Watch | 'India Has Boxed Itself into a Corner in Afghanistan; No Logic to Our Policy'

Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Vivek Katju says, "India has become a bystander in Afghanistan” and “the country does not know which way to turn”.

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One of the country’s former Ambassadors to Afghanistan, who also served as Joint Secretary in-charge of Afghanistan for six years, says “we have boxed ourselves into a corner” and adds “I can’t understand the logic of the policy our ‘wise men’ are following”.

Vivek Katju says: “I have thought for many years that our Afghan policy needs to show nimbleness and dexterity and we need to reach out to all parties, including the Taliban”.

In a 35-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Katju, who repeatedly referred to the senior officials and politicians responsible for India’s Afghanistan policy as “wise men”, said “what we are witnessing is strategic paralysis”. He said, “India has become a bystander in Afghanistan” and “the country does not know which way to turn”.

Katju, who also served as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, called India’s refusal to talk officially and upfront with the Taliban “counter-productive”. He shied away from calling India’s policy a mistake but added, “I can’t appreciate the kind of course adopted in Afghanistan”.

Katju argued that India should be formally and openly talking to the Taliban.

He said this has been his position since 2018, when America started talking to the Taliban in Doha. After February 2020, when the two signed a deal, the need to speak to the Taliban became both imperative and undeniable. He said he simply cannot understand why India’s “wise men” have been reluctant to do so.

He said: “I have been extremely concerned by both the lack of initiative and lack of being pro-active”.

Katju added that India’s refusal to talk to the Taliban means it’s now excluded from meetings such as the extended Troika meeting being held in Doha today at which it should have been present.

Also read: UNSC Watch: With Last-Minute Afghanistan Session Before Troika Plus Meet, India Ticks Off Priority

He said the explanation by the Russian Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, that India had not been invited to the extended Troika meeting because the meeting is restricted to countries with “unequivocal influence on both sides” suggests that our refusal to talk to the Taliban is backfiring.

Katju said Kabulov’s comments must be taken seriously and cannot be disregarded.

Katju pointed out that India is the only important country that has refused to talk to the Taliban officially and openly. As he put it, “ ‘the wise men’ stood apart from what the rest of the world is doing”. He pointed out that even countries with whom India wants to coordinate its Afghanistan policy, like Russia and Iran, have long ago established their own contacts with the Taliban. He added that well over a year ago Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy, told The Hindu that he had advised India to talk. Yet, this was ignored.

An Afghan man wearing a protective face mask walks past a wall painted with photo of Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, in Kabul, April 13, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail

Asked by The Wire how he responded to the government’s arguments that the Taliban are Pakistani puppets and opposed to an Indian role in Afghanistan, a position that is emotionally reinforced by the continuing overhang of the Kandahar hijack and memories of the humiliation meted out by the Taliban at that time, Katju said “great powers overcome such experiences and don’t allow emotions to come in the way”.

He added India “can’t be sullen”, particularly when India’s interests require that we talk to the Taliban.

Katju cited the example of Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and said at that time India faced a similar situation in Afghanistan as the Russians were retreating. Rajiv Gandhi had no hesitation talking to the Mujahideen even though India did not like the group or its ideology. “This shows that Rajiv Gandhi pursued the requirements of realpolitik”, he said. He also suggested this was a precedent the Modi government could have followed to talk to the Taliban.

Looking back over the years, Katju said, “We first put all our eggs in the Karzai basket and then we have put all our eggs in the Ghani basket”. He pointed out that India congratulated Ashraf Ghani even before the Afghanistan Election Commission had officially declared him elected. Katju was citing all of this as an illustration of what he calls “rigidity in approach” and lack of “nimbleness and dexterity”.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Reuters

In The Wire interview, Katju also answers critical questions about the future. Should India recognise a Taliban government that captures power militarily in Kabul or standby the statement made by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar in the Rajya Sabha (July 29) that “we would never accept any outcome which is decided by force”? His answer is that he believes India will do what the rest of the world does i.e. the major international countries. But added whether or not it should do that is another matter. When pressed further he said he personally believes the best course would be to talk to the Taliban at that time and find out their redlines and explain ours and then decide about recognition.

Asked whether a Taliban government in Afghanistan would seek to limit or even eliminate India’s presence, both diplomatically and economically, which would be in accord with Pakistan’s view that India’s role in Afghanistan is “larger than it ought to be”, Katju said “every government of any shape or form in Kabul would want a relationship with India”. However, he added, the influence that Pakistan has on the Taliban is much greater than any it had in the ’90s on the Mujahideen government that succeeded the Soviet-backed Nazibullah regime.

Finally, Katju said he was worried by the possibility that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could become a sanctuary for LeT and Jaish, an apprehension that is corroborated by credible reports that suggest LeT and Jaish are already fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, he added, “How can you address that except by talking to the Taliban?”

This is, therefore, one further critical reason why India should be talking to the Taliban and why its refusal to do so is “counter-productive” and has “boxed ourselves into a corner”.

What the full video here.