The situation in Afghanistan impacts India’s interests and should be under the government’s constant scrutiny. It seems, however, that it has fallen off the radar, especially at the higher political levels. This may be because of the preoccupations arising out of India’s rotational leadership of the G20 which is consuming inordinate diplomatic and political attention. It may also be because of the government’s continuing sensitivity in openly dealing with the Taliban although India re-established a diplomatic presence in Kabul last June but in the guise of a ‘technical team’ ostensibly to coordinate humanitarian assistance being sent for the Afghan people by New Delhi.
Now, 22 months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, it is time to shed inhibitions and pay serious diplomatic and political attention to the country. It is insufficient to leave the monitoring of the Afghan developments merely to the intelligence agencies and only go by their views. That seems to be the case even as concerned officials in the ministry of external affairs continue to perform their routine functions with regard to Afghanistan. It is, of course, important that the intelligence agencies take an active interest in following events and in building contacts in Kabul and the rest of the country. It can be assumed that they are doing so. That is their mandate. But these agencies’ work can never be a substitute to diplomats’ and the political leadership’s decision-making on holistic considerations.
One indication of the continuing reluctance in openly dealing with the Taliban relates to the manner in which India has been handling the issue of Afghan representation in Delhi. It is always messy to deal with a country’s ‘embassy’ whose new authorities are not accorded diplomatic recognition by a nation-state. This is because an embassy is, in fact, the representative of one government to another. Hence, if that government is not recognised, then who does the embassy represent? In such a situation, it obviously cannot be a medium of communication between the two countries. However, often a state where the embassy is based lets the situation slide, taking recourse to the ‘fiction’ that the embassy is representative of a state that is continuing as an entity.
This has been the case regarding the Afghan embassy in Delhi. The Taliban took over Afghanistan on August 15, 2021. Ashraf Ghani, the then president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, fled the country and the Republic collapsed with his departure. The Taliban announced the re-establishment of the Afghan Emirate and an interim government. No country gave diplomatic recognition to the Emirate but neither did any country, including India, ask for the closure of the Afghan Mission. However, over the months, some countries have informally allowed the Taliban to exercise control of the Afghan embassy in their capitals by enforcing personnel changes in them. That has ensured that such Afghan embassies have acquired a ‘representative’ character although the Taliban interim government is not recognised. Practicality has prevailed in such situations. In India, however, the diplomat who was the Afghan ambassador of the Republic continues to be ‘technically’ recognised as his country’s top envoy till now.
Media reports indicate that the Taliban has instructed that another diplomat in the Afghan Mission in Delhi should become in-charge. It would no doubt have indicated its choice to the ministry of external affairs too. However, other Mission officials, including the ambassador, have not accepted the Taliban decision and ministry of external affairs is, as yet, treating it as an internal issue of the Mission. It should not allow this situation to continue and accept the Taliban’s nominee. That would not mean diplomatically recognising the Taliban but would be a practical measure to create a channel of communication, in addition to that which exists through the Kabul-based ‘technical team’. A cost is being paid by not doing so especially as the Chinese are now clearly preparing the ground to accept the Taliban and openly doing business with it even if they may not diplomatically recognise the Taliban regime. This is evident from the joint statement issued after the trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, and the acting Afghan foreign minister in Islamabad on May 6.
What the statement contains and omits are noteworthy. The international community has, till now, insisted that the Taliban must put in place an ‘inclusive’ government and accept internationally recognised standards on gender issues. Pakistan and China have been parties to countless statements reiterating these demands. This statement is silent on an inclusive government. On gender issues, it ‘notes’ the Taliban’s “repeated assurances to respect ... women’s rights and interests.” On the basis of these assurances — which mean nothing for the Taliban since it has, over the months, imposed greater restrictions on women — China and Pakistan have called on the international community to “support the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan” so that the Taliban can inter alia protect the basic rights of women. Seldom has there been more convoluted doublespeak by countries.
More significantly, the statement notes, “The three sides resolved to further deepen and expand their cooperation in the security, development and political domains…” On its part, the Taliban showed a commitment to contain the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, the two groups Pakistan and China, respectively, are concerned about. Shrewdly, the Taliban has, since it gained control over Afghanistan, played Pakistan to its great chagrin on the TTP issue. But it appears that the Chinese too are concerned that the Taliban can quietly support the ETIM.
What comes through from the joint statement is that China and Pakistan are possibly preparing to break ranks with the international consensus on Afghanistan. China is unlikely to rush to do business on the ground in Afghanistan but its evolving position on the country cannot be overlooked by India’s foreign policy managers. It is a vital part of China’s vision of integrating the vast Eurasian region, stretching from Iran to Pakistan to Afghanistan to the Central Asian Republics, within its fold through mechanisms such as the Belt and Road Initiative that the Taliban has accepted. Those Indian thinkers who feel that the CARs will not exchange their erstwhile Soviet/Russian masters with China should study what emerged during the first China-Central Asia summit held in Xi’an on May 19.
President Xi Jinping indicated his firm intention to move purposefully to connect the CARs to China economically, commercially and also in the security sphere. In respect to the Afghanistan situation, the Chinese president noted, “The countries will continue to leverage the role of the coordination mechanism among Afghanistan’s neighbors, and jointly promote peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.” The re-establishment of Taliban rule has raised concerns in the CARs but the Chinese are attempting to assuage their anxieties by indicating that China will not let the Afghan situation damage their interests.
While China is putting in place the pieces which indicate that it will move purposefully to integrate Afghanistan in its Eurasian vision even if the Taliban does not heed global demands, India maintains an inexplicable diffidence in dealing openly with Kabul. Its restrictive visa policy for Afghan nationals has also led to the loss of goodwill accumulated over the decades; this will not be easily recovered. It is possible to ensure security interests and, yet, have a liberal visa regime.
In any event, Afghanistan and the Eurasian region need far greater diplomatic and political attention than they are receiving at present.
Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer