Tharoor Line | Afghan catch-22 for Indian diplomats

Afghanistan-Taliban crisis
Evacuees crowd the interior of a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, carrying some 640 Afghans to Qatar from Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2021. Photo: Courtesy of Defense One/via REUTERS

Just three weeks ago, on June 23, in a development that did not receive sufficient attention from our easily-distracted national media, India deployed a ‘technical team’ at the Indian Embassy in Kabul to “closely monitor and coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders for the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance and in continuation of our engagement with the Afghan people.” In other words, we have reopened India’s Embassy in Afghanistan.

We have not, of course, restored full diplomatic relations; no Ambassador has been sent, and the government has been careful to call our envoys in Kabul a ‘technical team’.

The decision had been preceded by a higher-level visit on June 2, when J P Singh, Joint Secretary in charge of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran in the MEA, led an Indian team to Kabul in what was the first official visit to the country since the Taliban takeover.

Singh held talks with the Taliban leadership running the country since last August 15, and it is understood the Taliban asked India to return, assuring the delegation that it would not face any of the hostility and threats that had led New Delhi to close its Embassy during the previous rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2002.

The Ministry of External Affairs has been careful to explain the decision in terms of India’s long-standing links with Afghan society, our development partnership with that country, which was the recipient of India’s largest aid programme (some $2.5 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money was spent in that country), and our long and generous record of providing humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan.

It is striking that when, on June 22, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake (the worst in over 20 years) struck Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring many more, India was among the first to provide aid, sending two relief flights with almost 28 tonnes of earthquake relief assistance and a further 20 tonnes of medical supplies.

Afghan earthquake
In this photo released by a state-run news agency Bakhtar, Afghans look at destruction caused by an earthquake in the province of Paktika, eastern Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. PHOTO: AP

Still, India has said nothing about political or diplomatic relations, nor about the geopolitical challenges involved in Afghanistan’s close relations with Pakistan.

The Taliban welcomed the Indian move. But they want more: the Taliban Defence Minister, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, has publicly asked for the training of Afghan army personnel in India, as in the past, to resume. But this would involve training soldiers for a Taliban-run army, and one still presumed to be largely under the influence, if not direct control, of Pakistan. It is not something New Delhi can lightly take up, even if we say we will consider it.

There is no doubt that posting this ‘technical team’ in Kabul is the diplomatic element of putting your feet gingerly in the water to test its temperature before plunging in to swim. New Delhi is well aware that India will need to handle its relations with the Taliban government in Kabul with utmost sensitivity and care.

We are right to go back in: we have too much at stake in the region to afford to be absent entirely from Afghanistan, as we were during the last stint of Taliban rule. But we cannot be indifferent to our vital security concerns either: we know the Taliban has been, in the past, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ISI, and if we are too friendly too quickly, we may be exposing our own vulnerabilities to those who wish to do us harm.

Nor can we be indifferent to the social situation in Afghanistan, which continues to feature the regressive anti-women policies for which the Taliban has long been notorious.

When women are denied education beyond the sixth standard, prevented from accessing hospitals and clinics without male escort and denied professional career opportunities even where they previously worked, India cannot remain indifferent.

We need to be present in Kabul in our national interest, but at the same time, we simply cannot say or do anything that could be seen as legitimizing either Taliban rule or the extremist, mediaeval ideology that undergirds it.

However, the alternative may be even worse: the biggest challenge to Taliban rule today comes not from secular liberals like the overthrown government, but from the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an even more fanatic group whose recent attack on a Sikh gurudwara in Afghanistan took many lives.

Security personnel inspect the gurudwara following a gun attack in Kabul on March 25, 2020. Photo: STR / AFP

ISIS-K have pledged to drive all remaining Sikhs and Hindus out of the country, and assault their “protectors” as well. The Taliban might ironically be the last remaining bulwark against the rise of an infidel-hating ISIS-K in the subcontinent.

This will be an important challenge for Indian diplomacy; one can only hope our young diplomats rise up to it.

Lanka crisis, pain for India

The recent footage from Sri Lanka has shaken every thinking Indian: seeing a country right next door to us, with a topography and a cuisine so reminiscent of Kerala, familiar to Indians for millennia since the days of the Ramayana, in the throes of political crisis and economic collapse is truly heart-breaking.

Demonstrators gather outside the office of Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 13, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The people of Sri Lanka have made it clear they have had enough, are furiously angry and won’t take it any more: they have burned the homes of two Prime Ministers and dozens of other politicians to make that point.

The President has resigned and reportedly fled the country. Law and order, and normal governance, have broken down.

Gotabaya Rajapakse. File Photo.

This beautiful country has gone through so much in the last couple of generations, with a bloody civil war, bombings and shootings in the major cities, a horrendous toll in human lives and now the horrors of economic disaster, with no money to buy fuel, import food and medicines, or pay salaries.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesinghe. Photo: Reuters.

Whether an all-party government is able to come together and find a way out of the crisis is as yet unclear. All of us surely wish Sri Lanka well in this hour of trial .  

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