The completion of one year of Taliban’s takeover of Afghan on 15 August, 2022 and the recent move by India towards re-opening its embassy in a calibrated manner, have thrown open many questions on the foreign policy front, basically its moral and ‘realist’ aspects. For the clarity of readers, I would try to briefly explain the idea of Realism. Realism in International Relations (IR) is a school of thought which owes its origin to classical Greek thinkers like Thucydides and modern scholars like Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. As per Realism, nation-states are the primary actors and units in an international system marked by anarchy and each state tries to maximize its power (political, military, economic) for their own survival. At the same time, each state also desires to dominate the international system or become the hegemon at the expanse of the power and security of other states. In the Realist view of IR, moral concerns of foreign policy decisions by states are secondary as long as the policy fulfills the latter’s security or strategic objectives.
The realist- moral contention over India’s Afghanistan policy has been evident even before the Taliban capture of Kabul in 2021. The very thought about having to deal with Taliban, a hardline Islamic extremist terrorist organisation, when advocated by foreign policy scholars and thinkers observing the power shifts in the region was deemed as an impossible or fantastical scenario among the domestic audience. The underlying reason behind such skepticism towards the possibility of Indian outreach to Taliban was the vast difference between the entities in question (India being a nation state with a constitutional government and the Taliban a terrorist organisation) as well in the ideological and moral values espoused by both. But with the arrival of news regarding the rapid capture of surrounding provinces by the Taliban starting from June- July 2021 and finally the fall of Kabul to the latter with the US’s hasty retreat on 15 August, the new reality stared India in the face− New Delhi had to speak and engage with the new rulers in Kabul. A modicum of resistance existed in the Panjshir Valley which was the stronghold of the National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Masood, the son of warlord Ahmad Shah Masood and including members such as former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and the remaining forces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. However, despite early successes, the NRF stood no chance against the over-weening power of the Taliban in the region and the resistance was short-lived with Masood and Saleh being forced to take shelter in Tajikistan. Thus, it became clear to the entire international community including India that the Taliban, earlier dismissed as ragtag bunch of Islamic fighters, were now the only power ruling the roost in Afghanistan.
A Taliban-led Afghanistan has been interpreted as a victory for Pakistan, especially its military- intelligence apparatus, implying a more pronounced presence for Islamabad not only in the country but also in the wider Central Asian region. Along with Pakistan, China too has been seeking to deepen its footprint in the region in the wake of the US withdrawal. This was seen in the announcements by Beijing to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan as well as the willingness of Chinese companies to tap the region’s rich reservoirs of copper and Rare Earth Elements (REE) like lithium. Added to the increasing Pakistani and Chinese inroads was the question of India’s internal security, especially Kashmir. This was highlighted by Taliban leader Suhail Shaheen’s reference to Kashmir in a press conference in 2021 which underlined New Delhi’s apprehensions of renewed militancy emerging in the Valley with its origins in an unstable Afghanistan.
Hence given its ‘realist’ compulsions and concerns of security and geopolitics mentioned above, India did open channels with the Taliban, which were initially of clandestine nature as communications were conducted behind the scenes. New Delhi’s outreach became more evident with the arrival of the Indian ‘technical team’ headed by Joint Secretary (Pakistan- Afghanistan- Iran) from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in Kabul in June 2022 to re-open the embassy and oversee the distribution of Indian humanitarian aid comprising wheat, medicines, n-COVID 19 vaccines and winter clothing to the Afghan population dealing with the aftermath of multiple crisis including a 6.1 Richter scale earthquake in Paktika in June this year.
While many experts and scholars have characterized the Indian outreach as a credible and strategic move in a realist-driven world, yet as per ex-ambassador to Afghanistan Gautam Mukhopadhaya, there was resentment among the anti- Taliban circles over New Delhi’s ‘unofficial’ acceptance of the new regime – a regime that stands in contravention to India’s constitutional and republican values and ethos or morality. The moral dilemma is further underlined when taken into account the character of the current ruling government in India which, in the eyes of its domestic voter base, is being viewed as reaching out to an Islamic extremist group. Coupled with the recent Nupur Sharma controversy and the subsequent ‘knee-bending’ by India in the face of backlash from Gulf countries, the outreach to Taliban and the upgradation of the Indian technical team to the status of mid-ranking diplomat might be interpreted by a major section of the domestic population as initial efforts at recognition of the Islamic Emirate and hence, a sign of weakness of the current New Delhi government in the face of ‘Islamist pressure’. In the tussle between moral and realist complications and expectations, which path should India take in Afghanistan?
In the light of the complex geopolitical and fragile situation in Afghanistan impacting Indian interests, New Delhi cannot afford to fulfill the expectations of the moral and liberal sections of its domestic population who question the justification of New Delhi’s outreach to Taliban 2.0 in the light of the latter’s treatment of women and religious and ethnic minorities. Nor can it put the expectations of its core domestic voter base before the concerns related to strategic and security issues. However, as per Mukopadhaya and other analysts, a major source of support and strength for India is the goodwill enjoyed among the Afghan population who still look up to it as a model country in South Asia as well as fondly remember the Indo-Afghan ‘civilizational ties’ going back to ancient past. It was for sustaining this goodwill that India had sent the humanitarian aid to the Afghan population now in dire straits. It is this goodwill that has allowed India to maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan in the past despite the distance and the intervening presence of Pakistan both geographically as well as strategically. But as mentioned earlier, the outreach to the Taliban has been seen affecting that goodwill to some extent as it brings into question India’s image of a moral beacon (as opposed to Pakistan) among the Afghan population. Shall India live up to its moral image among Afghans at the expanse of its realist concerns? Critics might point to the fallacy of Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) in the Cold War era for India’s foreign policy goals as opposed to the ‘realist’ Indo- Soviet partnership which served New Delhi well. However, at the same time, scholars like Happyman Jacob have advocated for India to reclaim its role of moral leadership in the new world marked by the prospects of Sino- US ‘new Cold War’, reminiscent of NAM leadership.
The current path for India would be to maintain a balance between its realist and moral concerns by having a calibrated engagement with the Taliban but also maintaining its support among the Afghan population. In the case of the Afghan population, the goodwill could be maintained and even strengthened by gradually allowing its citizens to avail education and health services in India through issuance of Visas. Especially those health patients who have appointments back in India and students who are unable to return back to their campuses. Until the Indian diplomatic presence in Kabul becomes fully functional, the Visas could be issued through embassies in third countries like Iran and Tajikistan. This opening up to Afghan patients and students might also serve in ameliorating the Taliban’s attitude towards India to some extent and serve the realist purpose of allowing India to consolidate its presence in Afghanistan. Although this might appear unlikely at the moment, the amelioration in Taliban’s attitude towards India could also be used by New Delhi to gradually influence them to respect their stated commitments on re-opening of schools for girls above the sixth grade and allowing women to participate in public and economic life. Yet, such a change is hard to come given the previous history and ideology of Taliban as well as the current infighting between the ‘pragmatic’ and the hardliner factions within the group.
As Afghan intellectual Faiz Zaland had said in an interview to the Indian daily The Print in August 2022 that if ‘Afghanistan had failed as a country because it was not able to secure its interests, it also failed because its neighbors had failed it several times’. Listening to this as an Indian, it strikes one hard to some extent.