A lively debate is raging across the world about the true face of the so-called Taliban 2.0? Has 20 years in wilderness and that too on the sufferance of Pakistan had a sobering effect? Is the softer image for real or a tactical veneer meant to be peeled off once they consolidate their grip on power? The mainstream opinion is that ideologically they remain fundamentalistic, determined to make Afghanistan a Sharia-driven Islamic Emirate. However, at least some sections of Taliban appear to have abandoned the harsh and inhumane interpretation of Sharia. New Delhi which was forced to suspend its diplomatic presence in Kabul was intently watching the smoke signals, and finally went public about direct talks on August 31.
Deepak Mittal, the Indian Ambassador in Qatar, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the Head of Taliban’s Political Office in Doha, at the Embassy of India at the latter’s request. They discussed the safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan as well as that of Afghan nationals, especially minorities, who wish to visit India. The Indian envoy further emphasized that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-India activities and terrorism in any manner. Stanekzai assured that these issues would be positively addressed.
Deputy foreign minister in Taliban regime 1.0, Stanekzai has since emerged as a senior leader in the movement. He is fluent in English and an alumnus of the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, where he trained in the early 1980s.
Earlier on August 28, outlining Taliban 2.0’s foreign policy outlook he had stated—“India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India like in the past”.
He spoke in favour of trade by surface route through Pakistan and the Chabahar port in Iran as also by air. Prior to that Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen had expressed a desire to see India continuing with developmental work in Afghanistan. It was also reported that Stanekzai had tried to dissuade the Indian Embassy from suspending its operations in Kabul and had promised safety.
However, given our bad experience with the Taliban—the fact that the Haqqani group which had attacked the Indian Embassy in 2008 was one of its prominent constituents—and the threat perception, the Indian personnel had been directed to return home.
Taliban is Here to Stay
Events have unfolded at lightning speed since. The US and its allies have all left, effectively ending the 20-year ‘War on Terror’. Only a handful of foreign embassies including those of China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Qatar remain in Kabul. Tens of thousands of terrified Afghans, fearing for their lives, are trying to escape the country. Overall, the picture remains hazy and the situation volatile, though the Taliban are now in effective control of the entire country except Panjshir Valley.
A few things, however, are quite evident. The US has thrown in the towel yet again; has struck a deal of sorts with the former foes and literally allowed a huge arsenal of modern weaponry to fall in their hands. Else, destruction of at least aircraft and armoured vehicles, which are sitting in the open, would have been swift. Again, it is beyond belief that the US intelligence could sight and neutralize a car with explosives, but not hordes of Taliban fighters advancing towards Kabul at breakneck speed. Thus the conclusion that with no opposition on the horizon, the Taliban is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, is logical.
Taliban 2.0 is conscious that they are being closely watched and have shown restraint in Kabul. However, worrisome reports about executions, loot, abduction of women and high handedness in general are trickling in from other parts of Afghanistan. Taliban is faction-ridden. Already, jostling for power has begun. As yet, no leader of the stature of Mullah Omar has surfaced who can rein in the wayward elements. At the same time, turmoil and lawlessness are unfortunate by-products of transition with innocent civilians bearing the brunt, especially when a seismic change takes place so abruptly.
Looking back, India was a bit too mindful of President Ashraf Ghani’s sensitivities and chose not to engage with the Taliban which was steadily gaining ground. However, the writing on the wall became evident on February 29, 2020 when the US committed under the Doha agreement to quit Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Reading between the lines: that is when India appears to have activated discrete back-channel contacts with the Taliban.
India had taken a principled tough stance against the Taliban terming it a terrorist outfit. Meanwhile, Taliban’s violent behaviour in clawing its way back to power was not making it any easier for India. However, the spectre of a hostile and vengeful entity that took a cue from Rawalpindi, occupying the presidential Palace in Kabul, was also quite disturbing for New Delhi. Thus direct channel (s) of communication with the Taliban was a strategic imperative.
How India Should Engage with Taliban
Developments in Afghanistan have a direct bearing on Indian security. Then, there is the issue of the wellbeing and safety of the Indian diaspora in Afghanistan. India enjoys tremendous goodwill among the people of Afghanistan for having extended wholesome support in establishing infrastructure, building capacities and human resource development. Those gains could not be frittered away.
The Taliban needs India equally if not more. India talking to the Taliban will not only raise its stature but also encourage many other nations to follow suit. India currently has additional clout as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and the chairman of UN sanctions committee. Next, Afghan coffers are empty and funds are desperately needed to keep the establishment afloat. At least $6 billion are required annually of which at best $1.5 billion can be raised domestically. The US and other countries have frozen Afghan national funds and suspended financial support.
The international community has demanded that Taliban renounces regressive and cruel practices, treats women and minorities respectfully and does not allow its soil to become sanctuary for terrorists of all ilk. The Taliban has acquired necessary PR skills but does it have the will and ability to discard its inhumane practices? This remains to be seen. In any event, it will not be an easy task given the opposition of breakaway fractions, such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province or ISKP, demands of ISI and its own jihadi impulse.
“Afghanistan under Taliban is a new geopolitical reality. Realpolitik requires some kind of engagement between officials of India and Taliban,” former Army chief General Ved Prakash Malik tweeted on August 31.
And that is the nub of the matter. There is no love lost between India and the Taliban nor can we endorse their fanatical outlook. Yet, instead of shunning them and allowing Pakistan and China to play them against India, it is better that we have a working relationship with the Taliban, even while agreeing to disagree on various aspects. We should be guided solely by our national interests and we appear to be doing so.
In sum, the meeting of Indian Ambassador and Taliban leader Stanekzai is a positive, big and timely step forward. It is obvious that months of painstaking, meticulous and discrete preparatory work, shielded from media glare, made it possible.
One of the next steps would be to re-establish our diplomatic presence, even if nominal, but only when we are convinced of the safety of our personnel. Some humanitarian assistance in the coming days and weeks would be greatly appreciated by the people of Afghanistan.
That said we will need to remain very vigilant, till the dust settles and the real Taliban surfaces. The road ahead remains slippery and challenging. Dangers lurk and uncertainties abound!
The author is Former Envoy to South Korea and Canada and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.