As the Taliban rolled into Kabul at an astonishing pace in the last few months, there is shock and dismay across the world. In India, dire predictions have already begun, with analysts also pointing to the possible effects on Kashmir. The sense of déjà vu is inevitable. After all, the departure of an earlier superpower in 1980 saw terrorism spiral massively in the Valley, leading to Indian forces scrambling to control the situation. Again, the closure of India’s consulates and embassy is a look back at the 1990s as Kabul came under fire.
However, things are different now. For one, security forces are in strength in Kashmir and Indian diplomacy and aid are a large part of Afghanistan’s future. What continues, though, is Pakistan as a ‘forever factor’ from where threats emanate, rather than the Afghans, either as the earlier ‘mujahideen’ or the Taliban. Whether India should stay or not, should depend on what the Taliban may want from India or vice versa, especially since a careful assessment indicates that the Taliban themselves have little reason to target India.
India has worked with almost everyone in Afghanistan
First, India has not just worked with, but recognised every government in Afghanistan, including the Soviet-backed Najibullah government, but barring the Taliban ‘Emirate’ in 1996. India’s consistent policy was to commit to Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, assisting whichever government was in power, and refusing to take part in internal squabbles.
This policy persisted even when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar became prime minister in 1996, and Prime Minister Deve Gowda sent him a congratulatory message. He reciprocated with appreciation for the medical and other assistance provided by India. The Rabbani government turned more and more to India, as evidence poured in of Pakistan Army and intelligence officers executing Taliban operations.
The embassy was closed intermittently as mujahideen groups fought each other, but the point is this: The embassy always returned and remained functional despite extremely adverse circumstances. It was closed finally in September 1996 as the Taliban stormed into Kabul. The action was vindicated when after the gruesome killing of President Najibullah, a Taliban group arrived at the embassy, asking for the whereabouts of staff, and later ransacking the place. That, in turn, led to a veering away from India’s policy towards support to the Northern Alliance and withholding recognition to the Taliban.
Since then, all major ‘Taliban’ attacks have been traced back to the Haqqani Network, which Admiral Mike Mullen called a “veritable arm of the ISI”. This time around also, the Pakistanis will use its fronts to target Indian installations, and thereby prevent a reaching out to the Taliban. But India cannot always be held hostage to Pakistani malignancy. That is not how a regional power works. Instead, demand that the Taliban provide safety from the Pakistanis. And do it publicly. That means, every time there is an attack – which there will be – the culprit is clear.
That large dollop of aid
Second, consider our signature in the 1990s and now. India was always an aid provider but never at recent levels. Aid and training to Afghan National Army personnel increased steadily, particularly after 2012. Following the completion of the Afghan Parliament building and later the Salma dam, additional aid provided telecommunications, transmission lines for powering the capital, and roads to connect it to Iran. India provided attack helicopters, and more importantly aircraft for casualty evacuation of wounded Afghan soldiers. A raft of programmes for Afghan soldiers and cadets ensured that some 800 personnel and about a hundred cadets were being trained in India a year for over a decade. That’s far more commitment than ever before.
In the meantime, while attention is on the ‘$3 billion in Indian aid’, what is important to remember is that a fresh set of agreements were concluded in November 2020, which committed funds to the Shahtoot dam designed to provide drinking water to Kabul, and Phase-IV of the High Impact Community Development Projects worth US$ 80 million, were concluded even as it was more than apparent that the US was leaving Afghanistan, and that some sort of a Taliban government would eventually arrive. At the time, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar ‘emphasised’ India’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s development for “the benefit of its people, as a contiguous neighbour”.
That commitment was clearly thought through, and there’s no reason to change it. In fact, there is every reason to increase it. The World Food Program, for instance, is calling for emergency relief as even the fragile veins of government break down. Medical supplies and just about everything will be needed. New Delhi could make the offer in the name of the people we committed to protect, waiting only for a secure airport anywhere, at a time of desperate need. Afghans have a generational memory of an enemy, and equally of a friend. Further down the line, no government in Kabul is likely to want to shrug off generous and largely unconditional aid. Leave the lecturing to others. Instead work from within, for all Afghans.
No time for Kashmir and not much interest
Third, for the foreseeable future, the Taliban leadership will be far too busy settling scores, grabbing the best ministries, and fighting off potential challengers to bother about India or anyone else. Leaders like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar or Mullah Yakub have no particular interest in Kashmir either. That applies to most of the middle-level and other senior leaders, barring the Haqqanis. Again, there will be every effort to make it out that the Taliban are anti-India. Recall the social media posts allegedly by Zabiullah Mujahid that it was ‘impossible’ to be friends with India till a Kashmir resolution. That was immediately denied by Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen. Even just after Kabul fell, its spokesman reiterated ‘appreciation’ of India.
All of this is not to deny that UN reports have long talked of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba cadres operating alongside the Taliban. Recently, the Jaish chief publicly congratulated the Taliban, just as extremist social media networks celebrated it. There is a coalescing of violent mindsets here, which Pakistan will want to take full advantage of. After all, Prime Minister Imran Khan could hardly contain his glee, as he talked of the Taliban shaking off the shackles of slavery. That sense of victory could again lead to foreign fighters being channeled to the Valley. But be clear here. That, again, is Pakistan, not Afghanistan, though its territory could be used by these elements. All the more reason, then, to extend a quiet hand to whatever form of Taliban-dominated government is eventually formed. It will need all the help it can get to deal with terrorists who are the target of Western sanctions, and Chinese ire. Make no mistake. Every other country will be reaching out equally quietly for the same reason.
India, like other countries, has had to deal with military regimes and unstable governments at various times. Here’s the point. In the end, it’s all about national interest. The Taliban are now part of the regional theatre, whether or not a new ‘resistance’ is launched by its opponents, or whether Pakistan and China are successful in pushing in some moderate leaders for international acceptance. Certainly, Delhi could decide that the whole mess is the problem of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, and it wants no part of it. We certainly have dragons to fight elsewhere. But don’t turn away from Afghanistan because of the Taliban. That’s the wrong enemy.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)