The rapidly evolving ground situation in Afghanistan, following the ongoing exit of American troops and tightening stranglehold of the Taliban, poses an extraordinary diplomatic challenge for India. A Pakistan-China grip, with the help of the Taliban, is bound to plunge the country into a deeper vortex of violence. It is tough to do business with the Taliban as we can neither forget the blatant collusion between Pakistan and the radical Islamic outfit during the horrific incidents like the Kandahar hijack and the Indian embassy bombing in Kabul. As a fallout of the American military withdrawal, there is a clear possibility of the rise in China’s clout due to Beijing’s strategic relationship with Islamabad. Russia too has been making noises about the security situation and rooting for a negotiated political settlement to end the conflict. The Taliban’s fellow ideological travellers such as the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are also waiting in the wings. The Taliban are on the cusp of totally capturing Afghanistan and are in contact with al-Qaeda, as revealed by United Nations documents. The re-emergence of the radical Islamic group will test the depth of India’s foreign policy strategists. The lesson that emerges from Afghanistan’s imbroglio in over three decades is that no outside power, however big it may be, can hope to occupy the country. In the present context, India’s options are limited. It needs to negotiate directly with the Taliban and figure out a way to work out at least a functioning relationship with it.
Though there was a back-channel contact between India and Taliban representatives in the Qatari capital Doha, it did not yield a breakthrough except for a conciliatory statement from a Taliban spokesperson. It must be pointed out that Indian assets in Afghanistan were frequently targeted in the past by the Haqqani group, a major Taliban faction. However, in the changed geopolitical realities, in the wake of the US-Taliban agreement, India needs to reposition its priorities and reach out to the moderate sections within the Taliban as its stakes in the country are high. Since the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, New Delhi has invested around $3 billion in that country in various sectors, primarily in infrastructure, and established consulates in at least three cities. It has taken a position that it supports an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process” for enduring peace and reconciliation in the country. However, the harsh reality is that the process is neither Afghan-led nor Afghan-controlled but is shepherded by the United States. And the Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. Despite all this, India needs to stay engaged in the reconciliation process with the help of some deft diplomatic manoeuvring.
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