With US quitting Afghanistan, India may have to reach out to Taliban

28-A-member-of-a-Taliban Everyday battle: A member of a Taliban faction in Herat province.

It took prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao less than an hour to relay a message back to the Indian ambassador in Kabul: to grant ousted Afghanistan president Dr Mohammad Najibullah asylum in India and fly him out of the war-torn country. It was not an easy decision. The mujahideen, destined to be the new rulers, would never forget and forgive. The situation was precarious. Civil war had broken out and there was intense regional rivalry. Najib’s family had been flown out to Delhi two weeks earlier. A plane waited on the tarmac for him. Benon Sevan, head of the United Nations humanitarian aid division to Afghanistan, was to accompany him to ensure his safety.

With the US set to leave without securing guarantees from the Taliban about severing its links with Al Qaeda, the chances of the group turning moderate seem remote.
The question is whether India can now stay in the room and raise its voice for Afghanistan and the aspiration of the country’s young population.

But on that fateful morning of April 17, 1992, Najib’s convoy could not clear the penultimate security barricade at Kabul airport. Abdul Rashid Dostam, the warlord who controlled the airport, had switched sides. But Rao refused to give Najib sanctuary in the Indian embassy, fearing a backlash against Indians in Afghanistan. Najib was forced to take refuge in the UN compound, where he stayed for four years until his gruesome execution by the Taliban.

The episode offers a glimpse of the complexity of India’s engagement with Afghanistan and the intricate interplay of history, emotions, hard-nosed diplomacy, strategic interests, capabilities and choices. It also serves as an example of India’s commitment and the extent of its involvement—a legacy that has continued since the days of prime minister Morarji Desai.

With the US troops all set to withdraw completely on September 11, ending two decades of occupation, history repeats once again in Afghanistan. The emerging situation mirrors the Soviet Union’s pull-out in 1988-89, and could lead to instability in the region. The Covid-19 pandemic could further worsen the situation. For India, it has come as a major strategic and diplomatic nightmare. From offering support to the beleaguered Afghan government and dealing with US pressure to dealing with the Pakistan factor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his task cut out.

The countdown has begun. The Americans, tired of the longest war in their country’s history, are determined to leave, although the Afghan government does not seem ready. “I now have a set of orders,” General Scott Miller, commander of United States Forces–Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, said on April 25. “We will conduct an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, and that means transitioning bases and equipment to the Afghan security forces.” The confirmation came two weeks after President Joe Biden announced that he would pull the remaining 3,500 troops out. Around 7,000 NATO and allied forces will also leave by the September deadline.

What is more worrying is the departure of a majority of the 18,000 private military contractors, which will force Afghan military and police personnel—said to be around three lakh strong—to fend for themselves. “The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) is capable of giving a fight and could hold on to the main cities for a while,” said Rana Banerji, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat. But American financial support will be crucial.

Tough lessons: Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a senior leader of a Taliban faction, with his followers in Herat. Tough lessons: Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a senior leader of a Taliban faction, with his followers in Herat.

There is a lot at stake. Violence has spiralled out of control and the Taliban now controls 52 per cent of Afghanistan. The UN has reported 1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured) from January to March, a 29 per cent increase compared with the same period last year. “The Taliban has not changed. It has not cut its ties with Al Qaeda and it offers a breeding ground for more than 22 terrorist groups,” said Aref Dostyar, Afghan consul general to the western US. The Afghanistan government recently reported the arrest of 408 foreign fighters of Islamic State of which 299 came from Pakistan. “It would be very difficult to keep the Taliban in check. The only way forward is a strong Afghan government backed and supported by the region and the international community,” said Dostyar.

With the US set to leave without securing guarantees from the Taliban about severing its links with Al Qaeda, the chances of the group turning moderate seem remote at the moment. The Doha Agreement negotiated by the Americans to frame the terms of their withdrawal is dead in the water; a US-backed peace conference scheduled for April 24 in Istanbul had to be postponed after the Taliban refused to show up. “The Taliban has already chalked up its victory,” said Arash Yaqin, researcher at the Washington, DC-based Institute of World Politics. “It does not need to show up for the last part, it is on vacation till September 11.”

The coming months will see more conferences to hammer out a peace deal. Russia, Iran and Pakistan will continue to play a role in this race to negotiate with the Taliban. India, however, will have to wait and watch. It will also have to come to terms with the reality that dealing with the Taliban will become a necessity in the future.

The odds may be stacked against it, but the Afghan government is unlikely to collapse immediately after the withdrawal of US forces. The crucial factor will be whether the US continues to support the ANDSF, which is crucial to keeping the Taliban forces at bay. For instance, air support provided by the coalition forces proved critical in repelling a fierce Taliban attack on Kunduz, a strategic city in northern Afghanistan, last May. But the challenge for the government will also be political.

Turf war: Members of a faction of the Taliban. Turf war: Members of a faction of the Taliban.

In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Mohammed Umer Daudzai, Afghanistan’s special envoy to Pakistan, said keeping the state and its vital institutions together after the US withdrawal would be the biggest challenge. And India will have a key role to play in this. There is no doubt that New Delhi will work behind the scenes to manage differences and to build consensus within and outside to shore up the stability of the institutions. But the process is not going to be easy.

“The walls are closing in on President Ashraf Ghani,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, Washington, DC. “He is increasingly isolated at home, with his rivals trying to undercut him, and he is under great pressure from Washington to agree to things he does not want to do—such as stepping aside for the formation of a new interim government that would not include him. But one cannot circumvent the president. He can’t simply be ignored.”

India has thrown its weight behind Ghani. In November, New Delhi pledged an additional $80 million in aid to the Ghani government at a time when it was clear that the intra-Afghan talks were floundering. India was possibly sending a message to the Taliban that it would back democracy.

The hurried American exit gives the Taliban more bargaining power, but it also takes away its biggest propaganda tool—being the rallying point for fighting foreign occupation. “I think this is a great opportunity,” said Afghanistan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib at the recently-concluded Raisina Dialogue, India’s premier multilateral conference on geopolitics. “The Taliban has no reason to continue its violence in Afghanistan anymore. And I think it is time for it to make real peace with the Afghan government and become part of the mainstream political society.” US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, too, made a similar point while testifying at a senate foreign relations committee hearing on April 27. The Taliban “can embrace a negotiated path to peace, make the transition from a violent insurgency to a political movement, and join their fellow Afghans in a nation that enjoys respect in the global community,” said Khalilzad. “But if they obstruct a negotiated settlement and instead pursue a military takeover, they will be opposed not only by the United States but by our allies, partners, and the region.”

Taliban fighters in Nerkh Taliban fighters in Nerkh

The withdrawal of the US will also mark the beginning of a new chapter for India. “India will be pushed out of its comfort zone,’’ said Rakesh Sood, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. Daudzai said India should reach out to the Taliban and warned that India’s self-isolation would not help. Daudzai is not the only one who has asked India to engage with the Taliban. Khalilzad, too, has been pressing India to open up channels of communication. While India still remains opposed to any direct talks, its position on the Taliban has softened considerably. For instance, India sent a “non-official” delegation of two retired diplomats to the 2018 Moscow peace conference on Afghanistan and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar took part in the Doha conference held last year. The Moscow conference was the first time an Indian delegation was present at the same table with Taliban representatives.

“We are open to the Taliban within an inclusive Afghanistan,’’ said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan who reopened the embassy in 2001. It may not be easy for Modi and the BJP, still scarred by the 1999 Indian Airlines flight hijack. Engaging the Taliban was debated actively within Indian security circles before the hijack. But the humiliation in Kandahar put an end to those initiatives.

There has been chatter about appointing a special envoy to engage with the Taliban, on the lines of the back channel mechanism India has had with Pakistan for years. The Taliban, too, has tried to step up contacts with India. Indian intelligence agencies have third party contacts, too. Daudzai told THE WEEK that the Taliban reportedly reached out to India 24 times. It has also been trying to address India’s biggest concern, Pakistan. Last May, Taliban spokesperson in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, clarified that his organisation had never participated in the jihad in Kashmir.

“India’s role as a [provider of] development is something that even the Taliban recognises,’’ said T.C.A. Raghavan, one of the diplomats who attended the Moscow conference. “We should sit tight and wait for the Taliban to come to us. Which they will, as long as we keep our powder dry.”

Uncertain future: Fighters of a Taliban faction in Herat. Uncertain future: Fighters of a Taliban faction in Herat.

Over the past two decades, India has emerged the strongest development partner for Afghanistan, with investments worth $3 billion. It may not be a big amount, but each project executed by India, including the construction of the parliament building, has won goodwill many times over. Other key Indian contributions include the Salma dam and the Zaranj-Delaram highway project. “I think, in all the 34 Afghan provinces, we have development projects of some kind,’’ said Jaishankar at the Raisina Dialogue. “In the last 20 years, we have demonstrated through our actions and projects on the ground, what our real feelings are for Afghanistan.” The India-Afghanistan air freight corridor set up in 2018 to offset the challenge posed by the absence of direct road links has been another success story. It has so far helped transport more than 5,000 metric tonnes of Afghan products in over 500 flights to India.

Apart from the multiple brick and mortar projects, India has also helped in repairing the social fabric of the war-torn nation. For instance, cricketer Rashid Khan, who is Afghanistan’s most famous youth icon, rose to international fame through the Indian Premier League. Moreover, according to a study published jointly by the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation and the Wilson Center, 16,000 Afghan students now pursue higher education in India. In the last two decades, over 60,000 students have been educated in India. It is this multifaceted development plank that has brought India into the room—without having any other leverage with the Taliban—to discuss Afghanistan.

“At Bonn 1 (the 2001 conference held there to discuss Afghanistan’s political transition after the US invasion), India was invited because it had been a key supporter of the Northern Alliance, along with Russia and Iran,’’ said Sood. “Today, India is being invited because it has acquired the distinction of being a preferred development partner. This realisation is not lost on the Taliban either, which has been supportive of India’s developmental role.”

The question is whether India can now stay in the room and raise its voice for Afghanistan and the aspiration of the country’s young population. “There is a general feeling that we should be part of the peace process. The Afghans think we will be helpful,’’ said Mukhopadhaya. The Taliban too, would like India’s stamp of legitimacy and want to benefit from its development largesse.

Any engagement with the Taliban, however, brings up the fundamental question of Pakistan. “In a way, we are reacting to downstream solutions that do not address the real source of the problem—the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan and Pakistan’s covert strategic and logistic support for the Taliban to keep the Afghan pot boiling so that it can never stand on its own feet,’’ said Mukhopadhaya. “That would be falling for the Pakistani narrative in which the focus is always on Afghanistan, the region or the UN, but never on Pakistan. It allows the US to exit discreetly.”

There is no doubt that Pakistan continues to hold sway over the Taliban. Tasked with bringing the group to the negotiating table, Pakistan has managed to evade stricter measures. “Washington will not want to lose Pakistan,’’ said Yaqin. “It has the atomic bomb.”

There are, however, those who believe that reality on the ground has changed for Pakistan, despite the fact that the Inter-Services Intelligence does control the Haqqani network, a major Taliban faction, and that Sirajuddin Haqqani is the deputy leader of the Taliban. With the rise of the Pashtun movement in Pakistan and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which staged a comeback on April 21 by engineering a blast in the parking lot of a luxury hotel in Quetta, a powerful Taliban in Kabul might be a problem. “They [the Taliban and the TTP] have a connection at the moment,” said Yaqin. “The TTP is a real problem and so is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Pakistan does not want a strong Pashtun orthodox party.” The question, however, remains whether Pakistan will abandon its policy of strategic depth in the west for regional peace.

Not banking entirely on the moderate Taliban scenario, India is keeping other options open. With its legacy of backing democracy in Kabul and having been lauded for harbouring no vested interests, India would want to tread carefully and would not want to be seen as betraying old friends. New Delhi has recently hosted a few prominent non-Pashtun leaders. Dostum came in September and held discussions with Jaishankar. He also met with foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. The powerful former Northern Alliance commander Ismail Khan was in Delhi in April.

With villagers stockpiling guns fearing uncertainty and war, Afghanistan’s future is likely to be bloody. Added to the ethnic divisions that are likely to flare up, there will be intense regional rivalries beyond the India-Pakistan dynamic, which could further exacerbate the crisis. Key players like China, Russia and Iran are likely to get involved more actively once the Americans check out. The UAE, too, has become quite active diplomatically in the region and is seen to be undercutting the growing influence wielded by Qatar, its regional rival.

The future will, however, depend on ground reality within Afghanistan, which has a young population with aspirations that cannot be fulfilled by a war or a return to the Islamic Emirate. The median age in Afghanistan is just 18.4 years. “We have nowhere to go. If we cannot defend our motherland, what can we defend,’’ asked Zubair Massoud, nephew of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban guerrilla leader who was assassinated in 2001. Zubair, who graduated from the National Defence Academy in Pune, now serves in the Afghan army.

“We now live in a different Afghanistan, an Afghanistan which has gone through 20 years of a new experiment,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He said the Taliban would not be able to go back to the 1990s whether or not its ideology and approach had changed. But engaging the group will be quite crucial for other key players. “Whatever we think of the Taliban, it is a reality,” said Zarif. “It needs to be engaged, but based on democratic terms, not based on anybody’s individual, self-serving terms.”