Tea with the Taliban?
THE WEEK|May 09, 2021
With the US withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, India has been pushed out of its comfort zone. It may have to consider the once unthinkable policy of sitting down with the Taliban to stay relevant in Kabul and protect its interests in the region
MANDIRA NAYAR

It took prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao less than an hour to relay a message back to the Indian ambassador in Kabul: to grant ousted Afghanistan president Dr Mohammad Najibullah asylum in India and fly him out of the war-torn country. It was not an easy decision. The mujahideen, destined to be the new rulers, would never forget and forgive. The situation was precarious. Civil war had broken out and there was intense regional rivalry. Najib’s family had been flown out to Delhi two weeks earlier. A plane waited on the tarmac for him. Benon Sevan, head of the United Nations humanitarian aid division to Afghanistan, was to accompany him to ensure his safety.

But on that fateful morning of April 17, 1992, Najib’s convoy could not clear the penultimate security barricade at Kabul airport. Abdul Rashid Dostam, the warlord who controlled the airport, had switched sides. But Rao refused to give Najib sanctuary in the Indian embassy, fearing a backlash against Indians in Afghanistan. Najib was forced to take refuge in the UN compound, where he stayed for four years until his gruesome execution by the Taliban.

The episode offers a glimpse of the complexity of India’s engagement with Afghanistan and the intricate interplay of history, emotions, hard-nosed diplomacy, strategic interests, capabilities and choices. It also serves as an example of India’s commitment and the extent of its involvement—a legacy that has continued since the days of prime minister Morarji Desai.

With the US troops all set to withdraw completely on September 11, ending two decades of occupation, history repeats once again in Afghanistan. The emerging situation mirrors the Soviet Union’s pull-out in 1988-89, and could lead to instability in the region. The Covid-19 pandemic could further worsen the situation. For India, it has come as a major strategic and diplomatic nightmare. From offering support to the beleaguered Afghan government and dealing with US pressure to dealing with the Pakistan factor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his task cut out.

The countdown has begun. The Americans, tired of the longest war in their country’s history, are determined to leave, although the Afghan government does not seem ready. “I now have a set of orders,” General Scott Miller, commander of United States Forces–Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, said on April 25. “We will conduct an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, and that means transitioning bases and equipment to the Afghan security forces.” The confirmation came two weeks after President Joe Biden announced that he would pull the remaining 3,500 troops out. Around 7,000 NATO and allied forces will also leave by the September deadline.

What is more worrying is the departure of a majority of the 18,000 private military contractors, which will force Afghan military and police personnel—said to be around three lakh strong—to fend for themselves. “The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) is capable of giving a fight and could hold on to the main cities for a while,” said Rana Banerji, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat. But American financial support will be crucial.

There is a lot at stake. Violence has spiralled out of control and the Taliban now controls 52 per cent of Afghanistan. The UN has reported 1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured) from January to March, a 29 per cent increase compared with the same period last year. “The Taliban has not changed. It has not cut its ties with Al Qaeda and it offers a breeding ground for more than 22 terrorist groups,” said Aref Dostyar, Afghan consul general to the western US. The Afghanistan government recently reported the arrest of 408 foreign fighters of Islamic State of which 299 came from Pakistan. “It would be very difficult to keep the Taliban in check. The only way forward is a strong Afghan government-backed and supported by the region and the international community,” said Dostyar.

With the US set to leave without securing guarantees from the Taliban about severing its links with Al Qaeda, the chances of the group turning moderate seem remote at the moment. The Doha Agreement negotiated by the Americans to frame the terms of their withdrawal is dead in the water; a US-backed peace conference scheduled for April 24 in Istanbul had to be postponed after the Taliban refused to show up. “The Taliban has already chalked up its victory,” said Arash Yaqin, researcher at the Washington, DC-based Institute of World Politics. “It does not need to show up for the last part, it is on vacation till September 11.”

The coming months will see more conferences to hammer out a peace deal. Russia, Iran and Pakistan will continue to play a role in this race to negotiate with the Taliban. India, however, will have to wait and watch. It will also have to come to terms with the reality that dealing with the Taliban will become a necessity in the future.

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