Containment Dilemma:

The Taliban, a religious fundamentalist organization, has moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan created due to the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from the beleaguered country that has yet to recover from the decades of instability due to external military interventions and the power struggle within. The Taliban previously ruled between 1996 and 2001, when they declared Afghanistan to be an Islamic Emirate. In 2021, the group has again announced the formation of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Unlike during their previous stint in power, the Taliban has announced that they will respect the rights of women and minorities within the context of "sharia" law. Nonetheless, reports of problems and harsh action by Taliban fighters have been coming through social media.

The way Afghans have lined up at the Kabul international airport to flee the country speaks volumes about the fears and desperation among common people of their future under the Taliban. Reports have appeared about a nascent resistance force taking shape in Panjshir Valley under Ahmad Masood, son of the late Mujahideen commander and leader of the Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Masood. Apparently, former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the acting president as per the Afghan constitution, has also joined Masood’s National Resistance Front, which is committed to resist Taliban rule. The resistance forces are still in a nascent stage; hence, it is not clear as to how the situation will develop. Meanwhile, the country’s future is in the hands of Taliban fighters who reportedly receive significant backing from Pakistan.

The international response to the Taliban takeover has been mixed. While the U.S. and European countries are concerned with the rescue and repatriation of their nationals as well as Afghan nationals seeking refuge, they are also concerned about the possibility of large-scale migration from Afghanistan if the situation does not stabilize soon. Regional countries including Iran, Turkey and the Central Asian republics fear a possible influx of Afghan migrants, especially at a time when their economies are on the path of recovery after the devastating impact of Covid-19. So far, only a few countries, namely Pakistan, Russia, China and Qatar, have reacted positively to the Taliban takeover and have begun engaging with their leadership. Other regional countries such as Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have reacted cautiously, urging the Taliban to be respectful and avoid bloodshed. These countries have also seen the early statements from the Taliban as encouraging.

India too has been concerned about the safety and security of its nationals, including diplomatic staff and professionals engaged in various development projects and sectors of the Afghan economy. India is also worried about the microscopic minority Hindu and Sikh communities of Afghanistan, who have their roots in India or have significant cultural and religious links with India. Therefore, the initial Indian reaction has been cautious and focused on rescue and repatriation of Indian diplomatic staff and Indian nationals working in the country and on offering refuge to minorities. India will prefer to carefully watch the situation and not make any statements that might jeopardize the safety and security of its nationals and Afghans who have an affinity with India.

Given the situation, the Indian embassy in Kabul has stopped functioning and diplomatic personnel, including the Indian ambassador, have been moved to India. Meanwhile, India has deployed a few of its personnel at the Kabul International Airport to coordinate with the U.S. security forces currently in control there to facilitate the travel of Indian nationals back home and of Afghans seeking refuge in India. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has also been "issuing periodic travel and security advisories for all Indian nationals in Afghanistan, given the deteriorating security situation there." For Afghan nationals, India has launched an emergency e-visa portal to facilitate smooth travel for those wishing to take refuge in India.

The situation as it has unfolded is certainly a cause of concern for India, which has invested heavily in Afghanistan’s nation building process by undertaking infrastructure projects and offering development aid to the Afghan government. India had committed over US$2 billion in development aid and economic assistance to Afghanistan over the past years. According to the MEA, India had prioritized "116 High Impact Community Development Projects to be implemented in 31 provinces of Afghanistan, including in the areas of education, health, agriculture, irrigation, drinking water, renewable energy, flood control, micro-hydropower, sports infrastructure, [and] administrative infrastructure." Among other projects that were undertaken by India in Afghanistan are "grants-in-aid assistance to Habibia School and Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul; [the] Shatoot Dam Project; supply of spare parts/refurbishment of old buses; rehabilitation of a 16.9-kilometre road connecting Band-e-Amir to Bamyan-Yakawlang Highway; construction of 4,000 houses for returning Afghan refugees; [and the] establishment of Afghan National Agriculture Sciences and Technology University (ANASTU) [in] Kandahar." Unfortunately, with the commotion which is currently underway, these infrastructure and developmental projects will suffer.

The domestic debate within India is divided on how to respond to the situation. While a section is advising caution and keeping the doors of communication open with the new dispensation in Afghanistan, others have predicted that the situation will revert to as it was under the previous Taliban rule, which would involve security threats for India. New Delhi has been engaging various international and regional stakeholders to assess the evolving situation and has reportedly engaged in talks with Taliban leadership in Doha facilitated by the U.S. and Qatar. In addition, India has been in talks with countries such as Iran and Qatar, as well as other influential and like-minded countries, to assess the developing situation.

Notwithstanding the immediate reaction, India is aware of the geopolitical and geo-economic fallout of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and will take all necessary measure to secure its interests. In the short-to-medium term, the focus will be on the safety of Indian national and Afghan minorities, neutralizing any terrorist threats that might emanate after Taliban takeover, ensuring the functionality of its connectivity projects such as Chabahar and securing its investments in Afghanistan. In the medium-to-long term, New Delhi is likely to wait for more clarity before taking the next steps.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the view of the MP-IDSA or the Government of India.