Kabul’s new government is preparing for its inauguration ceremony. Across Kabul, Taliban banners displaying ‘Shahada’ (Islamic oath – ‘La illaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah’) bear witness to the Taliban’s return to power. It marks the beginning of a new phase in bilateral relations for India. As in the 90s, the Taliban regime cannot be isolated this time. No one other than India’s partner and ally, the United States of America, provides legitimacy to the new dispensation.
How would a ‘Naya’ Afghanistan affect India?
By calling itself ‘Naya’, Pakistan tried to redefine itself, but little has changed on the ground. There are concerns regarding freedom and rights, especially for women and minorities, as many wait to see how the new government in Kabul will look. Former Afghan envoy and diplomat Amar Sinha stated, ‘To call it Naya is ironic when one considers its past and its potential. Several decades of Afghanistan’s development will be lost. I hope it doesn’t become a joke like this term being used next door (in Pakistan)’
For now, India is adopting a ‘wait and watch’ policy. The Taliban’s overtures towards India are a sign of positive movement, but ‘cautiously optimistic’ is the best approach. New Delhi has responded favorably to comments made by Sher Mohammad Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani on a policy of non-interference with Kashmir and boosting IMF funding. Mukhopadhyay explains the scenario well when he says while India should welcome the statement, it cannot overlook the group’s deep ties to the Pakistani military establishment.
‘The recent statements made by Stanekzai and Haqqani indicating independence from the ISI are to be welcomed. We should also ask hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not just be relaxed about our multiple security concerns such as whether they can shield us from Ias and ISI, and cut ties with other terror groups who are supported by the ISI against us. It should be a solution that brings peace to the Afghan people and takes along our friends and partners for the last 25 years, not at their expense,’ he said. Retaining and strengthening our strategic partnership and trade ties with Pakistan; and creating a genuinely inclusive Afghan government.
Afghans, the change most affects them. Jonah Blank, former advisor to President Biden (during his time as a senator and the head of the Foreign Relations Committee), told India Today in Singapore, ‘There are no guarantees for the future in Afghanistan, but it is important to recognize that the Taliban will be much the same as in the past. It will be a tragedy for too many Afghans’. Without a strong ally in the region, India faces a difficult situation. America’s absence in Afghanistan has made her strategic interests and investments vulnerable.
In the light of recent developments, India may have to chart its own course without the security guarantees that the American military presence in Afghanistan was providing to Indian interests, said Harsh Pant, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. According to him, a fundamental shift has occurred with India engaging the Taliban directly. ‘We are certainly waiting to see if the Taliban’s assurances will be reflected in their actions on the ground. It is essential for India to engage with the Taliban since the Taliban will be the key stakeholder in the emerging political structure in Afghanistan’, he said.
Following the recent meeting of Stanekzai and the Indian ambassador to Qatar in Doha, what is top of India’s agenda is ensuring safe passage for Indians, Afghan Sikhs, and Afghan Hindus, and preventing Pakistan terrorist networks from hiding in AfPak. Jonah Blank noted, ‘We must go by actions instead of words. I do not believe the Taliban’s assurances at face value. I think the attitude of India and other nations should be ‘show us, don’t just tell us’. India has many interests in Afghanistan. The goal is not just to ensure that women’s and minorities’ rights are respected, but also to secure all of India’s investments in various infrastructure projects and to ensure connectivity, among which Afghanistan is a critical link.
As the Indian government invested in Afghanistan not only for returns, but as a gift to its people. The Taliban, too, has a serious interest in preserving the economic assets and infrastructure in Afghanistan. What concerns the Taliban most is the flight from Afghanistan. In terms of connectivity and major projects such as TAPI – the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline – he said, ‘Raising international finance has always been a difficult conversation regarding Afghanistan, and that has only been made worse by the arrival of the Taliban. Bankers love peace and security, and a stable government that honors their commitments is a prerequisite for taking a gamble on such a large project’.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of such multilateral cooperation, the Taliban have attempted to change their image from their previous perception. Haqqani, and many other proscribed terrorists, are part of the new dispensation, so an overhaul is unlikely. In the event of any eventuality, India must be prepared to respond appropriately. In terms of the international community, there has hardly been any criticism of the Taliban’s actions since the August 25 takeover of Kabul. A resolution was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, albeit watered down due to objections from Russia and China, to monitor the situation in Afghanistan.
Can the world body act? Defending the Taliban’s commitments about securing the safe departure of those Afghans and foreign nationals who may wish to leave Afghanistan is the primary concern of the former Indian envoy to the UN. Chinese and Russian objections, however, prevent the implementation of this goal. In a statement issued on 3rd August, the members of the Security Council stated that they were not in favor of the restoration of the Islamic Emirate. After the collapse of Kabul and the breakdown of state authority on August 15, this assertion was never reaffirmed by the Council. In its place, on 16th August, the focus was on ‘institutional continuity and adhering to Afghanistan’s international obligations’.
For now, India is engaging all those who have influence over the Taliban as well as those who have been allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and even Russia, to ensure that Indian interests are protected, but not to the detriment of the larger interest of an independent, internationally-minded Taliban regime which is not dependent on Pakistan or China alone and can maintain diplomatic relations with other nations.