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Don’t Legitimize The Taliban But Hold Talks With Them In National Interest: Former Ambassadors, Experts On Afghan Affairs

Syed Khalique Ahmed

NEW DELHI—Stating that the formation of the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan will have a far-reaching geopolitical impact in the region not favourable to India, former Indian ambassadors in Afghanistan and experts on Afghan and the Taliban issues opine that India should not immediately “legitimize” the Taliban and should adopt a ‘wait and watch’ policy till the situation normalizes in the war-torn country and a new government is formed.

These views were expressed during a conversation on the theme of “Afghanistan and the Challenges Ahead” organized by the Press Club of India here on Friday. The conversation was moderated by PCI President Umakant Lakhera.

From Left to Right: Shakti Sinha, Gautam Mukhopadhyaha(former ambassador of India to Afghanistan), Ved Pratap Vaidik(Afghan affairs expert), Umakant Lakhera (PCI President), Satish Jacob(former BBC journalist) and Vivek Katju(former ambassador of India to Afghanistan).

However, they agreed that India should have at least a minimal level of engagement with the Taliban, keeping in view the country’s long-term strategic aims and interests. All of them felt that the Indian establishment made a mistake by not engaging with the Taliban with whom the US that fought for 20 years has been talking for the last two years and finally signed an exit deal to get out of the war that brought no advantage, political or otherwise, to the US and its Western allies.

They said that even China and Russia engaged with the Taliban and extracted promises that the Taliban would not allow the Afghan soil to be used against them by terrorist groups like Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang province. Russia also extracted similar promises in exchange for its support to the group.

While both of them cultivated relationships with the Taliban parallel to the Americans dialogue with the Taliban to exit Afghanistan through a deal to what the Americans called a “peace deal”. So, it was a strategic mistake of India, perhaps for its too much dependence on the US and coalition partners. According to the experts, India has been the only loser so far though it invested about $3 Billion on capacity building and developing infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

Who India should not legitimize the Taliban in a haste?

Why should India not legitimize the Taliban though the group has achieved military victory at a pace no one ever believed and will become the de facto rulers of the country, albeit in association with all ethnic groups to ensure there is no major opposition to their rule? Gautam Mukhopadhyaya, who served as an ambassador in Afghanistan, opines that India should be the last country to accord legitimacy to the group and should not jump into any hasty recognition of an Islamic ‘Emirate’, which he believes, will have wide-ranging consequences for the region once it is firmly entrenched in power in Afghanistan.

Though Mukhopadhyaya did not say how the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan after 20 years will directly impact the situation in Kashmir or any other part of India, he warned that the defeat of the world’s superpower at the hands of the Taliban that was supported in its war by a range of global terror organizations in Pakistan and Central Asia would provide a psychological boost to global terror organizations. Mukhopadhyaya said it was difficult to predict how long the Taliban would continue in power, but their coming to power would undoubtedly have an “inspirational” impact on global terror groups.

Don’t get deluded by Taliban’s offer of friendship

Commenting on the Taliban’s offer of friendship with India in their media interviews, the former ambassador cautioned that “India should not get deluded by their offer of friendship to India.” The Taliban leaders in their media discussions have pledged that they will not allow the use of Afghan soil against any country.

“Even if we talk with the Taliban, what is the guarantee that other groups will not carry out sabotage activities in India?” Mukhopadhyaya said. However, he said that India must talk to the Taliban; if not at the official level, it should initiate the dialogue at people to people level.

Geopolitical impact of the Taliban’s return to power

Regarding geopolitical impact in the region, Mukhopadhyaya said that the strategic space in Afghanistan vacated by the US would be taken over by China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. With the Taliban’s proximity to Pakistan, China having moved closer to the Taliban by inviting its top leadership to Tianjin a few weeks ago, Beijing having developed a deep interest in Iran after the US sanctions against Teheran, and Russia has moved closer to Pakistan under the new global political situation poses a serious threat to India’s interests in the region. According to Mukhopadhyaya, this becomes a matter of great strategic concern for India. Such a situation is not favourable to take any immediate decision regarding legitimizing the Taliban.

Open up directly with the Taliban

While agreeing with the concerns raised by Mukhopadhyaya, Vivek Katju, another former ambassador to Afghanistan, wants India “to open up directly with the Taliban”.

“Despite their religious orientation and connections with Pakistan and their conduct when they were in power in the 1990s, I advocate that India must talk to the Taliban to explore opportunities”, he stated.

Stating that Ashraf Ghani, soon after becoming Afghanistan’s president, went to Rawalpindi to meet the Pakistani Generals to solve the problems with the Taliban. He turned towards India only after Pakistani Generals snubbed him. But his first effort was to befriend Pakistan in the interest of Afghanistan. “Hence, we need to be practical, talk to the Taliban and establish relations with them though we have lost much time,” he opined.

India’s fears with the Taliban unfounded

Shakti Sinha, Director in AIPRIS, US Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, commenting on the current situation in Afghanistan, said that there was fear among people. Still, there was no violence, unlike during the Taliban rule in 1996. “India’s fears are somewhat unfounded,” he said. Sinha said there is a considerable Afghan population who want friendship with India. “There is no need to panic”, he said.

Don’t take anti-Taliban stand all of a sudden

Journalist and author Ved Pratap Vaidik, who has specialized in Afghanistan affairs, lamented that the Modi government did not consult experts on Afghanistan and those who have worked with the Taliban and most of the previous Afghan leadership. Vaidik himself has been associated with Afghan leaders for the last 55 years and claims to know almost all of them. He said he had been talking daily to Afghan leaders ever since the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15.

He advised that India should not take an “anti-Taliban stand” all of a sudden. “India should hold a dialogue with the Taliban directly. If Russia, China, and the US can talk to the Taliban, why can’t we talk to them”, he said. 

“There is no need to recognize them immediately, but we should negotiate with them because the Taliban has become a reality in Afghanistan,” he pointed out.

Govt is indecisive on Afghanistan

“The Taliban have attacked no Indian. Every Indian is safe in Afghanistan. We must protect our national interests. But the government appears to be indecisive,” Vaidik remarked.

Advising that the government should consult former ambassadors and experts on Afghanistan, he lamented that the government appeared too complacent on the Afghanistan issue.

He said that the government must benefit from the vast experiences of former ambassadors and strategic affairs experts. “Though my entire family was against the Congress, Indira Gandhi always consulted me,” he pointed out.

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