S. Jaishankar speaks during a panel discussion in Singapore | Photographer: Justin Chin | Bloomberg
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Less than a week after US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad recommended that India start talking to the Taliban, in recognition of the fact that it was expanding its presence across the country, an attack at a maternity hospital in Kabul left at least 24 people dead, including newborns and mothers.

Even for a country that has been at war with itself for so many decades, this was a new low. Khalilzad, who brokered a deal with the Taliban in late February, insisted that the maternity hospital attack was the responsibility of the Islamic State, except Afghan president Ashraf Ghani differed.

“The Taliban, with the stoking of foreigners, have intensified the war and are shedding Afghan blood,” Ghani said. By this past weekend, however, Ghani was signing a new unity agreement with his former number 2, Abdullah Abdullah, having been persuaded by Khalilzad that the conjoined leadership should embark upon a power-sharing dialogue with the Taliban to bring about a permanent peace.

Also read: How terror exporter Pakistan has ducked sanctions. Something North Korea, Iran couldn’t do

What’s India up to?

Meanwhile, away from the glare of the headlights, something else has been taking place these past few weeks. In early April, India shut down two out of the four consulates in Afghanistan – Herat in the west, ostensibly because of rising Covid cases, and Jalalabad in the south, the gateway to the Khyber and the resting place of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan because it was getting increasingly insecure for Indians to function from there.

And guess who’s breathing a huge self-congratulatory sigh? Pakistan.

This is a cruel blow for Indian interests, even if it’s temporary. Fate will have her way, but the shutting down of the consulates is a clear and grim reminder that Delhi’s South Block has little time to pay close and continuous attention to the goings-on in its neighbourhood once-removed. Perhaps, its mandarins would rather serve in the posher capitals of the West.

The tragedy of India is that only a handful of people are truly interested in Afghanistan. Despite special perks and privileges for all those who work in Kabul and India’s four consulates–India has a presence of sorts in Kandahar and Mazar-i- Sharif–far too few diplomats opt for these postings. It’s every bit as embarrassing as pulling teeth.

So why wait for Covid to strike? Why even bother if the attack on the gurudwara in Kabul was really intended for the Indian mission? Who cares if Jalalabad regularly becomes a target of Pakistani proxies?

Also read: India unlikely to talk to Taliban directly despite US push to change stance

Delhi’s diplomatic inertia

Truth is, Delhi doesn’t need Zalmay Khalilzad to tell it to talk to the Taliban. Nor does it matter whether or not Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, has a soft spot for Pakistan and believes it should have a primary role in any Afghan peace process.

The unfortunate truth is that Delhi looks at Afghanistan largely through the prism of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. Some of it is necessary – we know that when the Haqqani Network targets Indians in Kabul and elsewhere, it is functioning as a pawn of the Pakistani establishment which believes India is the number one enemy.

But talking to the Taliban has never really been a problem. There have been several opportunities along the way, since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. Taliban men had dragged former Afghan president Najibullah — a close friend of India — out of the UN compound in which he had been hiding, tortured him and hanged him from the nearest lamp-post in the city.

After the hijack of IC-814, then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh had to travel to Kandahar. Singh took then Taliban foreign minister Muttawakil’s arm and traded three terrorists for the lives of the plane’s passengers and crew. One of those terrorists, Masood Azhar, would go on to establish the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan. That incident still haunts the Indian establishment.

Over the years, as the Taliban morphed in and out of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s men and a variety of other terror groups that may or may not have owed allegiance to the Pakistani establishment, it became clear that the need to keep your channels open with the Taliban were largely about gauging whether they would be an alternative source of power in Kabul.

Also read: Covid has brought back Chinese whispers in Sri Lanka, Nepal. Is India listening?

Can Delhi talk to all stakeholders?

It’s easy to talk to the Taliban — even I know a few. The larger question is not whether Delhi should talk to the Taliban, which is easy enough to do, but whether Delhi has the capacity to talk to all stakeholders in the great game in Afghanistan.

That would include those in power today, like Ghani and Abdullah as well as all the US, China, Russia and Pakistan. What’s the point of talking to the Taliban if you don’t talk to their masters in Rawalpindi? And if you talk to the Taliban, should you draw the line with the other terror groups?

The point of Zalmay Khalilzad’s recommendation to India that it should talk to the Taliban is well taken. The objective of a conversation is to draw the other person out and find out what he knows or is thinking about, perhaps even get close and influence his course of action.

Delhi’s terribly smart diplomats know the first lesson in diplomacy: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

Khalilzad’s desperate need to strike a deal with the Taliban, despite the Covid outbreak back home, is a reflection of what his boss wants. As many as 2,441 US soldiers have died since 2001 when the US bombed the Taliban out of Afghanistan and US President Donald Trump knows the US public is exhausted fighting someone else’s war. If Khalilzad can deliver the Taliban promise and there is a decent enough interval of calm during which US troops can return home, then Trump may have a better chance in his reelection bid.

Also read: Why India won’t take sides on US-China spat over Covid, despite skirmishes in Sikkim-Ladakh

The Pakistan-US angle

Back to India’s consulates in Afghanistan and a short history lesson on how they came to be set up in 2002. In the wake of the Bonn Agreement, when Kabul asked New Delhi to reopen its mission in Kabul and four more consulates, Pakistan protested. India is probably the only nation in the world to earn the abundant love and affection of the Afghans and Pakistan knows that. The relationship with the rest is largely fear, and sometimes awe.

Interestingly, the Americans protested too. US diplomats told their counterparts in India that Pakistan needed to be given another chance (it had been only one of three countries to have recognised the Taliban, besides Saudi Arabia and UAE), that it had influence in the region and that the US did not want to offend it by allowing India to establish its presence, especially in southern Afghanistan, a region Pakistan considered part of its own sphere of influence.

Cushioned by what the Afghans wanted, India decided to spurn the Americans. Four consulates were opened. Today, 18 years later, as the Americans draw down and Khalilzad suggests Delhi talk to the Taliban, two out of those four consulates are being shut down.

So who’s going to fill that vacuum once the Americans are gone? The old Afghan great game just got a new life.

Views are personal.

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  1. hahahahaha the only reason India operated these so call consulates ( actual terror funding and recruiting camps) was to do what it did in east Pakistan 50yrs ago , not this time 🙂 Pakistan has 95 % defensive capability in military not offensive but defensive , that says alot for the bright but Indian’s are so not over partition that they would go any length to hurt Pakistan or Muslims so to speak.
    Now back to the topic. “you can run but you cant hide , we are coming for you ”

  2. Author seems totally confused. She narrated Kandhar hijacking incident and role played by Taliban/Pakistan and yet advocates talks with them/Pakistan.
    United States wants to leave the region and it can afford to do so. It wasted billions of dollars and thousands of American lives with no results as it was outsmarted by Pakistani duplicity. India is and will remain present in the region. It doesn’t have any option of withdrawing like US.
    Half of Afghanistan doesn’t like Taliban and it’s patron Pakistan.

    As such there is no compulsion for India to talk to Taliban or their patron Pakistan.
    India should offer aid, miltary as well as economic to non Pashtun factions and keep Taliban /Pakistan fully engaged because if they aren’t opposed in Afghanistan, they are bound to turn their gaze towards Kashmir in particular and India in general in due course.

    • India has hired Brahmin cowards for diplomats. Compared to the East India company executives who regularly risked life and money to win India for British crown the Indian diplomat is a typical phattoo who prefers savoring Swiss chocolate over winning friends, business and territory for India.

  3. Hey, seriously where is my comment? Absurd if still under moderation even after 20 hours and counting.

  4. Irrespective of who rules Afghanistan Pakistan gets no benefit. Lets not forget that even the Taliban doesn’t support the Durand line. All that India has to do is to support any Afghan government in reclaiming Pashtun areas from Pakistan. For Pakistan it is only a losing game.

  5. Indian presence in Afghanistan is not out of its love of Afghans but using those innocent people as proxy to fulfil its vendetta against Pakistan. India will make every effort to sabotage any deal which involves an inclusive government and brings peace. Thats is why India is long way from home.

  6. Inspite her efforts, Jyothi comes across as a tired old woman, who would prefer rehashing old clichés, rather than a well researched article taking the new conditions into account. To suggest that safety of its consulate employees is somehow an excuse to close them is somehow abhorrent to the sane. The situation has changed dramatically within the last 3 years since Trump suddenly announced the pullout. We had to reshape our responses and approach drastically, and in this are successful to a degree which gives us the elbow room to maneuver. S.Jaishankar, our foreign minister is reputed to be tough as nails, and has proved this many times in the past. So Jyoty, you tired old woman, retire gracefully before you are found out. And less of ‘ own goals ‘, in the headlines, might help keep you away from the critical spotlight for some more time.

  7. Its easy to say Indian mandarins should sit in Jallalabad – when in actually that would only be like painting a big target for Taliban, ISIS and others to attack – with Pakistani help.
    The better strategy would be to mobilize the rest of Afghanistan’s non-pastun ethnicities to unite and arm themselves before it is too late so that they arent wiped out like before.
    The Americans are going to run – and the Taliban will sweep the country. Now is the time for afghans not interested in the Taliban to prepare themselves. Thats how Pakistan will lose and the Afghan refugees will again pour into Pakistan causing a terrible mess for Pakistan
    India should not wait for the Taliban to conquer the country before it can act. The game in Afghanistan is beyond consulates and embassies – its about guns and money.

    • Bwahahaha…so you’re saying, “The better strategy would be to mobilize the rest of Afghanistan’s non-pastun ethnicities to unite and arm themselves before it is too late so that they arent wiped out like before.”
      The American and nato forces missed that trick in the 19 years they were in Afghanistan to say nothing of the russians before them. With their seemingly infinite resources. And India has a new plan?

      I for one would roll out the red carpet for the indian forces to take a gander at Afghanistan. That tragicomedy would be one for the history books. Albeit a pretty short one.

  8. At the end of the article it says: Views are personal. Why not? But truths are told about the country’s Afghan policy and the country’s foreign policy. Certainly “India is probably the only nation in the world to earn the abundant love and affection of the Afghans and Pakistan knows that” but this statement is also indicative of the failure of South Block’s foreign policy. This policy is designed through the distorting prism of Pakistan. This has been the case since 1947. How then to be listened to and followed on the international scene, if we do not manage to get out of this situation? Perhaps we should now question the certainties on which this foreign policy is based.

    • Dear Himavat,
      First of all, thank you for taking the trouble to read my piece so closely and commenting on it. Fact is, ever since 2016, the Modi government has taken a very hard line on Pakistan, short of snapping ties. There is absolutely no conversation until, the govt says, cross border terrorism comes to an end. That’s a very powerful position to take. Unfortunately, you cannot not have relations with 200 million people, especially if that country has nuclear weapons and use terrorists as proxies. The govt has to be much smarter than that. Do both. Speak softly, but carry a big stick. That’s Zhou en-Lai, the premier of China, a country that is Pakistan’s best friend.
      So be tough, keep your eyes open and if possible, divide and rule. Diplomacy is the alternative to war. So talk to all constituencies in Pakistan so you know what they are thinking. Not talking means isolating yourself. Isolating yourself means you don’t have the information to play the big game with all sides.
      That’s not foreign policy. That’s childish behaviour. And does not behove a great country and an ancient civilisation like India.

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