India’s reluctance to hold talks with the Taliban in view of the latter’s increasing resurgence against the backdrop of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is both a good example of moral principle and a bad example of faltering on realpolitik. It is all very well not to hurt the sensitivities of the Kabul government, but India cannot afford to sit idle if the Taliban eventually becomes the chief interlocutor of one of its strategically most important neighbours. India’s need to talk to them becomes even more imperative in the light of Iran’s Shia regime, despite being staunchly hostile to the extremist outfit, a Sunni dispensation, establishing an official dialogue with the Taliban.
The bigger irony is that the ‘peace’ talks between the US and the Taliban are happening against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s tortured presidential race scheduled to be held on July 20 and the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the government. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, who had six days of consecutive talks with representatives of the Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar early this year spoke about how the Taliban, wary of giving sole credit to the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, whom India trusts, is averse to talking to the current Afghan government. Ghani is currently facing a line of tough contenders, some seventeen of them, challenging his bid for his second term. While Khalilzad has been given six months for Afghan peace efforts, Ghani thinks the peace plan needs at least five years. But with uncertainties looming as to who would govern Afghanistan next, the prudent course of action is to resume talks with the Taliban.
Like India’s dilemma in talking with the Taliban, Pakistan would loathe to deal with a dispensation likely to be run by moderate Pashtuns working with Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras which might be keen to forge a stronger relationship with India than with Pakistan. New Delhi had lent the northern Afghans support during their civil war with the Taliban in the late 1990s, which might prompt them to ally with India. It is not only them who dislike Pakistan; the moderate Pashtun Afghans have remained grateful for the educational and commercial opportunities India offered them, and they resented Pakistan for stirring up trouble in their landlocked nation. It is true that India would have to talk with the Taliban with the lurking and atavistic fear that the Taliban could one day serve as a proxy force to seize India’s half of the Kashmir region. But if India desists from talking to the Taliban, it would also shy away from those favouring India and waste the benefits of goodwill it had earned so meticulously with more than $3 billion invested by it since 2001, and at a great human cost.
It’s important to consider how the Taliban refused to surrender their vision even when confronted by the United States after September 11, 2001 and how, reinventing themselves as part of a broad insurgency that destabilised Afghanistan, they pledged to drive out the Americans, NATO, and their allies and restore their “Islamic Emirate.”
Having conceded that, it is prudent for India to find a mechanism to begin talks with the Taliban not when they appear as non-state actors but when they are legitimate stakeholders of the reconciliation process. Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib had already lambasted Khalilzad for “delegitimising” the Ashraf Ghani government by keeping it outside the loop. Having a pacifist worldview, New Delhi’s posture to “participate in all formats of talks which could bring peace and security in the region” would stand it in good stead. The Taliban are virtually from the Pashtun tribe, which comprises Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group. Taliban is not one monolithic group that can prevent groups like al-Qaeda from operating or resist the emergence of a new similar terrorist group seeking to build an emirate. Due to the same reason, it is no longer subject to ISI’s machinations, having many clones and offshoots with differing loyalties, notably the Al-Khorasan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban which is a breakaway group from the original Taliban created by the Pakistan government only to become the latter’s sworn enemy as evident in the fissures between Afghan Taliban and Pakistan.
With the conflict in Afghanistan entering a critical phase, political leaders begin to recognise that all stakeholders need to engage with the Taliban to negotiate a sustainable peace. India must learn to drift with the tide.
Afghanistan is too important a country to remain outside India’s strategic bounds.