The rise and fall of empires have neither diminished Kabul’s beauty, nor its brilliance. On the eve of the first anniversary of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan coming to power on 15 August, also India’s 75th Independence Day, India gave in just a little bit more to the ‘charms’ of Kabul’s newest ruler and upgraded the head of its “technical mission” to the level of a mid-ranking diplomat.
The spokesperson of the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, an articulate young man with the tinge of a Cockney-cum-Australian-cum-South African accent, tweeted Saturday: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan welcomes India’s step to upgrade its diplomatic representation in Kabul. Besides ensuring security, we will pay close attention to the immunity of diplomats and cooperate well in (its) endeavours.”
The upscaling of India’s mission a full year after the former Ambassador and his team left the city overnight when Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is not just a good move, it has also been overdue for some time.
When India left
Some things are far more clear during my visit to Kabul this time. As the largest nation in South Asia and an aspiring regional power, India has to learn to overcome its own timidity in playing the great game. India is incredibly keen to be perceived as a serious player abroad and, in the past, with the smallest of teams, has outshone, outsmarted and out-manoeuvred much larger establishments in Afghanistan.
The decision to invert the traditional emphasis on intelligence gathering and playing spoilsport that has been the nature of the beast for decades in Afghanistan, and instead focus on what the people want, has been a triumph of India’s foreign policy there for the last 20 years.
This single-minded investment in the youth, giving them hundreds and thousands of scholarships in India, sending wheat to alleviate malnutrition via the World Food Programme, cutting a cheque to pay for medical treatment of as many as 450-500 newly born children with congenital heart ailments every year, is what has won the hearts and minds of Afghanistan.
So, when India thoughtlessly dropped a huge brick wall on India-Afghan relations last year after the Taliban walked into the city without firing a shot, it set back the tie in known and unknown ways. The rest of the world took the fleeing Afghans in – the US, with whom the Afghans have a special love-hate relationship, Germany, Canada, the UK, Turkey, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian countries; Pakistan, whose economy is fast resembling a coffin with the last nail driven in, opened its doors; Iran offered shelter to those from the former government and continue to maintain very close ties with the Taliban.
Except India. It’s not clear from where the directions came, but they seem to have emerged from the very top of the Indian establishment. No Afghans can be allowed into India. Full stop. New Delhi’s ‘fatwa’ did such significant damage to the relationship that it is finally being–slowly–rolled back.
New Delhi’s orders to unfreeze
Finally, after a full year, orders to cautiously unfreeze the relationship seem to have been given in New Delhi. A small, three-member team, including diplomats with experience in evacuating Indian nationals as part of the great escape from Afghanistan last year, is in place in Kabul. This team will soon be strengthened by more diplomats and other experts who will once again be tasked with reviving the great India-Afghan relationship.
The move is being welcomed by several sections of Afghan society, especially students – who were unable to either finish their programmes, or wanted to return to pick up their certificates – as well as sick people, whose medical treatment was cut short by India deciding to shut down the relationship.
India also closely watched the initial rebellion undertaken by the Panjshiris against the Taliban, which the latter won convincingly. India also realised that several of those who left their country – their ‘watan’ – were not going to be able to withstand the powerful Taliban, which basically inherited a readymade country.
Today, the Taliban in Kabul walk around the streets cradling their automatic weapons. You can double-take on the sight, but it is the reality on the ground. The Taliban are firmly sitting on the throne and for the moment at least, there is no Opposition worth its salt that is capable of firing at someone.
It is this likely realisation that the Taliban isn’t leaving in a hurry that seems to have persuaded India to bite its tongue about their obvious excesses, especially around women and children, and embark upon a new course in diplomatic engagement. No wonder the embassy is being expanded.
High time, too.
Between the gun and democracy
The lack of common ground is clearly terrible for a huge country like India. The Taliban’s refusal to endear itself to the local population, which is particularly watchful of the manner in which the State is still refusing to redeem itself, is hardly going to help matters. When a handful of women protested over the weekend, demanding that basic needs such as food and work be fulfilled by the regime, Taliban guards quickly broke up the meeting by firing into the air.
By expanding its mission in Kabul, India is hoping that it will be seen as a nation that keeps its word. Perhaps, Delhi can help moderate some of the Taliban’s excesses – including the denial of women’s freedoms. Moreover, India’s presence in a region where other players have the potential to carry out unfriendly acts may also pose a deterrent.
Fact remains, the Taliban want India too. They want old unfinished projects to be finished and new ones begun. They want trade with the biggest nation in South Asia to be restarted. The Taliban is becoming vulnerable to the Islamic State terrorist group; they want to feel less vulnerable.
The gamble could work, but for the moment it’s a tall order. Democracies like India cannot fully accept and work alongside movements that have still not made the full transfer to egalitarian states. There are too many stories about the Taliban’s use of unnecessary force that prevent it from becoming India’s new best friend.
Meanwhile, the Taliban and India are joined at the hip by a single date – 15 August. The world’s largest democracy and the Islamic Emirate, where power flows from the barrel of the gun, have at least this in common.
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.