India’s withdrawal of its embassy personnel from Kabul, Afghanistan, was a premature response to the perceived threat from rogue elements and Pakistani terror groups. We could have buttressed our security arrangement but, unfortunately, we hurriedly vacated the space acquired after much effort and undertaking important development projects and expenditure worth $3 billion.
The last time India recalled its diplomatic staff was from Kuwait in 1990, after the Iraqi occupiers ordered all foreign embassies to shut shop. It is a different situation in Afghanistan now. It is very unlikely that the Taliban would have resented the continued functioning of the Indian embassy in Kabul.
A telling reminder of this is that it was the Taliban that escorted Indian embassy officials to the waiting IAF aircraft at the Kabul airport. They would, most likely, have provided security to the embassy, too, if we had negotiated and requested them. There are various reasons to believe so.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, the head of the Taliban’s office in Doha, is a graduate of the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. We treated our Afghan cadets, including women, with honour and dignity, which they would certainly remember. India should make an all-out effort to reestablish contact with the government of Afghanistan, whosoever comprises it. We already have a reservoir of goodwill in Afghanistan, reinforced by the large number of Afghan military personnel and thousands of students who have received military training/education in India. They may have switched loyalties to the Taliban because of the ground realities, but their sentiments and affection for India would be enduring. They can be India’s new ambassadors now with the new Taliban in place.
Vacating hard-earned space
Sadly, though, the vacated space will likely be occupied by Pakistan, Russia and China who maintain presence in Afghanistan and are already in talks with the Taliban. If we balk, we will be left behind. The anti-Taliban posts and news coverage in India fail to take into account the ground realities. The Taliban could not have defeated and won a moral victory over the numerically superior, better trained and equipped Afghan Army, if they did not have the support of the bulk of Afghan populace, among whom India enjoys a fair amount of goodwill.
It is important to understand the difference between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban. The former are home-grown insurgents who battled against ‘foreign occupation’ while India must take all precautions to prevent the Pakistan Taliban terrorists from coalescing and providing strategic depth to our inimical neighbour.
So far, there have not been reports of reprisals in Kabul, something that happened to the ‘Vichy’ French for collaborating with German occupation forces in France during World War II. Hindu and Sikh Afghans have sought refuge in a gurdwara but have been left untouched.
In their recent interview to correspondents from around the world, the Afghan Taliban tried to project themselves as chastened and reformed. They seemed to have learnt a lesson from the battering they suffered from the American air power and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1990s. They also know they are dependent on foreign donors to keep the Afghan economy afloat and would not want funds to dry up, in case of any misdemeanors.
The Taliban have declared that they will establish an Islamic Emirate governed by the Sharia. India should look no further than the lakhs of expatriates sending back valuable foreign exchange from another country enforcing the Sharia, and with which we have recently mended relations. Foreign media has been allowed to operate in Afghanistan, and while its citizens, especially women, have expressed fears, we should wait for the situation to clear itself up before drawing any conclusive opinion on the fate of Afghans.
The three most important declarations, which impact India, were that Afghanistan will not be allowed to be used as a terror haven. No country would be allowed to use Afghanistan soil against any other country. This would be important to Russia, China and India which face terrorist threats. India has been urged to complete its reconstruction and infrastructure projects. Amnesty was declared to members of the armed forces who had fought against the Taliban. It is unlikely that the Afghan armed forces will be disbanded. This was a mistake done after the American occupation of Iraq resulting in rouge militias comprising disgruntled and demobilised ex-servicemen.
There is an immediate requirement to reestablish our embassy at Kabul, with enhanced security, and open negotiations with the Afghan government. We should not be timid to depend only on backchannel communications with a government that may soon secure recognition from a sizeable number of countries.
Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah PVSM, SM, VSM (retired) is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and the former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. He tweets @zoomshah. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)