India’s dilemma as Afghanistan roils in uncertainty - GulfToday

India’s dilemma as Afghanistan roils in uncertainty

BRP Bhaskar


Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.


Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for the media outside Hyderabad House in Delhi. File/Reuters

India is yet to formulate a coherent policy on Afghanistan which fell into Taliban’s lap last week even before all US troops were out of the country.

It was in 2001 that the US and some of its allies sent troops to Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, which had invited charges of repression of women and media.  

A new government was installed but it needed continued presence of foreign troops for survival.   

As the conflict dragged on, making it the longest war in America’s history, Washington realised this was a war it could not win. It started negotiations with Taliban at Doha, capital of Qatar, to find an honourable way out.

The Doha talks were not a bilateral affair. There Taliban also talked with other Afghan entities, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Three of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Russia, China and Pakistan, the United Nations and the European Union were also part of the Doha process. The US asked India, too, to join but Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided against it.

There are two plausible reasons for his stance. One is that he views Taliban as a proxy for Pakistan. The other is that he feels talks with Taliban will affect his image as a crusader against terrorism.

However, as a neighbour with long-standing people-to-people contacts, India could not remain indifferent to Afghan developments. Last September, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar participated in the Doha talks via a video link.

The government also resorted to back-channel diplomacy. The effort, it appears, was to establish contacts with the less extremist elements in Taliban on a selective basis. In an agreement with Taliban, signed in February 2020, the US committed itself to withdrawing all its troops by the end of this month.

As the target date approached, talks between representatives of Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani government remained deadlocked over the composition of the next administration.  

Taliban demanded a lion’s share of power in the new dispensation.  Ashraf Ghani wanted Taliban and other groups to join his government. Taliban said it was a product of foreign occupation and must go.

Early this month Taliban forces started advancing on provincial capitals. The US immediately tried to speed up the intra-Afghan dialogue. But it was too late to save the Ghani regime.

The Afghan government’s forces surrendered province after province to Taliban without firing a shot. As Taliban forces reached the capital, Ghani fled. They entered the city unhindered.

By this time the US and its allies had closed their embassies and started evacuating their nationals.

India closed its consulates in provincial towns and repatriated the staff. But it did not close the embassy in Kabul until after Ghani fled. It also did not ask its nationals, who were in Afghanistan on work or business early enough to return home.

Media reports attributed inaction in these matters to Modi’s unwillingness to leave an impression that India abandoned Ghani. The delay created some problems. Luckily, they dissolved quickly.

The Indian ambassador and embassy staff, proceeding to the airport to board Indian aircraft waiting to fly them home, were stopped by Taliban forces. However, they were allowed to go after verifying their identities.

Indians stranded outside Kabul faced difficulty in reaching the airport. India sought US help but was told it could do nothing as only the airport was under its control. Thereafter Indian officials contacted transport operators in Afghanistan and arranged with them to take all stranded Indians to Kabul airport.        

There were some anxious moments when media reports said Taliban had kidnapped busloads of Indians. As it happened, Taliban only took them to a nearby office to check their travel papers.

By Sunday most of the Indians trapped in Afghanistan were brought home. It is too early to say if a new Taliban-led regime will take no repressive measures although its spokesman has said there will be no return to the old ways.

In an apparent reference to the Afghan developments, Modi said last week an empire built on terror cannot be permanent.  History does not support the idea of a permanent regime of whatever origin.

India-Pakistan relations have been in a state of freeze for some years. The Afghan developments have the potential to queer the pitch for India. At this time, India must not let its larger national interests become a hostage to narrow partisan interests.

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