India needs to open channels of communication with Taliban

Recent developments over Afghanistan are throwing up a number of issues and questions that India may need to address to evolve a new approach to dealing effectively and usefully with possible regime change or modification

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Recent developments over Afghanistan are throwing up a number of issues and questions that India may need to address to evolve a new approach to dealing effectively and usefully with possible regime change or modification. A US-Taliban entente and subsequent withdrawal of US-led forces from the country may bring the Taliban back into contention for influencing the regime, initially under the terms of the agreement and thereafter to the extent that the Taliban can leverage their position in a power-sharing deal with the Ashraf Ghani regime, including the possibility of becoming absolute rulers and re-introducing their version of a hardline Sharia state. The extent to which the departing Western powers can continue to defend the democratically elected regime after their exit remains to be seen. The release of Taliban prisoners by the Ghani regime under the agreement will put them back in arms in the battlefield where the capacity of the newly developed and trained Afghan Army to withstand the Taliban effort to regain territorial control is yet to be tested. The Taliban return will mean also heightened Pakistani pressure to influence the new regime, which will in turn be limited only to the extent of Taliban desire to remain their own masters and in turn influence the regime in Pakistan. Both together may be tempted to combine their jihadi irregulars and try to infiltrate them over the Line of Control into Jammu & Kashmir. 

The Indian relationship with Afghanistan may in the process take a few steps backward. We will need to renegotiate with the modified regime to the extent to which Indian assets and edifices in Afghanistan will be protected and at what cost as well as the assistance we may continue to render in building up Afghan human resources in return for allowing Indian nationals resident there to continue to pursue their lives and businesses in peace and security. India will need to open its own links and channels of communication with the Taliban, and then negotiate a modus vivendi with the new regime by establishing our benign and supportive intent  in contrast to the prescriptive and punitive Western stance. We will need to strengthen our understanding with Iran on the one hand while exploring the possibility of using our friends in Central Asia to create a new space for propagation and maintenance of Indian interests in Afghanistan. We also need to leverage any goodwill we may have developed in the past years with the Afghan populace to prevent the regime from sponsoring non-State actors against India and Indian interests.

Various possible future scenarios need to be defined and planned for in the light of the US-Taliban agreement and the imperatives it will impose on the Ghani regime, including, inter alia, the heightened influence of Pakistan on the new regime and the support it may expect from its northern SCO neighbours, including China. There may be some space for cooperation with both China and Iran in Afghanistan as neither may like to see a hardline Sunni Muslim regime on its frontiers. India's NDA government has experience of dealing with a Taliban-run state; we hope they will use that and the expertise in statecraft acquired over the last six years to guide our diplomacy skillfully through these potentially perilous times.

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. He can be contacted at sarva.chakravarti@yahoo.co.uk)

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