At a time, when Afghanistan is already going through a severe interlocking multifaced humanitarian, economic and political crises, a massive earthquake ripped through eastern Afghanistan, devastating parts of the Khost and Paktika provinces on 22 June, 2022. According to reports[i] more than 1,000 people were killed and several thousand injured throughout Afghanistan as a result of the same. One area that suffered severe damage was the Giyan District in Paktika province where roughly 1,000 homes were destroyed and nearly 86 per cent of people lost their lives.[ii] The situation of the people of Afghanistan have been dire over the past few months, the natural calamity only added the severity of the overall condition.
As a first responder of humanitarian relief after the earthquake, India sent 27 tons of emergency relief assistance to be handed over to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) in Kabul.[iii] New Delhi also sent a “technical team” of Indian officials for closely monitoring and coordinating the “effective delivery” of humanitarian assistance[iv]; and in continuation with “its engagement with the Afghan people”. This occurred days after the deadly Islamic State Khorasan’s attack on the Karte Parwan gurdwara, which forced some of the last Afghan Sikhs to leave their homeland.[v]
Although India’s Kabul embassy was closed and Indian personnel evacuated at the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s entry into the capital, India did not abandon the people of Afghanistan and regularly kept sending humanitarian assistance to address the humanitarian crisis in the country. In the course of past eleven months, India has sent aid consignments of 20,000 tons of wheat, medicine, half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and winter clothing to Afghanistan.[vi] While sending the first consignment of earthquake relief assistance to Afghanistan, the Ministry of External Affairs reiterated “As always, India stands in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, with whom we share centuries old ties, and remains firmly committed to provide immediate relief assistance for the Afghan people."[vii] In a tweet, Taliban spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi welcomed India’s decision “to return diplomats & technical team” to the Indian embassy in Kabul to continue relations with the Afghan people.[viii]
India’s return to the Taliban controlled Afghanistan has occurred against the backdrop of a raging debate about whether or not it should re-establish a diplomatic presence in Taliban ruled Afghanistan. For some time now, there were reports in the media[ix] that India was considering some kind of outreach to the Taliban regime. There were also reports[x] that in February this year, a team of Indian officials had visited Kabul to explore the possibility of reopening the Indian Embassy, albeit on a smaller scale and for a very limited purpose.
The first publicly acknowledged meeting between Indian officials and the Taliban took place at the latter’s behest in Doha on 31st August[xi] 2021. Over the past eleven months, on several occasions the Taliban had put across very strong signals that they would like to restore relations with India. From Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid[xii] to the acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi[xiii], and from Anas Haqqani[xiv] to Sher Abbas Stanikzai[xv], the Taliban have held out assurances of security if India opened her mission and have sought closer cultural and economic ties with India. Reportedly, the acting Defense Minister of Taliban and son of Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar, Mullah Yakub had expressed his willingness to send Afghan Army personnel to India for military training.[xvi]
On June 22, an official Indian delegation led by Joint Secretary JP Singh of the Ministry of External Affairs visited Afghanistan and met the acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mottaqi and Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and received specific assurances on security of the deployment.[xvii] New Delhi, so far has stressed on the humanitarian side of the engagement by underscoring that the recent decision of engagement with the Taliban was largely about ensuring proper delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. During the visit, the delegation went to the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul, the Habibia High School, and the Chimtala Electricity sub-station — projects where Indian assistance produced substantive results for the Afghan people on the ground.
A recently published RAND Corporation report has summarised US policy options vis-à-vis the Taliban in three words: “Engage, Isolate or Oppose”[xviii]. The US officials say that they are focused on the first two options and the third option is, for now, off the table. India, on its part, has been watching the developments within Afghanistan closely and is aware that the Taliban at present has the monopoly of power in that country. Although there have been evidences of active and passive resistance to the Taliban rule; yet it is not strong enough to emerge as a counter-force to the Taliban rule in the near future. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to evolve, India is keenly observing the developments there. New Delhi would like to ensure that Afghanistan's soil is not used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner. The political instability in Afghanistan have important implications not only for the Afghans, but also for its neighbours and the region. Apart from humanitarian considerations, the threat of terrorism, narcotic trafficking and filtration of weapons, including western ones, from Afghanistan into Kashmir remain some of India’s immediate concerns.[xix] At various international platforms, India has underlined the need to ensure that Afghan territory does not become a source of radicalization and terrorism (both regionally or globally) and has called for an “inclusive and representative” administration in Afghanistan that brings in women and minorities and work towards preserving the gains of the past two decades.[xx]
To conclude, it can be said that the devastating earthquake and the need for coordination of relief materials sent by India; provided New Delhi with a reason to deploy some personnel in Kabul. The coming days are going to be crucial and New Delhi will have to tread cautiously. While there is a case for India to engage with the Taliban, it will endeavor to keep communication channels open with all other stakeholders in the country. India’s Afghanistan policy has always been centered on the well-being of ordinary Afghans and this perspective has little to do with who runs the government in Kabul, but the long-term equations between the two peoples with a longstanding civilisational relationship. It is imperative to remember that the objective of India’s recent engagement with Taliban is not to bestow diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime or to endorse their worldview; but to ensure that India’s humanitarian assistance is given where there is impact on ground. India’s assistance can be seen as an important gesture of solidarity with the people of Afghanistan and that would continue in the days to come.
*Dr. Anwesha ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “Afghanistan: Flash Update #4 Earthquake in Paktika and Khost Provinces, Afghanistan.”OCHA Services, June 26, 2022. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-flash-update-4-earthquake-paktika-and-khost-provinces-afghanistan-26-june-2022 (Accessed on 5.7.22)
[iii] “India’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan”. Ministry of External Affairs, GOI, Press Release, June 2, 2022. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/35381/Indias_humanitarian_assistance_to_Afghanistan(Accessed on 5.7.22)
[v] “Islamic State claims responsibility for Kabul gurdwara attack”. The Hindu, June 19, 2022. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/iskp-terror-group-claims-attack-on-gurdwara-in-kabul/article65542364.ece
[vii] “Earthquake Relief Assistance for the people of Afghanistan”. Ministry of External Affairs, GOI, Press Release, June 24, 2022. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/35440/Earthquake_Relief_Assistance_for_the_people_of_Afghanistan (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[viii] Abdul Qahar Balkhi, MoFA Spokesperson, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Via Twitter @ Qahar Balkhi. Available at: https://twitter.com/QaharBalkhi?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor
[ix] “India is mulling options of re-opening mission in Afghanistan”. The Hindu, December 1, 2021. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-mulling-options-over-re-opening-mission-in-afghanistan/article37781058.ece (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[x] “India looks at reopening mission in Kabul minus senior diplomats.”The Indian Express,May 17, 2022. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-looks-reopening-mission-kabul-minus-senior-diplomats-7920920/ (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xi] “Meeting in Doha” Ministry of External Affairs, GOI, Press Release, August 31, 2021. Available at: https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34208/Meeting_in_Doha (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xii] “India an important country, no threat to them: Taliban spokesperson | Exclusive”. India Today, Aug 30, 2021. Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/india-pakistan-taliban-spokesperson-threat-afghanistan-1847106-2021-08-30 (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xiii] “US to Blame for Drugs Entering India from Afghanistan, Says Taliban Govt Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi”. News18 Global, May 30 2022. Available at: https://www.news18.com/news/world/news18-global-exclusive-us-to-blame-for-drugs-entering-india-from-afghanistan-says-taliban-govt-foreign-minister-amir-khan-muttaqi-5270161.html (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xiv] “Afghanistan Doors Open for India, Cricket Can Cement Ties: Taliban Leader Anas Haqqani”. News18 Global, May 27, 2022. Available at: https://www.news18.com/news/world/afghanistans-doors-open-for-india-cricket-can-cement-ties-emirate-leader-anas-haqqani-to-news18-in-global-exclusive-interview-5255479.html (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xv] “Want to continue our political, trade ties with India: Taliban leader Stanekzai.” The Hindustan Times, 22Aug, 2021. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/want-to-continue-our-political-trade-ties-with-india-taliban-leader-stanekzai-101630233039985.html (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xvi] “Taliban willing to send Afghan troops to India for training: Mullah Yaqoob”, The Express Tribune, June 4, 2022. Available at: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2360038/taliban-willing-to-send-afghan-troops-to-india-for-training-mullah-yaqoob (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xvii] Major move towards engaging Taliban, re-establishing presence in Afghanistan”. The Hindu, June 24, 2022. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-reopens-embassy-in-kabul/article65558557.ece (Accessed on 7.7.22)
[xviii] James Dobbins, Andrew Radin, Laurel E. Miller “Engage, Isolate, or Oppose American Policy Toward the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” RAND Corporation, May 2022. Available at: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PEA1500/PEA1540-1/RAND_PEA1540-1.pdf Accessed on?
[xix] “With the Taliban's Rise, India Sees A Renewed Threat In Kashmir”. The Associated Press, September 14, 2021. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2021/09/14/1036877490/with-talibans-rise-india-sees-renewed-threat-in-kashmir (Accessed on 12.7.22)
[xx] Opening Remarks by External Affairs Minister at the 18th Meeting of RIC Foreign Ministers, MEA Press Release, Nov 26, 2021. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/34539/ (Accessed on 12.7.22)