... for openness and credibility....

The Taliban takeover and its fallout exposed the limited diplomatic space for India in its immediate neighbourhood.

Reports of Indian diplomats engaging with Taliban officials in Doha is not a victory or defeat but merely an acceptance of the ground reality in Afghanistan. Peaceful transition happens only in democracies and in some parts of the world, even this is contested and turns violent. While Afghanistan falling to the Taliban as a house of cards has global ramifications, let's not miss the real issue. For better or worse, the return of the Taliban is an Afghan problem and can be managed and resolved only by the Afghans. If history teaches us something, other powers will intervene and increase internal divisions, cleavages and hence the propensity to violence. Early indications signal that the Taliban will be less violent than the xenophobic Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but will the 2.0 version be radically different from the earlier avatar? Only time will tell.

Given the ramifications of the Taliban takeover, India should re-examine some of its policies and practices. First and foremost, let’s admit that the Ministry of External Affairs is not the exclusive arm to further foreign policy interests. States have a host of options to pursue their strategic interests. For operational reasons, foreign ministries the world over only have a limited role in sensitive decisions. There are several examples of successful clandestine diplomacy pursued by non-career diplomats or non-diplomatic agencies. In countries like Israel, the foreign office knows about key decisions only through the media. When he visited Beijing and paved the way for the Sino-American normalisation, Henry Kissinger was a national security adviser and not the secretary of state.

Thus, engagement with the Taliban does not mean confining it to ‘diplomatic’ engagement. India should activate a host of backchannel options to engage with the new rulers of Afghanistan to gauge the mood in Kabul and prepare the ground for formal diplomatic engagement. Besides giving diplomatic deniability, the military-intelligence community taking the driver’s seat on Afghanistan will avoid premature leaks, disasters or diplomatic embarrassments. Thus, while the media attention is focused on diplomatic ‘recognition’, India should use its intelligence assets to ‘engage’ with the Taliban, both inside and outside Afghanistan.

Two, engagement with or recognition of the Taliban will have domestic ramifications. Supporters and critics of that approach will use this to follow their narrow interests. Official engagement with the Taliban should not be seen as a license for individuals pursuing, following or justifying Taliban practices in Afghanistan or its imitation within India. If the attractions for ISIS ideology is an indication, some Indians might use the official ‘accommodation’ with the Taliban to Talibanise and radicalise the youth. Irrespective of its approach towards the Taliban, the government must draw a clear and firm line: official engagement with the Taliban is a diplomatic necessity and is not a carte blanche for individual activism within the country.

Three, India sadly remains the only democracy that does not believe in the 30-year principle of declassifying official papers. The time has come to revisit its practice of keeping official documents away from public knowledge and scrutiny. Indeed, most official Indian papers have to be accessed in foreign archives than from the National Archives in New Delhi. Let the government use the enormous public interest to declassify all the Afghan papers since 1979. How did the Indian diplomats who held sensitive positions in Kabul and elsewhere view, read, interpret and eventually advise the Indian government? In the absence of official papers, currently we are left with selective memories, self-glorifying accounts, partial truths, post-retirement enlightenment and anti-American public posturing. Now that the Soviet Union is no more, even critical accounts of Moscow’s actions will not cause any diplomatic uproar. Let the government use the Taliban takeover that puzzled even seasoned Afghan watchers to declassify official papers, if necessary even beyond the normal 30-year rule.

Four, the Taliban takeover and its fallout exposed the limited diplomatic space for India in its immediate neighbourhood. The neighbours of Afghanistan (Pakistan, Iran), great powers (China and Russia) and power aspirants (Turkey) have emerged as the key players in the great game. Despite the diversity, none of them see any role for India. Even Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have stakes, are knocking on the doors without success. The post-withdrawal US role can only get murkier. The erstwhile Northern Alliance option is unrealistic as none of the major powers want to add fuel to the fire. Thus, India's role in Afghanistan remains uncertain. While closely monitoring the unfolding drama and conflicting pulls and pressures, the focus should be on rebuilding a peaceful Afghanistan. Until a clarity emerges, New Delhi should desist from making any public statements. Walking the talk on Afghanistan is Herculean, so silence is golden.

Five, the hasty evacuation, with hundreds of Afghans running along the C-17, captured the magnitude of the American blunders. Still, let American scholars and elite examine, analyse and criticise the follies of various administrations and agencies. Such scholarly debates won’t change Indian interests and fortunes. Instead, let’s look inward and ask: Did we read our neighbourhood right? If so, why does no one want us to play a role in Afghanistan?

Note:  This article was originally published in The New India Express on 3 September 2021 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy