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India’s Afghan policy, a tricky affair

G Parthsarathy | Updated on: Dec 15, 2021
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With the Taliban not changing their stripes, India is working closely with Afghanistan’s western neighbours in devising policy

Devising viable policies to deal with a Taliban ruled Afghanistan Government has been one of the most important diplomatic challenges that India has been confronted with, in recent days. India had joined the international community to back the democratically elected governments, after the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. New Delhi was, however, faced unexpected challenges when the US withdrawal was followed almost immediately by an unbelievably swift Taliban takeover, of the country.

It was clear that it would not be in India’s interests to face continuing challenges that could be posed by a Taliban Government, given to supporting radical Islamic causes from across its borders. With Pakistan and China working overtime to back the Taliban, it was not just India, but virtually all Afghanistan’s neighbours on its western borders, who share widespread and indeed global concerns about the restoration of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

These concerns arose primarily from the propensity of the Taliban (almost invariably with backing from Pakistan) to back and provide safe havens to radical Islamic groups, ranging from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Al Qaeda, to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, in Pakistan.

Despite these misgivings, New Delhi realised that while some form of contacts were needed with the Taliban, it should not do so in isolation. Moreover, while not wanting to be seen as obsessed with Pakistan, New Delhi needed to mobilise Afghanistan’s western neighbours, who shared its concerns, about the need to ensure that the Taliban is forced to eschew providing the support and safe havens it had provided to the Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other radical groups in its neighbourhood.

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, India backed resolutions in the Security Council to ensure that the Taliban-led government in Kabul was denied membership of the UN, in view of the Taliban’s support to terrorist groups like the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

New Delhi has worked in close collaboration with Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, with whom India has excellent relations, while formulating its policies on Afghanistan. These Central Asian partners are Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. As former Republics of the Soviet Union, they enjoy Russian support and security guarantees. They also enjoy historically friendly relations with neighbouring Iran.

India, Iran and Russia, in turn, have a history of working together with the Central Asian Republics in dealing with the Taliban, even before the US invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Russia and Iran accepted the Indian invitation to join the Central Asian Republics in a conference on developments in Afghanistan hosted by India, in New Delhi.

In these circumstances, India organised a meeting of National Security Advisers of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, Russia, and Iran, to discuss developments in Afghanistan, and to work out a strategy to get the Taliban to form a more inclusive government. There is now a consensus that ethnic minorities (who constitute 55 per cent of the population) and women should enjoy their basic human rights and representation in national life in Afghanistan.

Thriving on suppression

Moreover, the Taliban have ruthlessly crushed attempts by the Tajiks who constitute 35 per cent of the people of Afghanistan to seek a modicum of autonomy. Equally blatant has been the suppression of the country’s Shia Hazara population.

The Taliban thrives on suppression of the majority non-Pashtun population. While the behaviour of the Taliban is not going to end anytime soon, it is clear that with the passage of time, Pakistan and China will move towards closer ties with the Taliban. China’s economic corridors in Pakistan and Afghanistan will soon be utilised for increasing Beijing’s economic presence in mining Afghanistan’s vast natural resources of copper, gold, bauxite, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, iron ore, gemstones, gypsum and marble.

The reality is that while China presently enjoys good relations with an internationally isolated Afghanistan, will Beijing be able to continue on this path, despite its ruthless persecution of its Uighur Muslims? The Taliban has stayed away from providing safe-haven and support to the long persecuted, fellow Uighur Muslims, in China’s neighbouring Xinjiang Province. This, especially at a time, when the Taliban continues to provide safe-haven and support to radical Islamic groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda?

The Taliban have recently expressed their admiration for the economic assistance that India has provided to Afghanistan. There have been repeated requests for India to resume its economic assistance programme. which had amounted to around $3.5 billion. India’s assistance has involved the construction of long distance power transmission lines, construction of a dam and bridges, and the strategic road connecting Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar.

Equally important was India’s assistance in building the Salma Dam, a 42 MW hydro-electric project in Afghanistan’s Herat Province. Hundreds of Afghan students have received their education in schools and colleges in India. Children’s education has been facilitated in Afghanistan by India providing mid-day meals.

In these circumstances, India has joined the international community in adopting a two-track approach to dealing with Afghanistan. It has decided that the highest priority needs to be given to dealing with the suffering of the people of Afghanistan. Speaking about the plight of common people in Afghanistan, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the Country Director of the World Food Programme, recently noted: “I am terrified for Afghanistan. The situation is desperate there. Fifty per cent are seriously short of food, and 8.7 million are one step away from famine.”

At the same time, there is a severe shortage of essentially needed medicines and vaccines. Responding to calls for relief from Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, India offered to supply 50,000 tonnes of wheat through the shortest route, across the Wagah-Attari border-trading post in Punjab.

Differences between the two countries on the terms of transit, however, have delayed the transshipment. This, despite assurances given by Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Taliban Government, promising expeditious supply of Indian wheat. In the meantime, India has airlifted six tonnes of essential medical supplies to Kabul.

The writer is a former

High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on December 15, 2021

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