Gradual engagement: On India-Taliban ties

India should maintain with Afghanistan a policy of gradual engagement rooted in realism

Updated - June 04, 2022 12:32 pm IST

Published - June 04, 2022 12:10 am IST

India’s decision to send a diplomatic delegation to Kabul to meet with Taliban officials shows a marked difference from the policy New Delhi took in the 1990s when the Sunni Islamist group was in power in Afghanistan. Back then, India had taken a policy of disengagement with Kabul and supported anti-Taliban militias. But this time, Afghanistan’s internal situation and the regional dynamics seem to be different, prompting many neighbouring countries to adopt a more constructive line towards the Taliban regime, despite their differences with the group’s extremism. India shuttered its embassy in Kabul in August 2021, days before the Taliban takeover, but has maintained a line of communication with them. In September, India’s Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a senior Taliban official, at the Indian Embassy in Doha. In October, Indian officials met the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, in Moscow at a regional conference on Afghanistan. Here, India also joined nine other countries to recognise the “new reality” in Afghanistan. Later, New Delhi sent humanitarian assistance, including wheat, COVID-19 vaccines and winter clothes, to Afghanistan when the country was facing a near-total economic collapse. The meeting J.P. Singh, Joint Secretary, Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had with the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, is a natural next step of this policy of gradual engagement India has taken.

The MEA has said that the visit is only to help coordinate India’s humanitarian assistance for the Afghanistan people. While it could be true, the visit would also pave the way for better understanding and engagement given the bad blood in the past. India has three main concerns when it comes to the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan. One, India has made investments worth billions of dollars in the past 20 years. It would want to protect these investments and retain the Afghan people’s goodwill. Two, when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, Afghanistan became a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups. India also saw a sharp rise in violence in Kashmir during the Mujahideen-Taliban reigns of Afghanistan. New Delhi would not like history to repeat itself and would want commitments from the Taliban that they would not offer support for anti-India groups. Three, the Taliban remaining a Pakistani satellite forever is not in India’s strategic interest. New Delhi cannot pursue any of these objectives if it does not engage with the Taliban. But, at the same time, India should not hurry in to offer diplomatic recognition to the Taliban’s predominantly Pashtun, men-only regime, which has imposed harsh restrictions on women at home. India should work with other regional and global players to push the Taliban to adopt a more inclusive regime, while at the same time maintaining a policy of gradual bilateral engagement rooted in realism.

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