Ideological preferences, and even blinkers, are legitimate. But political compulsions are equally important. In 1996, when the Taliban had taken control of over 90 per cent of Afghanistan, India had supported the Northern Alliance and it had even set up a military field hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif. At that time, the Russians too were on the anti-Taliban side. At the time of the Christmas 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane by terrorists seeking the release of Masood Azhar, the aircraft was parked at Kabul airport, which was controlled by the Taliban.
The Taliban did not have anything to do with the hijacking itself, but tried to show that they were playing neutral hosts. However, they were perhaps silently inimical towards India because of their linkage with Pakistan. But the Taliban did not do or say anything hostile towards India as such. When the Taliban blasted the Bamiyan Buddhas, there was condemnation of it in the Indian Parliament. Between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban were in power, the Americans kept unofficial contacts with them, and there were also some commercial deals on the anvil.
After the American invasion in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, the melting away of the Taliban, and the weak constitutional process that began, India became a supporter of these developments. While India was kept out the Bonn conference held in December 2001 at the insistence of Pakistan, New Delhi soon undertook economic reconstruction work in parts of Afghanistan. And India had also officially expressed the view that there cannot be a “good Taliban and bad Taliban”, and that the fanatical regime was unacceptable. It was an unexceptionable position. But it has so transpired that the elected governments of Afghanistan, both under Hamid Karzai and Abdul Ghani, were reaching out to the Taliban. The Americans too soon recognised that political stability in Afghanistan hinges on the Taliban joining the political system. The Taliban have adopted the apparently rigid position that there should be withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan before there could be any negotiations. It is possible that once all the foreign troops are out, the Taliban are likely to outflank the democratically-elected government.
India’s apprehensions of the return of a fanatical regime still hold good. If the Taliban return to power, which is a hypothesis, they may or may not deal with India and Iran on friendly terms because of their rigid Sunni ideology. Meanwhile, the Russians who had moved out of Afghanistan in 1989, have adopted the position that the Taliban may have to be armed to fight against the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), or Daesh, in the country. Whatever the cunning that may lie behind the Russian move, it makes strategic sense for Russia to oppose Daesh in Syria and in Afghanistan. But the right move would have been to arm the democratically-elected Kabul government rather than the Taliban. But it would be much better to prevent Taliban and Daesh joining hands.
Given the complications of the situation, India perhaps should not be sticking to simplistic positions, which are fine as far as they go. What New Delhi may have to consider is to maintain the position that India is in principle not opposed to the Taliban if the Islamist group adheres to basic democratic norms. The convoluted official Indian position, as stated by the external affairs ministry spokesman, of supporting an Afghan-directed, Afghan-controlled talks for the good of the people of Afghanistan makes eminent sense, but it will require a lot of fine-tuning on the ground.
New Delhi might have to put away the earlier perception that the Taliban in Afghanistan is the creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is indeed a fact, and think of ways of dealing with the Taliban, even if it means that the channel of communication to the Taliban is to be facilitated by Islamabad and the ISI. Even if India and Pakistan do not see eye to eye on bilateral issues, they may have to chart a common strategy towards Afghanistan. Of course, India and Pakistan would continue to look to ways to gain an upper hand in Afghanistan, but it would be much better if India remains in touch with the Taliban. In the long run, India has to offer more to Afghanistan by way of economic aid than Pakistan can ever hope to do. Pakistan can hope to scuttle India’s strong position in Afghanistan — given that a majority of Afghans love India and hate Pakistan — only by making space for Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India will have to learn to play a cleverer game.
Therefore, the Indian move to depute unofficial representatives to the Moscow-convened Afghanistan conference on November 9 was a good one. This should be followed by a subtler strategy of reckoning with the Taliban while supporting democracy in Afghanistan. The present Kabul government is seen as an American-backed puppet regime, which could fall if the foreign troops get out of the country. India should be supporting the efforts of President Abdul Ghani in reaching out to the Taliban.
The Great Game of the Big Powers of the 19th century centred around Afghanistan continues into the 21st century. India as an emergent power has a stake in Afghanistan, and it should learn lessons from the Russian and American involvement from 1978 to 2018 in that country. The biggest lesson for India is that it should not identify itself with any regime in Kabul, or with any other regime in the South Asian neighbourhood for that matter. Learning to deal with the Taliban is the first step.
Afghanistan is indeed a minefield in more senses than one, and it tests India’s diplomatic finesse to the hilt. This needs greater internal deliberation, which has been sadly lacking for the past two decades. India should not be seen as a sulking spectator at the Afghanistan conferences at a time when the Americans are exploring an exit strategy from the region.