The United Nations Security Council resolution on Afghanistan, adopted on the last day of India’s month-long presidency, has shown up the big power rift in the new geopolitics of Asia since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Russia and China abstained and the US, France, UK and 10 non-permanent members voted for the resolution. The reason for the divide is not far to see. In the virtual surrender of the US to the Taliban, Russia senses an opportunity to get into the driver’s seat in Asia. Over the last decade or so, Russia opened channels of communication with the Taliban, and shelved its Afghan war humiliation to repair relations with Pakistan. In the run-up to the 2020 Doha Agreement between the Trump Administration and the Taliban, and since, Moscow has made the case for a larger role for the radical Islamist group in post-US Afghanistan. Beijing, through its proximity to both Russia and Pakistan, hopes to fill the vacuum left behind by the US. Both countries want to keep all options open with the Taliban, not draw red lines around themselves with a resolution which, while all but recognising the new rulers of Afghanistan, demands that Afghan territory not be used by terrorists for attacks against other countries. The Russia-China-Pakistan cooperation on Afghanistan could become more apparent in the coming days, specifically at the mid-September SCO summit in Dushanbe.
India has made its first big readjustment to the emerging reality with a publicly acknowledged engagement with a Taliban representative on the same day as the UNSC resolution was adopted, the last US soldier left Afghanistan and the Taliban declared victory. While a Ministry of External Affairs statement said the meeting, held in Doha, focussed on safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan, and the travel of Afghan nationals, “especially minorities”, to India, the Taliban have chosen to remain silent. But an indication of the mood in Kabul came with the outreach to Delhi last week, calling for continuation of Afghanistan’s friendly ties with India, and stressing their economic, historic, and cultural linkages. The MEA’s pointed mention that the meeting was held at the request of the Taliban showed the preoccupation in Delhi with the optics and possible domestic fallout of engaging with a group it has viewed as a proxy of Pakistan and as an associate of terrorist groups that target India. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla held up a mention in the UNSC resolution adopted on August 30 of Resolution 1267 (under which Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are designated as terrorist organisations) as evidence of inclusion of India’s concerns. The irony is that the Taliban has been designated under 1267 since 1999, and so have some of its top members. As chair of the Taliban Sanctions Committee this year, India could even find itself presiding over the folding up of this committee.
The reality is that the world is preparing to do business with the Taliban. No window dressing can obfuscate this and none is required. What Delhi makes of the opening provided by its first hesitant public engagement with the Taliban is more important.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 2, 2021 under the title ‘A line to Kabul’.