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India is adjusting to the new ground reality in Kabul, coming to terms with Naya Afghanistan

Taliban leader Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, an IMA Dehradun graduate, has reached out to New Delhi. But the question is, can his possible links with Pakistan's ISI be ignored?

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How seriously should India consider the outreach by Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai who has sought “good relations” with New Delhi? Was Stanekzai handpicked because he graduated from the Indian Military Academy in the 1980s and, therefore, knows India better than the others? And is his message a precursor of the ‘Naya Taliban’ that the Taliban have promised since taking over Kabul two weeks ago?

More questions than answers are inevitable in the fog of war both in Kabul as well as New York, where India winds down its presidency at the UN Security Council today. So here are a few more:

Among the various factions of the Taliban swarming all over Kabul, is the anti-India Haqqani Network holding sway? Has India lost and Pakistan won the latest round in the battle for influence over Afghanistan? Indeed, have Russia and China won over the US in the constant jostling for international reputation?

Under the circumstances, will the larger great game unfolding in Afghanistan have any impact on the upcoming assembly elections in five Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh and Punjab? Does it matter, for example, to voters in Punjab whether Afghan Sikhs are able to leave the motherland even if it is to ultimately go to Canada and the US? Or to voters in Uttar Pradesh if the visa process for Afghan nationals (read Muslims) is taking longer than ever because of the complicated situation unfolding on the ground?

In all the scenarios likely to play out in the coming days as the last of the US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, one thing is clear: India is already coming to terms with Naya Afghanistan.

Also read: Is Taliban sending a message to India to keep embassy open? Delhi’s decision matters to world

Signs of change

In some ways, the display of this new pragmatism in New Delhi is interesting. From removing a scathing reference to the Taliban in a statement at the UN Security Council to sending an inter-agency team to evacuate the last of the Indian nationals as well as Afghan Sikhs – the last flight returned one day before the recent suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport in which more than 170 Afghan nationals were killed – Delhi has moved fast to adjust to the new reality on the ground.

The overhaul in Kabul is apparent in several ways, say Kabul insiders. Right from the presidential palace, which in the last 20 years had come to be dominated by a foreign-returned, dual citizen, multi-lingual, suited-booted, educated bourgeoisie very much at home in the salons of Paris, London, New York and New Delhi – and which now looks “like a Kandahar suburban village, with men in kurta-salwars and cotton gamchhas” – to the rest of the capital city, which has been pretty much taken over by the Haqqani Network faction of the Taliban, the old Afghan elite is already giving way to the new.

This means that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, which is widely believed to control the Haqqanis, has significant influence in Kabul. In the last 20 years, two attacks against Indian diplomats and one against Indian Army officers teaching English in Kabul have all been sourced to the Haqqanis. Under the circumstances, India took the right decision to shut down its embassy and evacuate its ambassador and other staff within 48 hours of the Taliban taking over on 15 August.

Second, if the Haqqanis control Kabul, then what is the meaning of Stanekzai’s outreach to India? The paragraph on India, part of a 46-minute readout in Pashto, is replete with descriptions of India “being very important to the subcontinent” and the need for a “road transit” to India for the improvement of “trade ties”, like “in the past.”

Also read: Did India rely too much on US? Taliban siege of Kabul is affecting our regional power status

More to it than meets the eye

The evaluation of whether Stanekzai, or for that matter his colleague Mullah Baradar, can be trusted or not is a million-dollar one. At a Track Two conference between Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans in a Western capital a few years ago, Stanekzai is believed to have reached out to an Indian participant; the question is whether Stanekzai’s outreach had any value, especially since he would have had close links with the ISI. Or would he have given his ISI minder at the Track Two conference the slip when he managed to meet the Indian participant?

Similarly, Mullah Baradar was in a Pakistani jail from 2010-2013 and then for another six years at a Pakistani guesthouse – safe to say it was an ISI safe-house – until the US pressurised the Pakistanis to release him in 2019 so that he could help negotiate the deal with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. So, does this mean that Baradar is an ISI man, or is he trying to escape the shackles of the ISI?

Since the truth, as always, is grey and constantly shifting, the Indian assessment of the Taliban outreach is, at least for the moment, not final. New Delhi recognises that Stanekzai’s message is a positive one, but is also keenly aware that the kind words are a way of buttering up New Delhi and seeking legitimacy as the new rulers of Kabul.

Certainly, “legitimacy for the Taliban” is the new keyphrase in the international community. The world will wait and watch to see if the Naya Taliban lives up to its promise of equal rights for women and minorities – but as Carnegie Center Moscow’s director Dmitri Trenin pointed out scathingly in an interview, “Does the US or India hesitate to recognize Saudi Arabia because of its treatment of women?” – and in the meantime, the accreditation committee at the UN will consider its application in the middle of September.

India’s term at the Security Council ends on 31 August and it’s not a member of the accreditation committee – some diplomats are thanking their stars that India doesn’t have to help make this difficult decision – but a kind word from a powerful player in Asia like India, which is also a friend of the US, never hurt. Certainly, that’s what the Stanekzai message is banking on.

Also read: Kabul shows up Biden as a sheep in sheep’s clothing. Allies Europe, India & Quad are watching

Pakistan, Russia-China’s victories aren’t complete

As for whether India has lost or Pakistan has gained in this latest battle for influence, it may be important to look for clues beyond the immediate context. On the face of it, of course Pakistan has won; the ISI has its men in power in Afghanistan and its pet dream of “strategic depth” has come true.

But like Pakistan’s iron brother China would say, be careful about what you wish for, especially if the possibility of it coming true is high. In which case, Pakistan may soon find that this is not 1996 and that the Taliban could forge a far more independent strategy – especially if the group is in constant touch with Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. Reports are that meetings are ongoing between the two sides, that the security guards have not been removed from outside Karzai’s villa in the presidential palace grounds and while his wife and three daughters continue to live there, Karzai himself has moved to Dr Abdullah’s house where the meetings with the Taliban are taking place.

As for whether Russia and China have won this particular round over the US, the answer is also complicated. Actually, China’s reaction has been far more simplistic, with China scholar Yun Sun exhilarated at “US failure in Afghanistan”, while Zhou Bo believes China is willing to fill in the US vacuum.

Watch and hear, carefully though, Dmitri Trenin’s analysis of the US retreat : There is an element of schadenfreude about US defeat in Afghanistan, but Russia is also sad to see the back of the Americans in Afghanistan because this means that trouble now lands at Russia’s door, he told this reporter.

Russia’s double-headed eagle, which looks both east and west, seems far more sophisticated than the Chinese, at least in this case. New Delhi likes to disparagingly think of Moscow as the weaker, lesser coalition partner in the China-Russia coalition and while that assessment is dead right on several parameters, there are several lessons to be learnt about the manner in which Russia has pulled itself up from its bootstraps since its collapse in 1991 to a force that cannot be ignored today.

Perhaps that’s why Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. He understands well that another chapter of that tired cliché, “the great game”, has just begun in Inner Asia and that Russia is both willing and able to deal with the Naya Taliban.

Does New Delhi’s new pragmatism mean that it is now willing to follow suit?

The author is a senior consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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