Afghanistan: To keep foot in diplomatic door, Delhi opens window

By sending the first consignment of medicines to Afghanistan, New Delhi has made its intent clear: it wishes to open a window to the new Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and put its foot in the diplomatic door.

The political call to differentiate between the Taliban regime and the people of Afghanistan was taken a while ago: that Delhi will reach out to the people of Afghanistan with essential supplies through the United Nations and its agencies. Medicines via the World Health Organisation and foodgrains through the World Food Programme.

However, making the distinction between the “government” and the “people” of Afghanistan is easier said than done.

Given how tightly the Taliban controls access to UN agencies, New Delhi has had to carefully engage with Taliban officials in calibrated, behind-the-scenes conversations over the last four months or so, sources said.

India was among the last of influential regional players to reach out to Afghanistan in August end — when Indian envoy in Qatar Deepak Mittal officially met Taliban’s Doha office representatives, led by Sher Mohammed Stanekzai (an Indian Military Academy, Dehradun pass out and later became the Deputy Foreign minister).

The Indian Express has learnt that the Taliban, since that meeting, underlined that “India’s help is more than welcome, when it comes to humanitarian assistance and development projects”.

Medicines for Indira Gandhi Children Hospital, Kabul (PTI)

In fact, at the meeting between Mittal and Stanekzai, Taliban officials clearly said that India’s projects — to the tune of $3 billion in the last 20 years — had been “extremely productive” and they would like “India to stay invested in Afghanistan”.

Officials underline that the Indian embassy’s engagement with local warlords in Taliban-dominated provinces had created some goodwill in the 34 provinces.

But the key question for the establishment has been: how to engage with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan without compromising on India’s red lines.

Those red lines were spelt out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a speech on September 17. For the first time since Taliban captured power in Afghanistan, Modi raised questions on the “acceptability” of the new “system” in Afghanistan flagging concerns that the change of power has not been inclusive and took place without negotiations.

He had also said that “representation of all sections of Afghan society, including women and minorities, is also important”. He had called upon the international community to take a decision on the critical question of the “recognition” of the new dispensation in a “thoughtful and collective manner”.

This set the bar quite high for India’s diplomatic establishment to work with the new Afghanistan. The Taliban in Kabul, however, were pragmatic. They did not react to Modi’s remarks and kept putting out statements — when asked — that help from the neighbours is welcome.

One ball was set rolling through the regional security dialogue of the National Security Advisors in early October and the National Security Council Secretariat organised the meeting of NSAs from eight countries including Russia and Iran on November 10.

This was the first piece of India’s engagement towards Afghanistan from a regional security paradigm. Without naming Taliban even once during his intervention at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on September 17, Modi had said that if instability and fundamentalism continues in Afghanistan, it “will lead to terrorist and extremist ideologies all over the world”.

All these issues were taken up during the Indian NSA-hosted conference – China and Pakistan, as anticipated, had skipped it – and a message was sent to the Taliban.

Simultaneously, in early October, India made its move to send wheat and life-saving medicines to the people of Afghanistan, and a request was sent to the Pakistan government since it involved 5,000 trucks carrying 50,000 metric tons of wheat criss-crossing the heart of Pakistan’s territory.

This was conveyed to the Taliban at the Moscow talks in the third week of October with Delhi asking the Taliban leaders to urge their “Pakistani brothers” to facilitate access.

This put Islamabad in a spot as it projects itself as the main benefactor for Afghanistan. So, when the Taliban Foreign minister visited Islamabad and met Pakistan PM, Imran Khan had little choice but to declare that he would “favourably consider” the proposal to allow humanitarian aid from India to Afghanistan.

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For Delhi, this dual track of engaging with the Taliban and the people is a complex exercise as India’s security establishment is headed by NSA Ajit Doval and diplomatic strategy by External Affairs minister S Jaishankar.

Given how many European, Gulf and even east Asian powers like Japan, are starting to engage with the Taliban, officials here said engagement with Taliban cannot be left to “inactivity” and “let-the-river-take-its-own-course” approach.

Sending these medicines is the first step in becoming part of the diplomatic process unfolding in Doha and Kabul.
For Delhi, however, challenges in helping the “people of Afghanistan” remain: the question of granting e-visas to Afghans (students, professionals, friends of India; only 200 e-visas have been granted so far); maintenance of Indian-built projects like the Salma Dam or the Pul-e-Khumri power plant.

From a security perspective, Delhi’s worries include the US leaving sophisticated weaponry behind in Afghanistan and the “risk of instability.”

“But, for now, for that “limited purpose” of humanitarian help, with medical supplies, Delhi has made it clear it’s not shy of engaging with the Taliban.” 



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