Watch | Taliban Pretending To Have Changed, Takeover an Undoubted Setback for India: Shyam Saran

The former foreign secretary tells Karan Thapar that the takeover of Afghanistan is “a Taliban invasion sponsored and abetted by Pakistan”.

In a detailed and comprehensive interview that both analyses the developing situation in Afghanistan whilst discussing India’s response and what it should hereafter do, Shyam Saran, one of the country’s most highly regarded former foreign secretaries, has said this is “an undoubted setback for India, there is no other way of describing it.”

Shyam Saran also said “the biggest winner is Pakistan”. In fact, he described the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan as “a Taliban invasion sponsored and abetted by Pakistan” and added that without the support of the Pakistan Army and ISI, the Taliban could not have swept through Afghanistan with the speed at which they did.

In a 45 minute interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Saran said the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government and the shattering images of the withdrawal from Kabul is “humiliating” for the US. He said the US’s “image and credibility as an ally has been greatly damaged.”

Saran said one way of recovering lost ground would be for the Indian government to “convey reassurance” to all Afghan citizens in India. He said they should be permitted to stay for as long as necessary and facilitated and helped in doing so. Saran specifically said the Indian government should permit all the relatives of Afghan people already in India to join them and facilitate this. Asked if he really believed the Modi government would do so he said “I definitely hope so.”

Saran said the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is “a tremendous psychological boost to jihadi groups across the world”.

Speaking about the Taliban itself, Saran said “this is Taliban 1.0 pretending to be Taliban 2.0”. Saran said there are many instances where what the Taliban said seems re-assuring but the facts on the ground contradict that. In the interview, he cites examples that show the Taliban contradicting its own assurances it would not take revenge but then proceeding to kill Hazaras or relatives of journalists or send its people knocking on doors to seek out Afghan people who earlier worked for the US and NATO. He also cited similar contradictions to do with the treatment of women as well as the presence of Jaish and Lashkar-e-Toiba militants, which belie the assurance the Taliban won’t let Afghanistan be used as a base to attack other countries.

Saran disagreed with the view of one of his predecessors as foreign secretary, Krishnan Srinivasan, that India made a mistake withdrawing its ambassador and diplomats. He said history suggests keeping the mission open is a risk that India could not have taken.

In The Wire interview, Saran raises and discusses two very important questions about the US’s withdrawal. First, given it had assurances from the Taliban of protection, which the Taliban has fulfilled since February 2020, and given secretary of state Anthony Blinken’s more recent claim that military withdrawal would not mean the US ceases to be diplomatically present, why did Washington pull out all its diplomats? Could it be that Washington now plans to switch from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism and wants to ensure all its citizens are out of harm’s way?

Second, Saran cites the manner of the withdrawal, as well as details of the February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban and Blinken’s letter to former president Ghani, to raise the question, was the US, in fact, prepared for and even, perhaps, working towards a Taliban take-over?

Please see the interview for a better and fuller understanding of these twin issues. Saran’s discussion is unique because no one else has raised these doubts and addressed them so fully.

The above is a paraphrased precis of Shyam Saran’s interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire. Though recounted from memory, it is not inaccurate. However, there is a lot more in the interview than has been covered by this precis. Please see the full interview to appreciate and understand Saran’s views. This is the only interview he has so far given on this subject.