In early June, the first report appeared of Indian officials having established contact with the Taliban in Doha. The Ministry of External Affairs, when asked to confirm the report, responded with classic ambiguity and only said that India was “in touch with various stakeholders.” But a few days later, a senior Qatari official confirmed that Indian officials had, indeed, made contact with the Taliban. It still isn’t quite clear at what level this channel of communication had been opened and whether it had been upgraded or had stalled. Some sources claim that only a very preliminary contact has been established at the official level, a sort of line of communication being opened and there is as yet no political level engagement. There was some speculation of External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, having met the Taliban leadership in Doha, but this was categorically denied by the MEA spokesman. In fact, shortly after this speculation, the EAM made India’s stand on Afghanistan very clear during his visit to Dushanbe for a meeting of the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan. Presenting a 3 point roadmap, Dr Jaishankar said that the world was “against seizure of power by violence and force” and “will not legitimise such actions.”
While Dr Jaishankar was probably off-the-mark on the faith he seemed to place on what the world will or will not do; in all likelihood, the ‘world,’ or at least major powers and players, will turn a blind eye to the brutal and violent seizure of power by the Taliban — the stance he took suggested a bit of a rethink over engaging Taliban on India’s part. Until Dushanbe, the general impression was that India was diluting its long-held and very principled position that Taliban are untouchable. The timing of the initial outreach to the Taliban — the Taliban onslaught on Afghanistan had made rapid advances in the weeks preceding this report — suggested that India was preparing for the eventuality that the medieval warriors would hold sway in Kabul in not too distant a future. As such it smacked of a certain desperation to have at least a toe inside the Taliban tent. But post-Dushanbe, it is not clear if India is still open to engaging the Taliban at this point in time. Whether this rethink is because the initial engagement apprised India that there is no real purchase in opening up to Taliban or it is because the Taliban gave a bit of a cold shoulder to India is anybody’s guess.
Even so, there have been many people who have been advocating that India needs to get over its aversion and deal with the Taliban even if it takes holding the nose while doing so. While some have been lamenting over how India missed the bus in Afghanistan, others have argued that India’s security interests demand adapting to the evolving Afghan situation, and that India cannot remain hostage to “pious sentiments” and “policy illusions.” Still others have favoured an open outreach to the Taliban, and argued that this could not only prevent harm to India’s interest but could also “complicate Pakistan’s relations with Taliban.” From a purely realpolitik perspective, all these arguments have merit. Countries have to deal with the way the world is, rather than the way it ought to be. It is understood that diplomacy and foreign policy is entirely about pursuing and protecting national interest, whatever that might be and however it might be defined. The domination of the West in international affairs over the last few centuries has meant the dictum of states having no permanent friends or enemies but only interests that are permanent has been the ruling principle of diplomacy.
But should foreign policy be completely bereft of all decency, morality and principles? Are interests and morality mutually exclusive? To be sure, diplomacy cannot and should not be very dogmatic. It mostly operates in shades of grey. Even so, there are some things on which there can be no compromise. In the instant case, can/should any civilised country turn a blind eye to what the Taliban stands for? If Taliban are acceptable today, what was the problem in accepting the ISIS yesterday? Sure, power and victory has its own logic. Taliban have defeated the sole superpower and the most powerful military alliance (on paper at least) in the history of mankind. It, therefore, makes eminent sense to accept this reality and deal with it. Perhaps, if the ISIS hadn’t been defeated, many countries would have cut deals with it. Actually, some countries surreptitiously did cut side deals and enter into local arrangement with ISIS, only they were too embarrassed to admit it publicly. But if interests are everything, why be embarrassed to sup with the devil?
Realpolitik and morality
In the case of Taliban, there is both a moral argument, and a realpolitik argument, to keep them at a distance and not deal with them; in fact to oppose and resist them, until they prove that they are worthy of sitting in civilised company. Until now, there is absolutely no evidence that these people have graduated from the barbarism and savagery for which they are notorious. Everyday reports of Taliban carrying out unspeakable crimes against humanity are filtering in. Videos of cold-blooded massacres of surrendering Afghan army troops, reports of general massacre of civilians in areas captured by Taliban, orders demanding lists of girls above 15 and widows below 45 who can then be married to Taliban fighters, and a chilling video of a young girl being forcibly taken away are just the tip of the iceberg of what the Taliban and their sponsors and supporters in Pakistan represent. How can any people or country conscionably give legitimacy to such a brutal regime? What great national interest or security interest of a country like India will such a savage regime serve?
There is a constant refrain among many Indian strategic analysts about how India is being marginalised, even isolated, from Afghanistan’s future dispensation. Seriously? If a country with a US $3 trillion economy and 1.3 billion people feels it is being isolated by a regime that will be more of a horror show than a government, then there is something seriously wrong with people reaching such conclusions. The simple fact of the matter is that India has never missed the bus that was worth taking in Afghanistan. Indian policy of dealing with Afghans and not a group in Afghanistan has been quite successful. Over the last 75 years, apart from a brief interregnum — 1996-2001 — when the Taliban regime was in Kabul, India has always enjoyed the friendship and goodwill of the Afghans.
India was never happy with the Soviet invasion in 1979, but during that decade, India enjoyed enormous influence in Kabul. After the Mujahideen formed a government in 1992, India remained in Kabul and it didn’t take long for the new dispensation to reach out to India. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, India was out (only partially) for five years, but then back in for 20 during which the access India had was enviable. That during these two decades India focussed more on developing soft instead of hard power options is another matter. But because India used soft power, it earned India so much goodwill. Pakistan, on the other hand, used hard power options which earned it the hate of Afghans. Taking a medium term view, Pakistan’s ‘pyrrhic victory’ is going to backfire on it. Counter-intuitively, India’s biggest facilitator in Afghanistan is Pakistan. The Pakistani proclivity to keep interfering in Afghanistan and playing favourites in that country invariably leads to Afghans reaching out to India to balance Pakistan’s baleful influence. That dynamic will again come into play because even if the Taliban occupy Afghanistan, Pakistan’s insecurities will force it to want to control things in Kabul, which in turn will lead to a pushback sooner rather than later.
After 20 years of unparalleled access in Kabul, if now a group from the dark ages is knocking on the doors of Kabul and making it difficult for India to keep its presence, there is no reason for India to panic, much less change its policy of not according any legitimacy to the Taliban until they prove worthy of it. In the worst case scenario, India might be relegated to the sidelines in Afghanistan. But in the event, India should show some strategic patience and wait for things to turn around. Nothing ever stays the same in Afghanistan. Things will invariably change, partly because of the Pakistanis overplaying their hand, partly because if the Taliban continue doing what they are doing the world can’t keep turning a blind eye to their actions, and also partly because if the Taliban demonstrate that the instances highlighted above were aberrations and that they have indeed changed, then India can consider engaging them. Instead of India trying to reach out to Taliban and soiling its own image in the process, it is better to wait and see how the Taliban behave with their own people, their attitude towards India’s development projects in Afghanistan, and whether they once again make Afghanistan Terror Central or actually live up to the promises they have been making to not let Afghan soil be used against any other country.
To reach out to the Taliban without first assessing their actions on ground is hardly the best way to protect and preserve India’s interests. If the Taliban remain unreconstructed and unreformed, India will only lose and not gain anything from engaging with them. At best, India will get to keep its embassy in Kabul. Big deal. This embassy will be able to do nothing because if the Taliban are Pakistani proxies or puppets, then in any case the Indian mission in Kabul will serve no purpose. Instead of jumping on to the bandwagon of Taliban, like is being done by many democracies (especially those who never tire of pontificating on liberal values and hector other democracies on individual and political freedoms), India should stand by the people of Afghanistan. Strategic patience will yield its own dividends in the fullness of time.
Sushant Sareen @sushantsareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.