India should engage Taliban in dialogue at the earliest, says former Indian Home Secretary

Hyderabad: International community is closely watching the developments in Afghanistan, following the formation of a new Taliban regime post-withdrawal of American forces by the end of August. So is India.

Being a regional stakeholder and having played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan after the end of Taliban 1.0 in 2001, India is naturally worried over the implications of the resurgence of Taliban 2.0 two decades later, especially in the wake of the strategic interests of China and Pakistan in the region.

Against this backdrop, a recent workshop conducted by Hindustan Hamara, a Hyderabad-based think-tank of academics, journalists and intellectuals, on the latest crisis in Afghanistan has thrown up an interesting debate on what role India should play to safeguard its own interests, while dealing with the crisis.

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Former Union home secretary and chairman of Administrative Staff College of India K Padmanabhaiah, who chaired the workshop, said India should make a thorough analysis of the short-term and long-term implications of the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

India, which played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the last one and a half decades, suddenly found itself out of place in the latest developments. “The return of Taliban regime in Afghanistan is certainly a matter of concern for India, as there are apprehensions that it would strengthen forces like Hakkani network, Al Qaeda and ISI might target Kashmir,” Padmanabhaiah said.

The former Union home secretary pointed out that the US troops, while leaving Afghanistan, had left huge stock of arms, ammunition, vehicles, fighter aircraft, missiles and other military material worth over US $ 85 billion. “There is a possibility that Pakistan, which has trained and aided Taliban all these years, might use this weaponry against India, which has no direct border with Afghanistan,” he said.

Padmanabhaiah said India should engage Taliban in talks at the earliest and get a firm assurance from them that Afghanistan would not be used by these terrorist groups to target India. He reminded that unlike Al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammad and ISIS, Taliban are not terrorists but only militant nationalists.

“It is good that an effort has been made by our foreign secretary by holding a dialogue with Taliban representatives in Doha a few days ago. Such efforts should continue. They have assured that they would not allow the terrorist groups of other countries to use their soil. We need to watch how long they will stick to their assurances,” he said.

Vivek Katju, former secretary in Ministry of External Affairs and former Indian Ambassador to Kabul, said the international community was divided over recognising the Taliban regime with China, Russia, Pakistan and UAE on one side and the western powers on the other.

He said there was no clarity on what type of governance Taliban would follow, though it was believed that they would adopt Iranian model, but they would certainly not follow the democratic political system – there would be no political parties and no elections.

“They are unlikely to follow the inclusivity in governance either. The criminal justice system, gender discrimination and human rights are a matter of concern. If Taliban revert to their theocratic model of 1990s, nobody would be able to interfere,” he said.

He also expressed concern over the narcotics trade by the Taliban, through which they had made billions of dollars in the last two decades. “Narcotics business accounts for one-third of Afghanistan economy. Though the Taliban had banned cultivation of opium in their earlier rule in late 1990s, it was only a business decision. They will not forego the revenues from narcotics trade,” he said.

Katju, however, said India had no option but to initiate talks with Taliban to safeguard its own strategic interests so that whatever little space it has in Afghanistan will not be gobbled by China. “It is extremely dangerous to allow China to take advantage of the situation in Afghanistan, as it already has Pakistan in its pocket and will not try for Afghanistan. Moreover, we should not give the impression to the people of Afghanistan that we have abandoned them when they needed us most,” he said.

Shakti Sinha, former secretary toformer Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and director of ABV Institute of Policy Research & International Studies (Vadodara), said India should not overestimate its role in Afghanistan and force its way into its internal matters in the current dispensation.

He, however, agreed with the suggestion that India should engage in talks with Taliban and also its people. He said formation of a stable government in Afghanistan was not so easy for Taliban and Pakistan would try to interfere in their administration.

“Pakistan feels it is a custodian of Taliban but certainly, the Taliban would not allow any foreign power to dictate them,” he said.

Presenting a different perspective to the Afghan crisis, filmmaker and author Iqbal Malhotra warned that the biggest beneficiaries of the withdrawal of the US forces and return of Taliban regime in Afghanistan was Pakistan and China.

He pointed out that Pakistan had an eye on the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, whose market value, as per the UN estimates, was more than 30 billion dollars. “This will be used by ISI of Pakistan to promote narco-terrorism in India,” he said.

Describing Taliban as the puppet force of Pakistan, Malhotra said it was the Pakistan army battalions which were actually waging a war against rebels in Panjshir mountains and the entire operation was being monitored through drones from Rawalpindi.

Similarly, China was building road and rail network from Peshawar to Iran via Afghanistan to gain direct access to oil reserves in Iran and Iraq. At the same time, it would resume its copper ore mining in Afghanistan, which has the world’s second largest copper reserves.

Stating that the Taliban had no expertise in running administration, Malhotra said they would fall back on the civil servants and bureaucrats from Pakistan. “So, if India wants to hold talks with Afghanistan, it has to do with Pakistan indirectly, because the Taliban would depend on Pakistan civil servants for the rule,” he said.

Other experts like Seema Mustafapresident of Editors Guild of India, Aftab Kamal Pasha,professor of Gulf Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Dr P Mitra, noted academic, also presented their perspectives on Afghan crisis.

The workshop was moderated by Kingshuk Nag, author and former resident editor of Times of India, Hyderabad.  Surgical gastroenterologist Dr Vinay Kumar and Siasat Managing Editor Zaheeruddin Ali Khan were also present.

A Srinivasa Rao is Senior Journalist based out of Hyderabad covering developments in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana . He has over three decades of reporting experience.

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