The reopening of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan last week marks the formal return of India in the great game that is being played anew in North Asia, nearly ten months after then ambassador Rudrendra Tandon and his staff evacuated the chancery soon after the Taliban walked into the Afghan capital without firing a shot.
A mid-level career diplomat in India’s Ministry of External Affairs has reopened the embassy in Kabul, having been guided into his new job by senior diplomat JP Singh in charge of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The two met senior Taliban leaders, acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and his deputy, Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, during their trip to Kabul and gifted Mr Muttaqi a plaque with a quote from the Holy Quran.
Taliban’s hopes for re-engagement
Surprisingly, the Indian diplomats found all the embassy property in Kabul—the ambassador’s residence, the new Indian chancery next door as well as the residential accommodation inside the complex–in good shape.
The Taliban had made sure that all the properties had been properly guarded these last ten months, sending a powerful signal that it wants to re-engage with India.
In contrast, Taliban fighters had pillaged other embassy properties, including the United States and Norway — young fighters had had themselves photographed inside the premises of the Norwegian embassy last September, evoking a diplomatic yelp from the Norwegian ambassador to neighbouring Iran.
“Taliban has now taken over the Norwegian Embassy in Kabul. Say they will return it to us later. But first wine bottles are to be smashed and children’s books destroyed. Guns apparently less dangerous,” Norwegian ambassador Sigvald Hauge had tweeted at the time.
Moreover, the fact that Taliban security guards fought off an attack by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) on the Kabul gurudwara a few days before–the ISKP is widely believed to be a proxy for Pakistani intelligence. This move is not just another sign that the Taliban wants India back in Kabul, but shows that it is determined to re-establish normality in Afghanistan after 20 years of war.
India’s calculated response
In return, India sent all the right signals to the Taliban since it shut down its embassy in Kabul a few days after the Taliban walked in on 15 August last year. It refused to allow any Afghans to enter India, including those with valid Indian visas, although now there seems to be some let up on that hardline.
In fact, as it sat on the United Nations Security Council, India chose to abstain from a UNSC resolution pleading that the Taliban reopen girls’ schools.
Sources in Kabul say that JP Singh, who is an expert on the region having served in Kabul, Islamabad and Ankara, has reportedly met powerful Taliban leaders in previous visits to Kabul, including defence minister Mullah Yaqoob, son of the all-powerful Mullah Omar–a sure sign that things are changing on both sides.
Earlier this month, Yaqoob told India’s News18 network that the Taliban sees no problem with Afghan soldiers being trained in India.
But nothing else signifies the change as much, perhaps, as an Indian Air Force plane landing on the runway in Kabul last week carrying the Indian diplomats to their new diplomatic posting.
An upsetting move
Certainly, the Indian decision to reopen its mission in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will upset several people, especially those who believe that India, which has suffered long and hard at the hands of terrorists, would never break bread with another terror group like the Taliban.
But this is a new world order and the world is beginning to recognise the need to engage with the new rulers of Afghanistan. That is why, 14 nations have opened their missions in Kabul in the last ten months—and not just those which had engaged with the Taliban even when the Ashraf Ghani government was in power. These include Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Central Asian republics, but also the European Union and, separately, Germany, which had been at the forefront of criticising the Taliban and its diktats.
For India to have a presence inside Afghanistan, therefore, is essential. A mission gives it eyes and ears, it allows diplomats to meet all kinds of Afghans as well as fellow foreign diplomats stationed there. In its attempt to establish itself as a normal state, the Taliban, too, has sent its diplomats to four countries—Pakistan, Russia, China and Turkmenistan.
Taliban’s Pakistan plan
Certainly, for the Taliban, being friends with India allows it to put in place some sort of hedging strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan. For example, it strengthens its position on ceasefire negotiations between the Pakistan military, spearheaded by Faiz Hamid, former head of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI and current commander of the Peshawar corps, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terror group which has been carrying out several attacks against the Pakistani state and itself.
The Pakistan military has been agitating about the fact that the TTP carries out attacks inside Pakistan and then disappears across the porous Durand Line to safe havens inside Afghanistan. But the TTP will have none of it—until the Pakistan military reduces its presence in tribal areas like Waziristan and until Pakistan reverses the 2018 merger of the tribal areas into mainland Pakistan. As the chief negotiator, the Afghan Taliban’s role becomes exceedingly important.
Moreover, earlier this year, the Taliban displayed signs of independent decision-making when it said it would no longer allow the fencing of the Durand Line, no matter what Pakistan said. Taliban fighters even uprooted some of the border posts and fencing that had been put in place by Pakistan.
A mutually beneficial decision
During JP Singh’s Kabul visits, Taliban leaders assured him hat they would not allow Afghan soil to be used by Pakistan-based terror groups to attack India and would be happy to act on specific intelligence.
What is interesting about India’s initiative in Kabul is that it has also kept the US in the loop. When the senior Afghan leader Dr Abdullah Abdullah visited Delhi recently, he met the US special envoy to Afghanistan, Thomas West, in the US embassy premises in India.
The best thing about India’s return to Afghanistan is that it has at last established direct contact with the rulers of Kabul. This is another manifestation of India’s hard-nosed realism in the pursuit of its national interest. So no more third-party contacts, via the US or Russia or Qatar; better to speak directly with your interlocutor.
By re-engaging with the rulers of the Hindukush, India is rejoining millennia-old contacts between Delhi and Kabul. The Grand Trunk Road once connected these capitals; these days, Afghan airlines do the job.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)