India could have been more proactive on Afghanistan in UNSC: Former Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya

With the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, there will be shockwaves, both in regional geo-politics and domestic politics, that will last a long time, he said in an interview

India could have been more proactive on Afghanistan in UNSC: Former Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya

Ashlin Mathew

With the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, there will be shockwaves, both in regional geo-politics and domestic politics, that will last a long time, says retired IFS officer Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013. After the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001, he had reopened the Indian Embassy in Kabul that month.

The rise of Taliban will give Pakistan the strategic depth that the latter has always sought, he added.

India could have been more proactive on Afghanistan, Mukhopadhaya said, by entering it into formal agenda of the UNSC without waiting for a request from the Afghan Foreign Minister.

Edited excerpts of an interview with him:

1. India’s neighbourhood has just become perilous with the Taliban having taken over in Afghanistan. What are the implications of the development?

We should judge on the basis of actions, not words. Much would depend on their behavior in power, whether they are accommodating or repressive. But in principle, the return of the Taliban will give a huge fillip to Islamic radicalism including regional and international extremist Islamist groups and terrorist outfits including Al-Qaeda, IS, anti-Indian, sectarian and anti-Central Asian outfits, affecting the entire region and the world. Islamic radicalism will be back with a bang. Since 2001, international terrorist groups were on the back foot. With Taliban back in power, at the end of the so-called ‘war on terror’, terrorism will get a boost.

Second, with their influence on the Taliban, they will also give Pakistan the strategic depth that the latter have always sought.

1b. Will a regressive government be formed in Afghanistan?

Again, I would not prejudge the issue, but it will not be progressive in terms of rights, freedoms and economic opportunities. There are efforts to form a transitional government. We would need to look at the shape and composition of it, of what comes out of the transitional process, and how the Afghan people react to it.

2. Was the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable?

It was inevitable once the US declared its intention to withdraw; even more once it signed the US-Taliban agreement of February 29, 2020, which was negotiated directly by the US with the Taliban behind the back of the Afghan government and people, and stacked totally against the Afghan government; and predictable once President Biden decided to pull out unconditionally to a pre-set timetable.

The speed of the takeover and total collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and Afghan government was not so predictable. Most analysts expected a more protracted takeover and more of a resistance. The country’s US-NATO trained army was also poorly prepared for it and they too bear a big part of the responsibility for it.

It was unavoidable because of the policy mistakes of the US right from the beginning, and the weaknesses of the Afghan government.

3. After having interfered in Afghanistan’s affairs, the US abandoned the country. There is no help forthcoming from the UN. What does the future hold for the country?

Frankly, we do not know, but we can prognosticate on the basis of the Taliban’s past unless they have completely changed spots. First, the future is unpredictable. A change of this magnitude, both in regional and geo-politics and domestic politics will send shock waves that will last a long time.

The US has made mistakes, but their presence gave Afghans in general some comfort.

Second, the Taliban will have to rule by force, against the will of the people as they do not have popular support.

For now, they are projecting a ‘good’ image of tolerance, calm and amnesty, mainly to seek international legitimacy and lifting of UN Sanctions.

Zabiullah Mujahid’s press conference on August 17 was perhaps the first time that he was seen. How do we know who is actually issuing the statements?

Formal images coming out of Afghanistan are highly curated, but there are word of mouth and social media reports coming out of looting, witch hunts, harsh practices, abductions and forced marriage of girls.

Overall, there is a climate of fear and loathing, but also relief that the terrorist violence perpetrated by them may end. It will be qualified by a new kind of violence against the human spirit.

We should expect harsh, highly conservative and repressive ‘Islamic’ regulations particularly against women. Their human rights will be hugely curtailed.

Third, several countries may engage with the Taliban if they agree to a superficially inclusive government. But this will be a fig-leaf to legitimise the military takeover with the appearance of a political settlement in which all power will be with the Taliban.

The ethnic leaders will be projected as representing their communities, but they will lose popular support. This will be their third betrayal after that of the West, their own leaders, and now a fake political settlement in case that is accepted under duress.

Fourth, economically, few democratic countries will invest or offer aid if they declare an Emirate. The world has not invested in Afghanistan in the last 20 years. It is difficult to see that happening now.

Fifth, China may see an opportunity offered by the US withdrawal to step into the vacuum especially with economic projects that suit its strategic and economic interests. But this will be qualified by instability, extremism and terrorism.

Sixth, although the Taliban may make some promises regarding curtailing ties with or preventing this or that terrorist organisation, the probability that Afghanistan can become a safe haven for such outfits is higher. It will be difficult to sever ties among birds of the same feather working for the same larger cause.

Seventh, the possibility of resistance and multi-cornered civil war too cannot be ruled out. I foresee resistance, and all resistance doesn’t necessarily lead to destabilization. But if terrorist groups get promoted in the process, it will be destabilising.

4. With India being the UNSC president for August, could India have taken measures to help Afghanistan’s citizens and to prevent the fall of the elected govt?

India could have been more proactive on Afghanistan by entering it into the formal agenda of the UNSC without waiting for a request from the Afghan Foreign Minister, and above some of its other priorities, such as maritime security. India could have also taken initiatives to be more forceful in testing and mobilising UNSC resolve to convey stronger messages to the Taliban and Pakistan that a military takeover was unacceptable, and link lifting of sanctions and future engagement with a consensus around (i) ceasefire and no violence and terrorism (ii) no military takeover (iii) a fair, negotiated political settlement, (iv) no Emirate, on which there is wide consensus at least in public statements amongst key international players, at least to see who would break that consensus. We have been inexplicably passive about Afghanistan in the UN. Perhaps there are reasons we don’t know.

5. By engaging with Taliban, will we accord the fundamentalist organisation a degree of legitimisation?

India’s relationship with any strategically important country in our neighborhood cannot be decided by likes and dislikes. India will have to balance compulsions to keep a relationship with the Afghan people going (eg. trade, health visits, education, etc.) with the need to engage with the State. In my view, given the abhorrence for the Taliban in much of Afghanistan, their horrible violence and human rights record, and their symbiotic relationship with Pakistan, we should keep these relations at a minimal level at least until they demonstrate greater moderation and acceptance. We should be wary of legitimisation let alone recognition until then.

We could argue that India could have been more politically and diplomatically active and maybe we could have tried to influence American thinking. But that was also tempered by serious doubts whether India could really influence the situation.

I don’t think anyone foresaw the speed with which Taliban took over Afghanistan and that they would takeover Kabul even before the US troops had completely withdrawn. We had to be sensitive to optics too. There were certain limitations and even the US Intelligence did not expect what happened. In a general sense, everyone got it wrong. I don’t know who got it right. In retrospect, it is possible that the Indian speed of response could have been faster but the fact that they were able to close and evacuate within days suggests that contingency measures were in place.

6. What do you see as the future of India-Afghanistan relationship?

The India-Afghan relationship is a historical, trade, cultural and people-to-people relationship. Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line were closer to India than Pashtun-Iran or Pashtun-Central Asia ties.

Over the last 20 years, our education and developmental projects have ensured that India is in the hearts and minds of the majority of Afghan people. We have to find ways and means to sustain that relationship. The emergency e-visa scheme is a good step in that direction.

Pakistan is making an effort to sever that relationship by reorienting that relationship towards Central Asia with the help of China, Russia, Turkey, and oddly, with the US-Central Asian Connectivity ‘Quad’ initiative, the US too.

We will have to ensure that that our ties with Afghanistan remain strong.

7. Do Pakistan and China now have the upper hand in the region?

For the moment, yes.

8. Will the takeover of the country by the Taliban inspire similar militant response in Kashmir?

The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban will give a new cycle of life to radical, extremist Islamist terrorist groups that had been degraded since 9/11. But its impact on J&K may not be as great as thought, given Taliban statements to the effect that J&K was an internal matter of India. However, the use of Afghanistan by anti-India forces for terrorism in general and strategic depth has to be watched.

9. Taliban took over Afghanistan methodically. Did it happen with assistance from Pakistan’s Army?

Categorically yes. The Taliban have been raised by Pakistan with the objective of erasing Afghan and especially Pashtun identity and submerge it in an artificial pan-Islamic construct. And they continue to provide military, political and strategic guidance and material support to the Taliban.

10. So far, the Taliban have not been accepting of peaceful ways. But will they gain legitimacy and influence in the world?

The Taliban have sent some contrary messages, some positive, about their behavior in victory, although there are serious question marks about that motives and sincerity behind that based on informal reports. It would be best to see their behavior in practice in the coming months. The middle and lower levels have not been as disciplined as is being portrayed.

11. Could you give a comparison of Afghanistan in the 2000s when you were the Ambassador and the later years leading up to 2021?

When I went there in 2001, Afghanistan had been at war since 1979, since the Soviet intervention. During the Soviet intervention, there was development alongside the struggle against the Soviets. Then there was the intra-Mujahideen period, which saw massive destruction. Then there was the Taliban period, which was basically repression and no development and no reconstruction of the damage that was done earlier. They were also completely isolated – only three countries had recognised them (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). Afghanistan then had no economy to talk about.

From then to today, 20 years on, we have seen progress, we have seen development, technology and meaningful gains in civil, political, human rights, human development and media freedom. Today’s Afghanistan is a somewhat rebuilt Afghanistan.

Now, Taliban has come back through a military takeover, but they are likely to get the backing of a section of the international community. Depending on the transitional government they make, we should be prepared for a larger degree of recognition.

Some countries like China may also make investments in a Taliban regime. That – higher level of development, and higher degree of international recognition at the start of Taliban rule – is the difference between then and now.

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