August 20, 2021geopoliticsAfghanistan

On diplomatically engaging the Taliban

The Taliban will chafe at being treated as puppets by their external backers and reach out India. But New Delhi can afford to wait.

Rezaul Hasan Laskar reports that some members of the Taliban leadership informally reached out to Indian authorities a few days ago requesting” that India retain its embassy in Kabul. Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, a top-tier Taliban leader based in Doha (and an early-1980s alum of the Indian Military Academy Dehradun) assured his Indian interlocutors of the safety of the Indian mission and its diplomats.

This should surprise us, but only mildly. The surprise arises from the antipathy the Taliban has shown towards India’s role in Afghanistan and its complaints (echoing Pakistan’s) about the activities of Indian missions in the country.

Beyond that, Stanekzai’s overture is quite understandable. If and when the Taliban take over the reins of power, their relationship with their backers and allies will undergo a simple, but profound shift. No sovereign likes to be treated as a puppet. The Taliban leadership is acutely aware that their ranks comprise of fighters, not administrators, who are now called upon to govern a war-torn land-locked country, with precarious finances and an unsustainable economy. Those who put you on the throne will demand their pound of flesh at the best of times. In the present circumstances, China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran are unlikely to spare any time before they start pressing the new regime to accomodate their interests.

To balance this pressure, the Taliban regime will need counterweights. New allies and also new causes that reduce the leverage its backers have over it. Who can those new allies be? Not the West, for now. Gulf Arab countries, perhaps, but given their past experience in suppressing their homegrown radicals, they will not be overly enthusiastic. The relationship with Iran complicates matters even further. So it is understandable that the Taliban will want to engage New Delhi. Of course, on their own terms.

Against such realpolitik considerations there is the fact that for all its attempts to show a less extremist face, the Taliban is led by Haibatullah Akhundzada, a man who is more of a fundamentalist zealot than Mullah Omar was. Then there is the Pakistani element whose primary objective is to remove all traces of Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime’s attitude towards India will be determined by these push-pull factors and Stanekzai’s tentative outreach might not end up as its actual policy.

How should New Delhi respond?

First, closing the embassy and flying Indian officials back was both the prudent and astute thing to do. There are a lot of people in capitals around the world who are now looking stupid after taking the Taliban at their word. We need not add ourselves to their number. Informal or formal, the Taliban’s promises are not worth the paper they are not written on. Indian interlocutors must let this be known to Stanekzai and his associates.

Second, whatever Stanekzai might promise and genuinely intend, it is unclear if the Taliban leadership has adequate control over the situation on the ground to ensure the safety of Indian diplomats. Even if they control Taliban ranks, Pakistani proxies are almost certain to use the chaos to carry out terrorist attacks against Indian targets. Razaul’s report alludes to intelligence assessments on the active presence of Pakistani jihadi groups in Kabul. Like during the IC-814 hijacking, the Taliban will tolerate and protect such terrorists.

Third, maintaining the mission would have meant a de facto diplomatic recognition of the de facto Taliban government in Afghanistan. Diplomatic recognition is not a concession that must be made readily. This is something that they have to earn. And it cannot come so cheaply.

In my raw notes, I have four questions for analysts on the dynamics of this relationship.

Fourth, New Delhi should not be in any rush to spoil the Taliban’s enjoyment of the company of their backers. As I have pointed out, there are a number of faultlines among China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and the Taliban. They have managed to suppress the conflicts in their interests so far, but now that Kabul is in Taliban hands, they will begin to emerge. Let the Taliban leadership smart and chafe at the noose around their neck. As the pressure increases, so will the need for fresh air.

It’s not only the Taliban. India too has the time.

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