After Taliban takeover, concern rises over Afghanistan’s SAARC membership

Nature of new government in Kabul key to continued engagement, say diplomats

August 31, 2021 10:24 pm | Updated 10:27 pm IST - NEW DELHI

With uncertainty hanging over the international representation of Afghanistan under the Taliban, a question has risen over the membership of the country in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which is next scheduled to meet in Islamabad. Veteran diplomats here observed that the fate of Afghanistan’s membership and even the future of SAARC to some extent depends on the Taliban creating an inclusive government.

“The responsibility of inviting the member countries lies with the host which in this case is, Pakistan. After Tuesday’s meeting in Doha between Indian Ambassador Deepak Mittal and Taliban’s Stanekzai , it appears South Block is not averse to revising its policy. So ultimately it depends on what kind of an inclusive government can Taliban create in Kabul,” said former Indian ambassador K.P. Fabian.

Despite the Indo-Pakistan political problems that created a hurdle in the smooth functioning of the SAARC in recent years, the organisation’s members have maintained coordination in dealing with the pandemic. Pakistan, though not a beneficiary of India’s vaccine diplomacy, has participated in discussions on the pandemic at virtual events with SAARC members.

In this context, Secretary General of SAARC, Esala Weerakoon visited Delhi between August 8-14 to explore ways to revive the regional platform. The visit was however, overshadowed by the developments in Afghanistan where the government of President Ashraf Ghani fell on August 15.

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The question on representation of Afghanistan at the SAARC has come up especially since a similar issue is yet to be addressed by the United Nations. Given Taliban’s past of human rights violations, violent methods that included suicide bombers and terror strikes against adversaries, there are concerns about granting it a seat at the world platform. India’s main challenge may arise if Pakistan insists on an unreformed Taliban representing Kabul at the next SAARC summit. A major disagreement on this line may even splinter the SAARC formally, said an expert.

Afghanistan was admitted into the SAARC as the eighth member in 2007 when the country was led by President Hamid Karzai. Over the years, the country has found representation in many SAARC partnership projects covering education, and sustainable development.

A similar question on Taliban’s representational rights is also likely to come up in the Kathmandu-based intergovernmental organisation ICIMOD that studies the Hindukush-Himalayan mountain system where Afghanistan has been a member along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

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The last SAARC summit was held in Kathmandu in 2014 and the next summit which was to be held in Islamabad was postponed following the terror strikes at Pathankot and Uri in 2016. Following the takeover of Kabul, both Bangladesh and Nepal have expressed hope for continued developmental engagement with Afghanistan.

Mr Fabian is of the view that India may find a diplomatic battle on its hands if it chooses to deny Taliban’s Afghanistan a chair at the SAARC.

“Conventionally, countries do not lose membership of regional or global platforms because of a domestic political change. We have to wait and see if the next government of Taliban can meet the requirements of India,” said Mr Fabian.

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