dependent on the government in power or alignment with big powers, but a government based on the power of forward-thinking people—in line with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s insight that “the future of Afghanistan lies in the future, not in the past".

If India could just for once set aside domestic differences, politics and communal lenses and recognize that the Taliban can never be a substitute for the post 2001 generation that India has helped nurture in Afghanistan, and display the strategic clarity, vision, patience, and leadership that erstwhile prime minister Indira Gandhi exhibited on Bangladesh in 1971, India could easily turn a political disaster in Afghanistan into a strategic victory whose reverberations will be felt all over Asia and beyond.

The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan.


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