India’s last day as (the monthly rotating) chairman of the UN Security Council resulted in a watered down version of a resolution whose anti-Taliban sting was removed because of threat of Chinese veto. But even then China and Russia abstained from voting. India also decided on August 29 against joining in the joint statement signed by 98 countries of the world that announced their willingness to accept Afghan nationals. Had India signed on it would have meant taking in those Afghans who worked in, and with, the Indian embassy in Kabul and in the consulates in Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and included Afghans, who over the years, have been instrumental in gathering useful intelligence and doing other such work inside that country.
These actions taken together with the government’s precipitate pull-out of India’s diplomatic presence lock, stock and barrel from Afghanistan for no good reason other than that it blindly and lemming-like followed the Biden Administration’s actions, reveal that having serially done these very foolish things, the MEA is fresh out of ideas — bright or not — about what to do next. It suggests the vaccuous state India’s Afghanistan policy has plunged into.
My Aug 17 post, in the event, in which I first pleaded the case for immediately recognizing the Taliban emirate in-being and raking in the benefits from being the first mover in this respect and impressing the top Taliban leadership with this display of good faith, set the proverbial cat among the MEA pigeons. Because accepting this advice would show up India’s earlier decision of abandoning the Kabul ambassy and the consulates as thoughtless, hasty and wrong. My August 27 contribution in the Face-Off section of the Times of India — and reproduced in the preceding post, fleshed out the arguments some more. Since then a significant thing happened.
Yesterday, a senior Taliban leader dealing with foreign affairs in the leadership team, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, made the effort and took the initiative to contact the Indian mission in Qatar, conveying to Ambassador Deepak Mittal the Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader-led interim dispensation’s eagerness to have India not only return to Kabul and continue with the development projects in that country, but to get overland and aerial traffic routes opened through Pakistan for trade and commerce with India. Assurances were also given that Afghan territory would not be allowed to be used as staging areas by any terrorist outfits associated with the Taliban in their final push for Kabul, namely, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and possibly even, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), for attacks in Jammu & Kashmir, and that the Indians and their dependents, and Indian-origin Afghans would have safe passage to India. All these utterances by Stanikzai, incidentally, merely reiterated what Barader had publicly stated earlier..
That Stanikzai made the effort to call on ambassador Mittal is significant for several reasons. One, it couldn’t have pleased GHQ, Rawalpindi, and ISI in particular that despite India’s formal anti-Taliban stance and hurtful follow-up actions, the Taliban are keen — and are going out of their way to make it obvious — that they want India back in Kabul. This may be because, as I have argued, the Taliban leadership wants desperately to have India as a hefty counterpoise to Pakistan in Afghanistan’s national life. Secondly, that it also wants India to be a strategic counter-weight to an overweaning China which could provide the Barader team with a range of economic, political, and even military options. And finally, because India’s resuming its diplomatic presence in Kabul will establish a direct and physical communications channel the better, from the Taliban perspective, to work the counterpoise to Pakistan and the strategic counterweight to China aspects of its policies. Indeed, the first mover recogntion advantage could be translated into lucrative concessions — which is what the Indian government should pitch for — to Indian companies, especially to mine Afghanistan’s rare mineral — Lithium — reserves.
It is significant too that the Taliban spokesperson reacted to Islamabad’s complaint that the Taliban seem unable to prevent the Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan’s violent actions against the Pakistan army by saying that that is an issue the Pakistan government will have to sort out with the TTP! It should have given many in the Indian government pause to reconsider its wait and watch policy.
But predictably, the English language TV news channels trying to curry favour with the Modi government assembled talking heads against the recognition option; they ranted and raved, their rhetorical excess centered on the unwarranted belief that the Taliban are the same old gang of extremist Islamic yahoos and cuthroats of medievalist mindset last encountered in the 1990s and the early 2000s, and that they cannot be trusted to do anything right by India. Further, that Messrs Barader & Stanikzai’s assurances do not amount to much because Taliban Central cannot control the violence junkies constituting the outlier organizations — Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Islamic State-Khorasan bent on doing India harm. And, hence, that the almost inert “wait and watch” is the right policy for India to adopt. So far though almost all these assumptions, presumptions, and predicates for a do-nothing policy have proved to be wrong.
The Taliban leadership has shown it has learned its lessons from the Mullah Omar period (1996-2001) when that regime was happy for Afghanistan to be a backwater, and thus to cut itself off from the world and to survive hand-to-mouth. The new Taliban leadership has determined that to continue in that mode would be to again paint a big bull’s eye on their backs, making their regime vulnerable to future military interventions especially if it also remains a safe haven for al-Qaeda and IS-K. Moreover, it has discovered that Afghanistan has changed. Whatever the flaws and deficits in governance of the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments, they created in the last 20 years a thriving urban middle class with educated and career-minded womenfolk in the lead, that had the Afghan society tippy-toeing into modernity. This middle class now constitutes 30% of Afghanistan’s population and is the driver of its economy — something Barader and his cohort recognize as an element they cannot do without. Whence their pleas to Afghan professionals — engineers, educationists, lawyers, bueaucrats and technicians, trying to get the hell out of the country, to please stay put and help them to run Afghanistan.
Also of note is why the Taliban cadres — under the effective control of Mullah Yaqoob — Mullah’s Omar’s son, who is in-charge of military operations and is the likely Taliban defence minister, by and large displayed restraint in treating the police and Afghan militarymen who surrendered or accepted the new authority. And how the strategic lessons they learned made them prioritise the capture of border checkposts on the Durrand Line with Pakistan, such as Spinboldak, and with the various Central Asian Republics on the Amu Darya River that at once brought the sources of customs revenue into their hands and placed them in a position to choke off military and other supplies to the new “Northern Alliance” now forming in the Panjshir Valley under the leadership of Amrullah Saleh, Ahmad Massoud, and possibly Col. Abdul Rashid Dostum, to militarily oppose the Taliban government.
The Stanikzai connection though is a useful pointer to a unique advantage India has. Stanikzai, an ex-Afghan National Army veteran graduated in 1982 — the 119th Course — from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. His course-mates remember him as a normal sort of guy who participated in all the activities and made friends easily. Surely, it cannot be denied that the time he spent at IMA and the exposure he had to India, has made him like this country, which liking is reflected in his taking the Qatar initiative. He can be expected to act favourably towards India in high Taliban decisionmaking circles. But none of this can happen if India stays stuck with its current policy of seeing everything Taliban through the glass darkly, and dealing and communicating with the Taliban apex only through indirect means and at a remove.
Fostering a connection with the until rcently Doha-based Stanikzai-Barader ‘political’ faction who negotiated the US withdrawal with the American representative Zalmay Khailzad, is particularly important because it is in contestation for power within the yet to be formed government with the ‘military’ faction under Yaqoob, who have dismissed the former as soft, luxury-loving, group who took no part in the hard fighting. Except the Yaqoob cohort are also at daggers drawn with the ISI proxy — the Haqqani Network, also in the fray.
This only highlights the need for an active Indian embassy in Kabul, without which India is simply not in a position, for instance, to bring together the Barader and Yaqoob factions in order to consolidate this front — which is in India’s national interest, strategically and geopolitics-wise, against the ISI-directed Haqqani fighter group.
In this fraught situation, it has been suggested by a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, that India re-man its embassy in Kabul and communicate directly with the Taliban leadership without, however, according the prospective Afghan emirate diplomatic recognition, just yet. It is the typical MEA way of doing every thing half-cocked and by half-measures, and will get India nowhere.
But Stanikzai’s IMA background underlines the dilemma faced by some 80 graduating gentlemen-cadets in the current batch of the IMA, and some 40 other Afghan army officers undergoing specialized military training in different military institutions in India. What do they do when there is no Afghan army to go back to? The government has decided to let all of them finish their training, which’s fine. Then what? Having not signed the August 29 statement to voluntarily take-in fleeing Afghans and absorb them here, the Indian government has, in a sense, washed its hands off even those Afghans who worked for India as embassy and consulate staff and in various other capacities. This is a crying shame, and this decision needs to be urgently reversed.
Such a reversal would offer the 120-odd Afghan army officers in training in India the chance to settle down in India along with their families — whose protection and safe journey to India should be speedily negotiated with the Taliban. How would these officers be useful? Think of how these officers with fluency in Pashto and Darri languages can be deployed by the army Special Forces for distant operations, and in mountain fighting on the LoC. Indeed, a small SF unit along the lines of the SFF (Special Frontier Force composed of Tibetan exiles) of hard-trained Afghan armymen for trans-border covert actions can be set up — India’s own version of the French Foreign Legion! And how a select lot among them can be inducted into the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate for gathering of strategic intelligence in the neighbourhood. And, female members in the families of these Afghan officers, once in India, could be hired by the external services division of All India Radio and Doordarshan to beam news and other programmes in Darri and Pashto languages, including targeted information campaigns to Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and Afghanistan.
The stranded Afghan army trainees in India are a precious national security asset that has fallen into our lap. It will be criminal to let it go waste.