S. Jaishankar
Pic Credit : Outlook

For strategic affairs experts and analysts, a statement and a picture this week has been of immense interest, especially in context of what is happening in Afghanistan and the country’s future.

Through this one statement, Imran Khan seemingly resorted to wipe clean the slate of the Taliban and project them as a civil outfit. Pakistan sought to put a cloak on the reprehensible record of the Taliban, who are responsible for the worst kind of torture against women and children, most of them Afghans.

The second big development was the picture that emerged from China – of Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosting the Taliban in Tianjin and describing the dreaded outfit as “a pivotal military and political force” in Afghanistan.

I had written in April that on Afghanistan, India’s worry should not just be Pakistan, as a rogue player is waiting to take control – China. I had argued that China is keen on playing a larger role in Afghanistan.

Since then, a lot has happened between China and the Taliban, culminating in the visit to China by a Taliban delegation.

While China has managed to get an assurance from the Taliban that th Afghan soil will not be used against Beijing, it has also formally started backing the Talibs by calling them a “pivotal political force”.

Amid all this, India is being seen as a fringe player with huge stakes in Afghanistan’s future – not pertaining to the financial investments Delhi has made in the neighbouring country but in terms of broader strategic imperatives in the region.

A pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan will be a disaster for India, because China too will be controlling Kabul through Islamabad.

Another big concern is the possible fallout of the Taliban rise on Kashmir.

The current Afghan ‘strategy’

Sources in the Indian government say the main aim is to have a governance in Kabul that will be receptive to Delhi’s concerns and interests. India is not vying for a government that will favour New Delhi. And hence the steps being taken by India is of utmost interest. As of now, the approach is to ‘wait and watch’ and ‘talk to all’.

However, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran argued in his latest column in ThePrint that “short of putting boots on the ground, India should put its full weight behind the Ashraf Ghani government despite its many infirmities.”

Saran’s view is that “a military stalemate in Afghanistan, even a protracted civil war, may be a better outcome from India’s standpoint than a Taliban takeover. One may not be able to contribute to the Taliban’s defeat. We may, however, be able to prevent its victory and that would be a more prudent choice.”

Government sources say India’s aim is for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, and that India will always stand by the people of Afghanistan and support the country’s development.

For this, they are in talks not just with the Taliban and the Afghan government, but also with other stakeholders like the US, Russia and even Iran.

Not picking a side, yet

India does not want to be seen picking sides in Afghanistan. At least not right now.

When the Afghan National Army chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi was to visit India earlier this week, a trip that has now been postponed, sources had made it clear that while New Delhi is all for providing any technical help the Afghan forces need to maintain the equipment India had given in the past, there are no plans to send any fresh military systems.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaeen recently said in an interview that India should not give any military support to the Ashraf Ghani government.

While there is a small but noisy section within the Indian establishment that seeks a more pro-active role and bigger involvement in Afghanistan, it goes against the popular understanding.

India does not want to drag itself into the Afghanistan mess, a country that is seen as a graveyard of the global military powers.

My colleague Nayanima Basu, who covers diplomacy and strategic affairs for ThePrint, reported that New Delhi’s current assessment of the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan is that the Taliban are waiting for the “complete withdrawal” of the US and NATO troops by 31 August.

It is only after this that the Taliban fighters will likely escalate the level of violence and “focus on urban areas”.

From India’s perspective, the best-case scenario is a power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

However, this would be easier said than done – primarily because the Taliban comprise multiple factions, which are headed by various small warlords and it is not necessary, perhaps even unlikely, that all of them will act as per the directions of the central command.

Suddenly, India’s Afghan policy of ‘wait and watch’ while holding talks with various stakeholders appears to be a much better option than previously thought. However, what India needs is a clear, far-sighted plan and it will take much diplomatic heft to achieve that.

Views are personal.