It is possible that the political leadership in India may find it difficult to back a terrorist organization associated with that humiliating incident without making itself vulnerable to political attacks that may even find resonance with citizens

On two recent occasions, India’s external affairs minister’s comments on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan — where the United States after two decades seems suddenly to be in a tearing hurry to pack up and leave — reveal a sense of discomfort and apprehension. Maybe even powerlessness over the way the endgame is shaping up. That is a little concerning. India should be part of the plan that shapes the future of this region from its current fluidity.

At the Raisina Dialogue in April, in a joint virtual panel on the future of Afghanistan with Afghan NSA Hamdullah Mohib and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, EAM S Jaishankar said: “The future of Afghanistan should not be a return to its past. The international community should take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” He added that “some very, very good things which have happened, which are important for the world to recognise, and which is important for the international community today to work to ensure that they remain very much at play.”

A month later in a conversation with former US NSA Gen HR McMaster, during his five-day visit to the US, Jaishankar was slightly more forthcoming on the US exit plan. “An entire generation has grown up in Afghanistan with a much better life than they had in the 20 years before that… That’s something worth protecting, defending, nurturing. It’s important that we understand that Afghanistan too is a pluralistic society with a diversity of ethnicities viewpoints, faiths that, minorities are given their due, that women and children their rights are protected all that was built up by the entire world, by the United States most of all. I do think that they are of great value and they should not be likely sacrificed at the expediency of politics of the day.”

Jaishankar also lamented about the series of decisions and policy judgments that has “constrained” India’s options. The exasperation is understandable. As a seasoned diplomat, the minister is aware of the weight of his words. It is interesting to note, therefore, the public airing of grievance which right now is a pointless exercise. The die has been cast. The coin is tossing in the wind.

Post 2001, since the US toppled the Taliban regime and helped set up a ruling dispensation in Kabul, India has been operating under a US security umbrella to increase its strategic space, assist Afghanistan with development projects, train its security forces and engage with elected presidents in Kabul while keeping its distance from the Taliban, which it considers as a terrorist organisation. India’s principled position has remained in favour of a peace process that is “inclusive”, “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.”

Principles have a habit of colliding with statecraft, however, more so at a time when India needs to diversify its engagements with different power structures within Afghanistan and juggle competing interests. This isn’t to say that New Delhi is sitting idle. From broad basing ties with different power brokers in Kabul — such as Afghan peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah or former Afghan vice president Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum to rethinking its stance towards the Taliban, New Delhi has been trying to hedge its bets and adjust to the changing realities in Afghanistan.

Yet India’s primary focus remains on working through the seat of power in Kabul, and remaining (at least rhetorically) committed to the ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled’ reconciliation process even as president Ashraf Ghani stares at an uncertain future and openly admits that he is not in control of the steering wheel.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Ghani said Afghanistan’s future now depends on Pakistan. “Peace will primarily be decided upon regionally, and I believe we are at a crucial moment of rethinking. It is first and foremost a matter of getting Pakistan on board. The US now plays only a minor role. The question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands.”

For the beleaguered Ghani to even admit this is staggering but it points to his desperation at the way he is being made irrelevant in the great power game unfolding in Afghanistan. Joe Biden is desperate to cut losses and leave, overruling his generals in Pentagon who argued unsuccessfully for a residual presence. Pakistan may legitimately claim victory having inserted itself as a key player, if not the key player.

As The New York Times in this article recalls former ISI chief Hamid Gul’s comments in the 1980s, “When history is written… it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America… Then there will be another sentence,” Gen Gul had added after a brief pause, “The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”

The US president has set a September 11 date for total recall, but Pentagon is well ahead of schedule and the last remaining soldier will be flying back home by mid-July, leaving behind a royal mess and huge, unresolved issues.

Such as the fact that US officials are “yet to decide how to ensure security for Kabul’s international airport, an issue that could determine whether other nations can maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.” Australia, for instance, has already shut down its embassy in Kabul. Moreover, “around 17,000 private contractors — more than 6,000 of them US citizens — are expected to leave along with US and allied military forces, potentially leaving Afghanistan’s military, and especially its air force, without vital support.”

Washington also wants Ghani to step aside and make way for an interim government in Kabul based on a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban — a proposal that Ghani has rejected in disdain and Taliban has expressed disinterest. As US and NATO troops leave, Afghan security forces are surrendering their outposts to the Taliban in droves. “At least 26 outposts and bases in just four provinces — Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni — have surrendered”, reports NYT quoting village elders and government officials.

The Taliban smell victory. They are launching major assaults and analysts say the militant group may be preparing for a “swift offensive, causing the collapse of the civilian Afghan government and/or military.”

Ghani seems resigned to his fate. He claims that Afghan forces have the ability to resist the Taliban “forever” but that sounds more like empty bravado.

A lot will depend on the kind of assistance — military, funding and/or otherwise — that the US may provide to the government in Kabul, or whether Washington has the ability or political will to do so. Russia won’t let US troops station themselves in central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan, and Pakistan, at least up until now, is claiming that it won’t let the US operate a military base on its territory.

That may change. Pakistan, as usual, is equivocating. It claims one thing, then secretly allows American warplanes to use its airspace in support of forces fighting the Taliban, ostensibly in exchange for economic packages.

The Taliban, however, has warned neighbouring countries against allowing US military bases. As Kabir Taneja of ORF writes in Hindustan Times, “the language used in (Taliban’s) statement suggests that even Pakistan and its military could be fair game from a Taliban perspective, if they do indeed decide to host the US military for operations in Afghanistan.”

The key word, therefore, is uncertainty. Not having a military base anywhere near Afghanistan’s borders would mean US aircraft or surveillance drones traversing 1000 miles each way from bases in West Asia or from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea to support Afghan forces from “over the horizon.”

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda is being given sanctuary by the Taliban and the militant group now controls 88 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and contests another 214. The number of districts it controls and contests has doubled since 2018. The security of 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals is also under threat as Taliban edge closer to its aim of re-establishing an Islamic Emirate, says Long War Journal.

In absence of US airpower, or at least timely intervention, it is conceivable that demoralised Afghan forces that are unpaid and equipped with substandard equipment, won’t be able to hold fort against Taliban militants for too long. Additionally, Pakistan is working behind the scenes to “elevate the Haqqani Network as its primary proxy in Afghanistan”, reports StratnewsGlobal, quoting former Director General of India’s Military Intelligence Lt Gen Ravi K. Sawhney (Retd).

For India to protect its core interests in this state of volatile flux will be a challenge. According to Sushant Singh in Foreign Policy, “the US withdrawal could trigger a rise of Islamist militancy in India’s neighbourhood, strengthen Beijing’s position in the region, cut India out of the emerging regional geopolitical architecture, and deny India access to Central Asia.”

The starting point for India’s response to an imminent state collapse and multi-sided violence in Afghanistan, therefore, should be a plan to negotiate with the most dominant power structure to ensure that its voice gets a fair representation with a view to protecting its economic interests and strategic space. It is increasingly likely that that dominant power broker is the Taliban. Therefore, India’s principled stance towards backing a democratic process in Afghanistan must be suitably modified in favour of a realist revision to deal with the emergent Islamic Emirate and minimise the threats that the Taliban poses to India’s legitimate interests.

Worth noting here that though India has never been officially engaged with the Taliban, clandestine communication channels have existed since at least the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar in 1999. In recent times, India has shown an inclination towards rethinking its stance by sending a senior official to Doha in September last year to attend intra-Afghan talks on power-sharing — a program which EAM Jaishankar joined in virtually. But it is time now to move ahead of signalling procedures and engage in direct talks with elements of Taliban that may not be reflexively inimical to India.

This is not an uncharted territory. By 2011, a sitting NSA was talking to elements in Taliban. As Avinash Paliwal of SOAS University of London says in an interview with The Scroll, though “that outreach did take place… it was never taken up in earnest at an official political policy level, in which India would advocate talking to the Taliban. Then the concern was that such a position would alienate allies in Kabul… Now is a situation when a lot of power holders in Kabul, part of the mainstream government, tell India to have those channels with the Taliban, just the way Iran does, just the way the Americans have. But we see a lack of interest or perhaps capacity and capability, to push that agenda.”

This diplomatic initiative now must be formalized at a policy level and empowered at a political level. There are voices, such as former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who believe that such outreaches are fruitless since the Taliban is tied to Pakistan military’s apron strings but the emergence of Taliban is a reality, and New Delhi cannot afford to remain in denial.

That engagement doesn’t have to be a ‘principled’ one, even a tactical approach would do. India’s primary aims are threefold: One, establish diplomatic channels to engage with the Taliban and protect its economic, connectivity and strategic interests. Two, to understand the scale and depth of Rawalpindi’s control over the Taliban, and whether the militant group can take autonomous decisions. Three, to explore the possibility of dissent and political divisions within Taliban warlords against a centralized command, a prospect that is not impossible given the insurgent group’s history.

One strategy that India may adopt is the appointment of a ‘special envoy’ — a suggestion that has been made by Carnegie India scholars Rudra Chaudhuri and Shreyas Shende in a policy paper last year. They argue that “India should consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to Afghan reconciliation. The envoy can ensure that Indian views are expressed at every meeting, broaden engagement with the Afghan government and other political actors, and reach out to certain Taliban representatives.”

Such an appointment, point out Chaudhuri and Shende, may help India coordinate its policies better, bridge the efforts of different departments into a coherent whole and give external actors a single window of connection “rather than working through multiple Indian agencies and ministries.” The scholars point out that this idea, despite being in vogue, has never really taken off because of “bureaucratic turf war”.

Paliwal, whose book My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan remains an important document on the subject, detects an internecine battle in India between “partisan” policymakers “who would be more averse to dealing with anyone in Afghanistan who had any sort of relationship with Pakistan” and “conciliators” who are not averse to “dealing with those figures in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, which rely on links with the Pakistani security establishment” not out of ideological alignment but “operational” need.

A bigger issue that is limiting India’s outreach towards the Taliban could be political conservatism. India retains the deep scars of the Kandahar hijacking when coincidentally a BJP-led government at the Centre was forced to hand over Masood Azhar to Taliban-backed terrorists in exchange for Indian citizens who were taken hostage after an Indian Airlines flight was redirected to Kandahar. Azhar found Jaish-e-Muhammad shortly afterwards.

It is possible that the political leadership in India may find it difficult to back a terrorist organization associated with that humiliating incident without making itself vulnerable to political attacks that may even find resonance with citizens. Mandira Nayar writes in The Week that “engaging the Taliban was debated actively within Indian security circles before the hijack. But the humiliation in Kandahar put an end to those initiatives.” Paliwal, too, points at lack of desire on the part of political leadership “despite there being officials who have in private expressed a desire to have channels with the Taliban, and wanted to explore how trust can be built.”

India can ill afford that conservatism. It is aware that given its wide-ranging development work in Afghanistan since 2001, that amounts to over $3 billion in connectivity projects and assistance, India enjoys a goodwill with the Afghans that even the Taliban recognizes. If the Taliban considers itself serious contenders for power in Kabul, it wouldn’t want to alienate a development partners as valuable as India — now that its bogey of ‘US invasion’ is gone. The Taliban has reportedly reached out to India 24 times, says The Week, and the militant group has made it clear on several occasions that it won’t allow its soil to become the stage for Pakistan’s proxy war with India.

Given these undercurrents and emerging realities, a case can be built in favour of India shaking off its reluctance and engaging the Taliban with overt diplomatic initiatives. The time is now.