Take one step at a time

India should engage with Taliban, which wants normalisation of relations

Take one step at a time

TOUGH ROAD: A serious challenge has arisen from the manner of the US exit. Reuters

G Parthasarathy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

INDIA’S western neighbourhood has been marked by problems of terrorism and territorial conflicts since its independence. The conflict in Afghanistan has seen the emergence of another terrorist group called Islamic State (Khorasan). It is opposed to the Afghan Taliban, even though it has some shared views with the Taliban, on what is commonly referred to as ‘radical’ Islam. The IS (K) recently attracted international attention by using explosive devices at the Kabul airport to kill US soldiers and Afghan civilians, and disrupt the smooth withdrawal of US forces. Foreign nationals returning to their homes from Kabul, following the Taliban takeover, also became targets of the IS (K).

New Delhi must make it clear to the Taliban that it would normalise ties only after assurance that Afghan soil will not be used for promoting terrorism against India.

Despite these unexpected diversions, foreign nationals and Afghans have been leaving Afghanistan in large numbers. Afghan nationals are, however, now barred from leaving the country. Very rarely does one see local people rushing to run away from their homeland, as what one has witnessed happening across Afghanistan. The Taliban have adopted the strategy of compelling Afghans not to leave the country by placing barriers. Sadly, the people of Afghanistan, whose standard of living and personal freedoms had improved substantially during the past two decades, now fear what is going to follow. India acted swiftly, to have a substantial portion of its people airlifted to their homes, though a few are stuck in Afghanistan, where the regime suddenly debarred its nationals of Indian origin from leaving the country.

The aid projects that India has undertaken in Afghanistan, like the Salma Dam, power transmission lines, bringing electricity to Kabul, and the impressive parliament building in the capital, have won India immense public goodwill. Afghanistan’s parliament, built at an estimated cost of $90 million, with marble quarried in Rajasthan, was inaugurated by PM Modi in 2015. The Taliban have stated that they would like Indian assistance to continue. Interestingly, they want all bilateral trade with India to be through Pakistan — a strange request, given the resources India has spent to promote trade with Afghanistan, through Chabahar in Iran. Nevertheless, these are issues which can be discussed with the Afghan government. The possibilities of cooperation in developing educational facilities, and issues like the supply of wheat and other agricultural products can be discussed. Moreover, appropriate industrial cooperation projects can also be considered and undertaken after Afghanistan’s needs and priorities are clearly understood.

The serious challenge that India and others now face have arisen from the ignominious manner in which the Americans left Afghanistan. Contrary to the expectations of many, the Afghan army collapsed within days of the Taliban onslaught. The main threat India now faces is from the huge cache of American arms and equipment that has fallen into Taliban hands, thanks to the incompetence of the leadership of the Afghan army. These weapons will remain tools of the new Taliban-led government. It is essential that New Delhi makes it clear to the Taliban that it would move ahead in normalising relations only after it is persuaded that Afghan soil will not be used for promoting terrorism against India.

The Taliban government is now nominally led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who has spent eight years in Pakistani jails. He was always close to Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban. Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme commander of the Taliban, has not yet appeared on the scene. While Baradar is a skilful negotiator, Pakistan’s aim is to use him as a figurehead. Control of national security is dominated by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a protege of the Pakistan army. Haqqani and his family control the Haqqani Network, backing the Taliban. The Haqqani Network has participated in attacks on Indian diplomatic and consular missions in Afghanistan. Ironically, it was one of the most favoured Afghan armed groups of the CIA while operating across the Durand Line in the 1980s against the Soviet Union.

Haqqani has been an ISI asset and has close links with jihadi groups like the LeT and JeM. The main target of the US is now the Islamic State, and not Taliban leaders like Haqqani, who has been designated by Washington as a terrorist. He owns large properties in Islamabad and North Waziristan.

India will obviously examine the impact of the massive cache of arms, ammunition, helicopter gunships and other aircraft supplied by the US to Afghanistan, which are now in the possession of the Taliban. One should not be surprised if these weapons reach jihadis of the Haqqani Network operating against India.

Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves in US banks have now been frozen. It is virtually bankrupt and would find it impossible to pay for its imports. It has, in the meantime, announced that its trade with India will be conducted through Pakistan, which is itself facing serious foreign exchange shortages, and running to the IMF and other financial institutions to augment its reserves. The problem becomes more serious because of payments that Pakistan has to make to China for work completed on the CPEC.

In these circumstances, Prime Minister Modi’s long conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin is very significant. Russia is providing weapons to Central Asian Republics, bordering Afghanistan, which have serious concerns about the Taliban. The visits of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Iran, which has serious concerns about the Taliban, are also important. The imprint of the ISI in Afghanistan is all too evident. India should certainly engage with the Taliban, which claims it wants a normalisation of relations with India. New Delhi should move ahead cautiously till it receives categorical and verifiable assurances that Afghan soil and weapons the Taliban have captured, will not be used to promote terrorism in India.

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