By: Dr. SMRUTI S PATTANAIK, Strategic Analyst on South Asia
Participating in the SCO contact group on Afghanistan last week, External Affairs Minister of India, Dr. S Jaishankar said ‘the future of Afghanistan should not be a return to its past’. This in a nutshell conveyed India’s apprehension that violence, radicalism, and terrorism may return to Afghanistan with the victory of the Taliban. The Prospect of the Taliban returning to rule Kabul brings back the memories of 1996-2001 when India was forced to close its Embassy and Consulates, as Afghanistan got embroiled in violent conflict.
This period also brought back the memories of IC 814 which was hijacked by Pakistan terrorists to Kandahar and the subsequent hostage crisis. The role of the Taliban in this crisis illustrated the links between the Pakistan intelligence agencies and the Taliban. Jaish-e –Mohammad (JeM) which was formed after Masood Azhar’s release has been behind most of the terror attacks that were sponsored by Pakistan in which Azhar emerged as a major ally of the Pakistani state.
As the Doha process progressed and the US withdrew, the regional countries were grappling with the prospect of Taliban’s return. What is at stake are Indian investment to the tune of US$ 3 billion which include several infrastructure projects amid recurrent fears that Afghanistan would emerge as a fertile sanctuary for the terrorist activities that would target India. Moreover, the Taliban’s approach to women, minority religious and ethnic groups, and terrorism it spawned by providing shelter to Pakistani terrorists are some of the nightmarish experiences for India.
India has always been supportive of dialogue between Intra-Afghan groups to thrash out a power-sharing agreement that could lead to a durable and peaceful solution to the Afghan conundrum. India’s emphasis has been an inclusive dialogue that is ‘’Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled’’ and rules out interference by Pakistan that remains the main sponsor of Taliban.
Pakistan wants an Afghanistan that remains under its shadow and seeks the exit of India. Not surprisingly, in September 2020 when Qatar invited India to participate in the opening of the intra-Afghan dialogue between the Afghan government, Pakistan opposed India’s participation.
Following the US government’s agreement with the Taliban, Washington prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan. India was kept informed about the progress of the talks with the Taliban by US Special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad who frequented the region.
At the Heart of Asia Conference, Dr. S Jaishankar had said India is in favour of “accelerating the dialogue” between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Since 2018, India has supported the Afghan government’s attempt to engage with the Taliban as violence continued. The differences between President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and the flawed electoral process also created a legitimacy crisis for Kabul as the Taliban entrenched their position in the country controlling more territories. As a stakeholder of peace in Afghanistan, India also participated in Istanbul and Moscow processes.
New Delhi’s position is that India is engaged with “several stakeholders, including regional countries”. Dr. Jaishankar in Dushanbe said, “The world is against seizure of power by violence and force. It will not legitimize such actions’’ underlining the need for dialogue.
Importantly, the Taliban is seeking acceptability of the international community and has clarified that women’s education has to be according to Sharia and it will not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists. This time around, the Taliban has assured, they will be different and expect India should remain impartial.
Taliban has clarified that Kashmir is an internal affair of India. Taliban also said it welcomes India’s contribution and cooperation in the reconstruction of future Afghanistan. It needs to be mentioned India has invested in infrastructure development, has provided vaccines and other assistance in Afghanistan’s fight Covid-19, vocational training, education. India also offers 500 Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) slots to Afghanistan annually for capacity building. As the dialogue process in Doha progresses, between the Afghan government and the Taliban; India, like the rest of the international community, hopes that Afghanistan’s violent past would not become its future.