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SOURCE: REDIFF

It is a ‘when rather than ‘if’ scenario, that the Taliban would return to power in Afghanistan. Given its recent successes, and with just over a month to go for the Americans to withdraw, it appears that the Taliban would be back in or around Kabul for the winter.

Whether they capture Kabul or reach an accommodation with the National Unity government from a position of dominance is a moot point. In effect, the Taliban would call the shots literally and figuratively. The Biden administration’s resolve to bring the boys (and girls) back home before the 20th anniversary of the deadliest attacks on US soil is understandable.

The Americans were fighting someone else’s war, there was no end in sight and their Afghan partners were inept, corrupt or both in handling the complex cultural, political and security challenges.

Above all, there is a noticeable economic and informational fatigue in the US electorate towards supporting a war, which in turn creates a positive democratic incentive for ending it.

To add to the woes, America’s fancied partner in the GWOT, Pakistan, appears to have grown wary and weary of the American oversight of its not so conducive actions and has firmly placed all its eggs in the Chinese basket.

It is also pertinent to highlight that Pakistan has been duplicitous in its dealings with the Americans throughout, but rather than confront this anomaly and land in another quagmire of grief, the US policymakers have wisely chosen to take a huge step back.

As a result of this pragmatic and non ideological thought process of the Americans, Afghanistan finds itself in an unenviable position of descending into an anarchy at best and medieval age at worst.

The Taliban (as were the Afghan mujahedeen) finds itself in sight of rare glory of having defeated a superpower.

Pakistan crossed this river with feet in two boats craftily balancing its relationships with the Americans and the Taliban.

Now as the shore beckons, it can carefully jump ship completely to the Taliban.

A few years back, Pakistan would not have brazened it this way antagonising its American allies.

But having suckered China into being its benefactor and encouraging Chinese interest in the region, it has a new patron.

Armed with the confidence about the success of their Taliban proteges and the financial and diplomatic backing of China, Pakistan is in a much cherished position of being the king of its own backyard.

The kings first act would now be to eliminate all threats to its influence.

This is where India gets affected.

Bad Moon Rising

May God keep you away from the venom of the Cobra, the teeth of the Tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.‘ — Alexander the Great

India finds itself in a spot as the script unfolds in Afghanistan.

Shaking away its policy lethargy it has to now make a choice about whether to engage with the Taliban or to continue its engagement with the democratic Afghan government.

It is not an easy choice. On one hand is the continuation of the policy of exclusively engaging with the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

On the other hand is the pragmatism to debunk its often repeated intent of not engaging non State actors.

In effect, talking to the Taliban would mean legitimising them as a political group and given India’s standing in the region and within the Afghan populace, this would definite bolster their claim to power.

History apart, is there a merit in breaking away from an espoused and established position and embrace the stark reality that India is faced with?

India’s relationship with Afghanistan dates back centuries and is not usually reminiscent of happy instances.

History is replete with the annals of Afghans pillaging and plundering Indian lands, the most recent being as the proxies of Pakistan in the 1947-1948 Kashmir War.

Lately, though Indian relations with Afghanistan during the Soviet era till the murder of president Najibullah and later with the post 9/11 Karzai and Ghani governments has been quite different with India providing a generous monetary, security and infrastructure assistance to the beleaguered nation.

However, the question beckons as to why is India invested in a stable Afghanistan, which by default is a rentier State and does not share a land border with India (discounting the Wakhan corridor connect as claimed by India)? A ‘realistic’ answer to this, would also be helpful to decide the future course of India’s engagement with Taliban.

The usual responses to this question are threefold.

Firstly, a historical perspective of warm relations, which is too sweet to be true given the historically recorded rape and pillage of India by Afghan warlords.

Secondly, from a security perspective that Afghan mujahideen (or its new avatar of Taliban fighters) with aid and direction from Pakistan would attempt to replicate their success in Kashmir.

This does not hold much water given the changed political and security circumstances in Kashmir over last two decades with a centrally controlled government and a well established Counter Terrorism grid involving the army, paramilitary forces and the state police.

Thirdly, is the much espoused position of supporting democracy in the region, which is quite rich given India’s record of engagement with its immediate neighbours with or without a honest democratic set-up.

More so, it is also the ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment for the Indian establishment wherein ideological policy designs are being discarded for more pragmatic, realist and contextual policy execution.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is also a function of that and so is Russia’s engagement with Taliban.

A realist assessment of Indian interests in Afghanistan suggests that it is the geography of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan that really keeps India in the game.

A stable Afghanistan questions the historical wrongs inflicted on it by Pakistan and is not likely to be a very conducive mutual relationship.

A case in point being that even the Taliban who gained power in the 1990s with Pakistani assistance did not recognise the Durand line in entirety.

Keeping Pakistan’s resources diverted to its eastern borders allows India to focus on its economic and social growth without a security overhang.

A stable and economically sufficient Afghanistan allows India to hem in Pakistan by using a proxy.

This argument is similar to that developed by China to hem in India by using Pakistan as a proxy.

The situations, economics and relations between the countries may differ, however the idea continuum is starkly similar.

If we accept the above argument that India sees Afghanistan through the prism of Pakistan, then there is a strong case for India to engage with the Taliban.

Given that despite international assistance in all forms over 20 years the government of Afghanistan is unable to establish its writ, it is reason enough to allow a change in tact in dealing with it.

Much like the US and Russia who have moved ahead of their previously held positions, India should also openly engage the Taliban with an aim to invest in Afghanistan’s stability rather than polity.

This would not just put a spanner in the Pakistani designs, but also incentivise the Taliban not to be the puppets of GHQ, Rawalpindi.

Given the negative sentiment of the average Afghan towards Pakistan and the need for the Taliban to seek finances and legitimacy, this might just turn out well.

Save Me From My Friends

America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.‘ — Henry Kissinger

What applies to America applies to every other nation in the world.

It is not easy to uncouple the policy manifestations of decades and ignite a new relationship.

In fact, it is one of the most difficult things to do in international politics especially considering its second and third order after effects.

However, in turbulent times it is important to move and recalibrate positions and policies, foregoing which will only leave the protagonists with dust.

India needs to shed its policy of lethargy and inhibitions to engage the Taliban with an intent to maintain its influence in Afghanistan.

The costs of not being on the table greatly outweigh the virtues of stoicism in face of change.

The future of Afghanistan appears bleak. The concern for the poor people of Afghanistan is better served by engaging the Taliban and leveraging this relationship for their good.

Not just for geopolitical influence, India’s engaging the Taliban would be a positive enforcement on many fronts.

How to spin it to the world at large… well that’s what the diplomats are there for!

Colonel Nikhil Apte left the Army in December 2019 after 20 years service.