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

Embassy shut, will India stay away from Afghanistan, like US and NATO nations, or will it return soon, like Iran’s ambassador did?

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Should the Indian embassy in Kabul have shut shop and evacuated as suddenly as it did last week and returned home?

The obvious answer, of course, is yes. But because this is such a momentous event the whole world is discussing, because Afghanistan is a member of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) grouping – there has been no word from the toothless SAARC since Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August — and because India has such high stakes in Afghanistan’s destiny, it might be worthwhile to discuss the options before New Delhi at this point.

This column has been provoked by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla‘s comments to the All India Management Association last week that there is a “silver lining” with regard to the Taliban making all the right noises and seeking international legitimacy, which they hadn’t done when they came to power last time around in 1996.

Question is, what exactly is this “silver lining” that Shringla is talking about? Is the foreign secretary indicating a discussion in the heart of the Narendra Modi government over recognising the Taliban or not, or at least under what circumstances? Certainly, the choices a country of India’s heft makes at this point could sway the rest of the international community.

Here, then, are some pros and cons, arguments in favour or against recognising the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Kabul.

Also read: A US not tied in Afghanistan only helps India deal with Pakistan problem better

Taliban’s treatment of the Afghan people

First, the treatment of the Afghan people by the Taliban. India would most definitely be influenced by the manner in which the Taliban behaves with its own people. If they commit to the rule of law for all 14 Afghan ethnic groups – among them, Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek – then they would be building their own case positively.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has said that the rights of all women would be guaranteed under the Sharia – but can the Sharia match up to all the rights that the previous Islamic Republic provided? The jury is out on that so far. During the Doha talks, for example, there was no meeting of minds between the Afghan government representatives and those of the Taliban on whether the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence should be the main instrument of justice adopted.

Notwithstanding Mujahid, social media has been rife with stories and pictures of the Taliban beating up Afghan civilians – and in one case, the photographer of the Los Angeles Times, until an English-speaking Taliban fighter realised the man was a Western journalist – as well as descriptions of complete chaos as thousands of Afghans try and flee the country.

Taliban’s message for India?

Second, the Taliban certainly helped with the recent evacuation of Indians as well as Afghan Sikhs – the latter had initially been turned away, saying they couldn’t leave because “they were Afghan.”

But better sense has clearly since prevailed in discussions between Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials and the Taliban, following which Indian nationals and Afghan Sikhs were on a flight out to India Sunday. MEA officials also coordinated with the US, which is in charge of Kabul airport to allow IAF planes to land and depart.

But what is interesting is that Taliban checkpoints are barely a 100 yards away from the Indian embassy in the heart of Kabul, but so far there has been no incident. In fact, Indian ambassador Rudrendra Tandon was at home in India House for at least 48 hours after the Taliban took Kabul and before he and embassy diplomats left the capital. Were the Taliban sending India a message with their good behaviour?

Also read: No one knows what the new Taliban is. But the ‘good Taliban’ house of cards is down

Russia, China, Pakistan stay 

Third, the ambassadors of Pakistan, China and Russia have decided to stay on; they will most likely be the first nations to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers. Naturally, this is a consequence of the early, regular and sustained contacts between the Taliban and these nations.

Russia’s Zamir Kabulov, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, has played his cards well; he decided to push for intensification of ties with Pakistan, knowing it has leverage with the Taliban. The Chinese ambassador is flush with the knowledge that his foreign minister, Wang Yi, met Mullah Baradar in Tianjin just a few weeks ago. As for Pakistani ambassador Mansoor Ahmad Khan, his country hosts the various Taliban Shuras in Quetta, Miranshah and Peshawar, so that contact is alive and well.

Consolidation of power

Fourth, the Taliban is consolidating its grip on power. Mullah Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban along with Mullah Omar, has just reached Kabul. Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, two big leaders of the former democratic regimes have been meeting with Taliban leaders – word is that Karzai-Abdullah loyalists will soon be accommodated in the government.

The Pakistani ambassador has been to meet Karzai and Abdullah. Russia’s ambassador Dmitri Zhirnov has told Reuters that resistance to the Taliban is doomed. While Zhou Bo, a former People’s Liberation Army colonel and expert on India – he has commented on the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh for Tsinghua University — writing in The New York Times, has said that ‘China is ready to step into the void’ that the US has left behind.

One could argue that keeping the embassy open would certainly allow Indian diplomats to keep a close watch on all the region’s actors.

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

A resistance emerges

Fifth, a scattershot of resistance by a few brave men and women in Ghazni and Kabul has emerged these last few days; there are some reports that former first vice-president Amrullah Saleh’s stand in the Panjshir valley, along with the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud and defence minister Gen Bismillah Mohammadi is bearing some fruit and that they have taken a few districts back from the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province.

Saleh tweeted confidently Sunday night: “Talibs have massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir a day after they got trapped in ambush zones of neighboring Andarab valley & hardly went out in one piece. Meanwhile Salang highway is closed by the forces of the Resistance. ‘There are terrains to be avoided’. See you.”

While it is too early to tell the direction in which this will develop, it is safe to say that India would like to stand in support of their struggle – notwithstanding the fact that several leaders of the former Northern Alliance, including Commander Massoud’s brother, have gone to Pakistan.

Outlier or shaper?

Sixth, at a time when the free and democratic world – read, the US and its NATO allies – are trying to undercut the Taliban by shutting down financial aid, India could be dubbed an outlier if it seeks to forge its own, independent path by trying to stay neutral.

What option will India choose? Will it stay away from Afghanistan, like the US and NATO nations are promising to do, or will it return soon, like Iran’s ambassador did over the weekend? The answer to that will determine how its Afghan policy unfolds over the next few days and weeks.

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

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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