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'Taliban won't pursue the Kashmir cause'

By ARCHANA MASIH
August 13, 2021 07:47 IST
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'But an overthrow of the Afghan government would really embolden regional militant groups in a big way.'
'LeT and JeM could be emboldened, and prompted to replicate in Kashmir what the Taliban did in Afghanistan.'

IMAGE: Armed men attend a gathering to announce their support for Afghan security forces on the outskirts of Kabul. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

"The Taliban's strength -- already considerable -- will only increase once the US withdrawal is complete. So, it makes sense for India to try to have relations, even if only modest, with Afghanistan's most powerful non-State actor."

"All other key regional players had already recognised this earlier on. India was the last to come around to the importance of reaching out to the Taliban."

Dr Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia discusses India's challenges in dealing with the Taliban in the concluding part of a comprehensive interview with Rediff.com's Archana Masih.

 

India has not recognised the Taliban's legitimacy in the past. What are the challenges confronting India in dealing with the Taliban which has historically been anti-India?

Certainly, it's a big gamble for New Delhi to have formally reached out to the Taliban, given that the insurgents are no friends of New Delhi.

Ideologically, they are about as different as two entities can get. There are several risks associated with India trying to engage with the Taliban.

One is that the Taliban flat out refuses New Delhi's outreach. Another, if the Taliban is receptive to engagement, is that Pakistan could fear that New Delhi is trying to drive a wedge between Pakistan and the Taliban.

And this could have troubling implications for India-Pakistan relations.

That said, for New Delhi, the potential benefits of opening up communication channels with the Taliban outweigh the potential costs.

With Afghanistan set to become more unstable and violent, New Delhi's core interest will be ensuring the security of its interests and nationals in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has targeted them before. By engaging with the Taliban, India is in a better position to try to gain an understanding with the insurgents that they not attack Indians in Afghanistan.

More broadly, the Taliban's strength -- already considerable -- will only increase once the US withdrawal is complete.

So, it makes sense for India to try to have relations, even if only modest, with Afghanistan's most powerful non-State actor.

All other key regional players had already recognised this earlier on. India was the last to come around to the importance of reaching out to the Taliban.

IMAGE: A military helicopter carrying Afghan President Ashraf Ghani prepares to land near the Afghan parliament in Kabul, August 2, 2021. Photograph: Reuters

In view of the announcement of a new diplomatic front comprising the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to enhance regional connectivity and trade -- does India face the risk of an erosion of influence in Afghanistan?

So long as the current Afghan government remains in power, New Delhi's influence will endure.

It arguably has closer relations with Kabul than does any other country in the region. It's true, though, that India's influence on regional diplomacy on Afghanistan has to this point been marginal -- especially as so much of it has been led by China and especially Pakistan.

New Delhi is trying to step up its game on regional diplomacy, but its role in the peace and reconciliation process will necessarily be limited.

And this is an irony, given that it has such close ties to the Afghan government.

The new four-nation diplomatic initiative is significant because it shows that Pakistan's efforts to pursue its vision of a more geoeconomics-focused foreign policy have legs.

It's also a rare success by the US in trying to encourage more Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation -- long a goal of Washington's.

But its influence shouldn't be overstated. It's more of an aspirational initiative than a formal agreement -- the idea is to look toward cooperating on peace, stability, and connectivity.

But so long as Afghanistan remains at war, it's hard to imagine much forward movement. Those that call it an 'alternate quad' are wildly overstating its capacities and influence.

How will an enhanced role of China and Pakistan in Afghanistan be detrimental to India's strategic interests?

It doesn't bode well for Indian interests. New Delhi confronts a reality where many of the key regional players are either rivals of India (China and Pakistan) or friends that have lost some momentum in their relations with India (Iran, Russia, Turkey).

This is, in fact, a similar conundrum faced by the US.

New Delhi is intent to get around this problem by ramping up its broader regional diplomatic efforts, and participating on high levels in discussions on Afghanistan within large multilateral forums.

The good news for India is that it is a member of many of the key Afghanistan-focused forums -- such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process.

Additionally, India has a short-lived opportunity to play a leadership role on Afghanistan through its brief presidency of the UN Security Council, which began on August 1.

IMAGE: Afghan soldiers stand guard at the gate of the Bagram air base. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Russia has been developing closer ties with Pakistan. What difficulties does Russia's growing proximity with Pakistan pose for India?

Growing Russia-Pakistan ties are another indication of India's diplomatic challenges with Afghanistan.

Russia-Pakistan interests align in Afghanistan more than do Russia-India interests. Moscow is less concerned than is New Delhi about the spector of a Taliban government; for the Russians, ISIS-Khorasan -- which counts Central Asian militants among its members -- is arguably a greater concern.

It's no coincidence that Pakistan-Russia relations have grown closer at the same time that US-India relations have really taken off, and US-Russia relations have continued to get worse.

But what's notable in the Afghanistan context is that the US has decoupled its tensions with Russia from broader regional diplomacy efforts in Afghanistan.

It's no small matter that the US has participated in the Afghanistan-focused 'Troika Plus' initiative that also features Pakistan, China, and Russia. Ultimately, this grouping underscores the challenges India faces in becoming a more influential regional player on Afghanistan issues.

India has played a vital role in rebuilding Afghanistan -- roads, bridges, hospitals, its parliament etc. How can India preserve its interests?

The best bet is to do everything possible to push for a political settlement that ends the war. But for now at least, New Delhi has limited ability to do so.

The next best option, which India is likely already pursuing, based on its recent outreach to the Taliban, is to find a way to convince the Taliban not to target Indian interests in Afghanistan.

Afghans perhaps have the greatest regard for Indians. What advantage does that bring to India's attempts at reshaping its Afghan policy?

It's definitely an asset. But I fear it's a misplaced asset, given that it doesn't help India with its prime goal of the moment: Becoming a more influential player in regional diplomatic efforts focused on peace and reconciliation.

The strong support that India enjoys among Afghans can potentially be helpful with New Delhi's initial outreach to the Taliban.

If New Delhi is in a position to convey to the Taliban its desire that Indian interests not be targeted, it can argue that the Taliban risks alienating local communities if it tries to undermine or otherwise imperil Indian activities and interests in Afghanistan.

To be sure, the Taliban isn't exactly beholden to Afghan public opinion. But if it truly cares about legitimacy and wants to demonstrate that it really has the interests of common Afghans in mind, then it should acknowledge the Afghan public's high regard for Indians and refrain from doing anything against India.

IMAGE: A Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle at Bagram air base. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Will the ascent of the Taliban embolden terror groups operating in PoK and Afghan mercenary jihadi activity across the LoC into India?

The Taliban is an Afghanistan-focused group, and so it won't call on regional militants to pursue the Kashmir cause.

But the Taliban's advances and territorial seizures are inspiring these regional militants, and an overthrow of the government would really embolden these other groups in a big way.

So there's certainly cause for concern. The likes of LeT (Lashkar e Tayiba) and JeM (Jaish e Mohammad) could be emboldened, and prompted to replicate in Kashmir what the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

The big question here is Pakistan. Would it try to keep these groups on a tight leash, as it generally has in recent years amid strong pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and other international bodies?

Or would it encourage them to act?

The answer depends on what Pakistan's status within FATF would be.

Islamabad is less likely to collude with India-focused militants if it's still trying to get itself off the FATF watch list.

The answer also depends on the state of India-Pakistan relations. If tensions are deep, Islamabad will have less to lose by sending militants across the border.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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