The Taliban are in charge in Afghanistan. The rapid overthrow of the Afghan government that many expected would take another few months ended last week, as the Taliban entered Kabul, prompting President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country. This sudden development has major ramifications for every nation in the South Asian region, not least India – which benefited greatly from the US presence in Afghanistan and may now have to see Pakistan once again playing a dominant role in the country.

What can New Delhi do? How is it to deal with the fallout? Shanthi Mariet D’Souza is the founder of research outfit Mantraya, founding professor at the Kautilya School of Public Policy and an Afghanistan expert who has worked on the country for years, including as adviser, Independent Directorate of Local Governance to the Afghanistan government in 2015-16. She has also edited Afghanistan in Transition: Beyond 2014?

I spoke to D’Souza over e-mail about what the Taliban takeover means for New Delhi, whether the question of engaging with the Taliban is any different from the last time they were in power in the 1990s, and what this means for India’s relations with other major powers.

For some background to the conversation, read our interview with Avinash Paliwal, back in May, when India was still debating the question of whether to engage with the Taliban.

For the reader, could you tell us a little bit about how you got into studying Afghanistan and your background with the country?
I am a scholar, researcher and founding professor with specialisation in International Relations with more than a decade-long experience of working in think tanks, universities, governmental and non-governmental sectors, as a consultant, adviser and board director for think tanks, governments and international organisations in Afghanistan and South Asia, as an associate editor and editorial board member for international peer reviewed journals, and as a subject matter expert and trainer designing modules on regional and international security, governance, economic development, gender and non-traditional security challenges in Asia for diplomats and security personnel. I have also conducted field studies in Pakistan, China, Africa, Canada, United States, Australia, Jammu and Kashmir and India’s North East.

My interest in Afghanistan sparked in the 1990s, when I embarked on my M Phil program at the American Studies division of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. At that time, I found that there was scant academic and policy attention on Afghanistan, which was in India’s neighbourhood. It was a glaring gap in academia and policy research.

As I started my M Phil in the summer of 1999, the IC-814 hijacking brought attention to Afghanistan and the Taliban regime when the plane with Indian citizens was hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to Kandahar and the then Bharatiya Janata Party government was brought to its knees and had to swap passengers for terrorists. This was an important lesson for India not only in hostage negotiations, but also in lack of policy attention on Afghanistan since withdrawal from that country in the wake of the capture of power by the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

As I commenced my doctoral programme at SIS, JNU on the topic “United States and emergence and decline of the Taliban”, in the summer of 2001, the 9/11 terror attacks took place in the American homeland. That once again brought back the US and world attention to a country, which was largely forgotten and considered distant. While most analysts concluded that the US military intervention of October 2001 would result in the decimation of the Taliban, my hypothesis was to the contrary and proved correct in the years that followed.

The central argument of my PhD thesis and critique of the nature of the international intervention in 2001 was that the international community did not pay adequate attention and resources in institution building, shoring up the capabilities of the Afghan government (host nation) or addressing the issue of sanctuaries and external support that the Taliban received from their sponsors in Pakistan from where they regrouped, rearmed and carried out attacks in Afghanistan.

The reemergence of the Taliban was evident in 2005-06, when US President George W Bush diverted the limited resources and troops from the “the limited and quick” war in Afghanistan to Iraq. The aversion to nation building did not help build institutions that Afghanistan required to rebuild its security, political and economic sectors. Most of the international aid created parallel structures of governance rather than strengthening the Afghan government’s institutions for governance and revenue.

President Barack Obama refocused attention on the “just war” in Afghanistan from Iraq through his Af-Pak strategy, but announced exit by 2014 along with the troop surge which strengthened the battlefield and negotiating potential of the Taliban. The repeated calls for exit were based on the American political calendar under President Donald Trump and now President Joe Biden’s administration, and not on the needs of the Afghans or conditions on the ground. The Taliban bided their time. In the villages of southern Afghanistan where I visited, the Taliban would in a jocular vein say, “the Americans have the watches, we have the time”.

The international community needed to focus attention and resources for the long term stabilisation of Afghanistan, building key institutions of service delivery and strengthening the security, political and economic sectors to build the credibility of the Afghan government. Most of the quick impact projects of the international community did little to build the credibility and/or extend the writ of the Afghan government. The security sector needed to be built, trained and equipped to fight insurgency and not a conventional army, as Afghanistan is fighting an asymmetrical war.

The western notions of democracy and state building had limited utility in the long term stabilisation of Afghanistan and preventing its slide into present levels of chaos and violence. Afghanistan needed assistance to build its own security, political and economic institutions based on its needs and specificities rather than replicating foreign models.

I have, since the completion of my doctoral studies and Fulbright Fellowship, studied Afghanistan through various prisms – the security sector, political and peace building, sub national governance, and regional cooperation, to understand the challenges and prospects of long term stabilisation of Afghanistan, which the rest of the international community has not paid much attention to.

From my specialisation in American Studies, I have tried to make myself useful to academia, policy-makers, security and diplomatic personnel, media and international non governmental organisations, by focusing my attention and work on the internal and external dynamics of the Afghan conflict, India-Afghanistan relations, and prospects of regional cooperation in Afghanistan through various field studies, assignments and consultancy projects in various provinces of Afghanistan, rather than confining myself to Kabul, to provide a better understanding of the urban-rural divide and help bridge the disconnects.

As Team leader the for Local Planning and Budgeting–IDLG-UNDP-LOGO project, Kabul, Afghanistan (2020); Adviser, Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2015-16); International Election Observer for the audit and recount of Afghanistan’s Presidential Runoff elections,( 2014); Senior Transition Consultant, United Nations Mine Action Service (2013), Kabul and External Reviewer for the country programme of Action Aid International, Afghanistan (2011), I have worked with governmental and non-governmental sectors for more than a decade in various provinces of Afghanistan.

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire at the airport in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP

Would you say that you take any particular approach, or fall into a specific school of thinking, when it comes to your analysis?
I do not consider myself to be belonging strictly to any particular school of thought. However, broadly, I do see myself as aligned to the school of Constructivism, seeing the world as socially constructed and exploring the role of identities and interests. Constructivists believe agency and structure are mutually constituted, which implies that structures influence agency and vice versa.

Agency can be understood as the ability of someone to act, whereas structure refers to the international system that consists of material and ideational elements. I have increasingly witnessed that while studying Afghanistan and policy-making either in India or outside, there has been little understanding and application of the structure-agency debate and role of identities and interests. More importantly, there is very little anthropological study of the tribal dynamic and social networks, culture and religion in Afghanistan. Thus, Afghanistan remains a puzzle that many have not taken the time and effort to understand.

I charted my own path to tread into unknown terrain, taking many risks and moving out of my comfort zone with multiple field visits to Afghanistan from Singapore and India to get first-hand, primary, qualitative and ethnographic data, rather than relying on secondary sources and not contributing anything new or useful to the academic and policy debate.

I have muddied my hands to work on issues of governance (which is the key to stabilisation) and election observation, to understand Afghans and Afghanistan, and debunk many myths about the people and the country. I have used different approaches and prisms to understand the challenges and prospects of long-term stabilisation of Afghanistan. These include the social network approach, participant observation, ethnographic data, and first hand information collected through interviews and discussions with Afghans across a wide spectrum. I have travelled to various provinces in Afghanistan for collection of primary resource material for more than a decade. I have carried out interviews, discussions and “person on the street” narratives to gather qualitative data.

My field visits to Afghanistan and interactions with key policy-makers, interlocutors, scholars, security and media personnel, members of international organisations, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, women’s groups, youth groups, farmers’ associations, dairy associations, business groups and “person on the street” narratives have helped deepen my knowledge of the country and the need to adopt alternative approaches to bring in long term peace and stability.

I have conducted field-based research and consultancies with the governmental and non-governmental sectors in Afghanistan. As an Adviser on downward accountability with the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (DFID funded project), Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2015-2016), I have worked on issues of sub-national governance and strengthening downward accountability; developed guidelines and data collection instruments to enable provincial councillors improve service delivery in eight crucial sectors – education, agriculture, health, roads, electricity, water and sanitation, security and legal services.

I have contributed to the development and finalisation of the Provincial Council (PC) internal procedure and oversight regulatory authority; developed formal internal procedures for the channelling of PC reports to relevant line ministries at the Centre (through the IDLG) and provinces (through the governor); and revised the reporting template for the PCs informing councillors of their mandates, legal and policy frameworks, minimum service delivery standards and constraints to effective service delivery. I also provided organisational assistance in restructuring, strategic and annual plans, training materials and manuals for the conduct of consultative workshops and capacity building programmes for provincial councillors and awareness workshops for women provincial councillors.

As a Senior Transition Consultant, United Nations Mine Action Service, Afghanistan (September 2013), I conducted extensive field analysis, interviews and focused group discussions with Afghan government officials, key policy-makers, donors, non-governmental organisations, UN Mine Action personnel, de-miners, community elders and other key stakeholders to review the mine action programme in Afghanistan. Case studies considered for the project included Cambodia, Laos, Liberia, South Sudan, Mozambique, Bosnia, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Colombia, Lebanon, Western Sahara, Mali, Ivory Coast, DRC, and Yemen, which helped in learning from the best practices in actualising transition in the Afghan context.

At the end of the field study, I presented the findings at a workshop in Kabul and submitted a report identifying options to locate responsibility for the mine action mandate within the Afghan government and key stakeholders with a list of “pros and cons” for each option and the steps required for implementation in the transformation decade.

As an international Election Observer, Afghanistan with The Asia Foundation, for the audit of Afghanistan’s Presidential Runoff elections held in June 2014, I was involved in report writing, data entry and short-medium term observation of the audit and recount process.

I have been a Consultant and Reviewer for the country programme of Action Aid International Afghanistan, May-June 2011. I conducted programmes and organisational reviews of AAA’s programmes, project and functioning in Kabul and other provinces of Afghanistan using a Rights based approach and a participatory approach, like Participatory Rural Appraisal, to analyse, plan and monitor the development activities. I submitted a detailed report titled “Country Programme Review” with key learning gaps to inform the management on the state of the country programme as well as provided recommendations on future directions to guide the formulation of the next country strategy paper on developmental strategy and policy planning.

The speed of the Taliban takeover has taken everyone by surprise. You wrote recently that “there is an overwhelming sense of helplessness” in New Delhi “as its contributions and gains made in the last two decades wither away.” Why is that so? Do you think it will be some time before that sense is shaken off or is it likely to remain as long as the Taliban are in charge?
India has pursued its soft-power approach in Afghanistan under a security umbrella provided by the US since 2001. It is the largest regional donor, having pledged more than $3 billion in various capacity building and infrastructure development projects. Its development assistance policy accrued a tremendous amount of goodwill for India. The challenge was to convert soft power gains into long term tangible outcomes when the tide turned. Even though there was a sense in India that the US would withdraw its forces in 2014 – the date of withdrawal announced by President Obama – India did not prepare for such a scenario and hoped for an outcome that would not put the Taliban in a dominant position.

However, all those calculations have changed quickly. The sense of shock and dismay from the fall of Kabul and the total capture of power by the Taliban is not unique to India. In the coming days, the entire world will be forced to internalise the dramatic changes that have taken place in Afghanistan and how those changes have made past policies redundant. India too will have to go through that phase of self-assessment and revisit its policies in the face of new realities.

Indian citizens aboard a military aircraft at the airport in Kabul on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

What are the immediate implications for India – both in terms of interests and policies – with the new Afghanistan situation, once the question of evacuating citizens and others is taken care of?
India’s challenges are multiple and at various levels. These include:

  • Evacuation/safety of all Indians, friends of India in Afghanistan (Afghans who worked for India), and the willing members of the Hindu and Sikh communities;
  • Preservation of the gains made by India in the last two decades, i.e, the infrastructure projects and, also, the leverage within the political elite;
  • Dealing with the resurgence of Pakistani and Chinese influence;
  • Staying engaged in Afghanistan’s development sector to prevent a humanitarian crisis and continuing the existing level of trade and commerce; and
  • Developing working relations with the new political dispensation as stipulated in the Agreement of Strategic Partnership ( October 2011).

India has been ill-prepared for this scenario. Even evacuating its personnel was difficult. The Taliban set up roadblocks, making it difficult to reach the airport. More importantly, India could not evacuate Afghans who worked for its embassy and consulates, leaving them in great danger and discontent.

For India, which had pledged more than $3 billion dollars in development assistance since 2001 and accrued a huge amount of goodwill, Afghanistan is now a dramatically transformed terrain. New Delhi faces disruption to its intense engagement in the country’s development sector. Its gains of the past two decades, achieved through high-value and small-scale projects, face dangers of reversal.

India, a regional stakeholder and an unwavering supporter of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace and reconciliation process, has struggled to find a place in the numerous groupings that seek to decide the fate of the country. Its last-ditch efforts at opening a channel of communication with the Taliban, as part of its bid to engage with all stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, too has not yielded much result.

Is India likely to play a role in offering a home to Afghans – either refugees or, as it has in the past, some of the political elite?
Yes. It will probably do so on a limited scale, given the declared prioritisation only for the Hindus and Sikhs. Some members of the political elite are already in India. A few others will be in India in the coming weeks. Similarly, the government will have to clarify its policies on the thousands of Afghans who are either on study or medical visa in the country. For obvious reasons, India can’t send them back to Afghanistan, where their lives will be at risk. India needs a coordination cell dealing with repatriation, refugee and IDP settlement and humanitarian assistance.

Does India’s presence as chair of the USNC alter the potential path in any significant way?
Internationally, India needs to take a leadership role as the current UNSC chair in framing resolutions, providing relief, setting up humanitarian response teams and conflict mediation mechanisms. India cannot afford to abandon the people of Afghanistan once again without implications for its image as a reliable friend and a major power in the region. This is a unique opportunity to demonstrate its leadership role at the UNSC.

Given India’s history with them, would you expect questions about recognition of the Taliban government by New Delhi to go differently from the 1990s?
New Delhi faces a stark choice of engaging the Taliban and recognising them, or opting to totally disengage from that country. The latter would imply a return to the 1990s, where a contact-vacuum facilitated events like the IC-814 hijacking and anti-India groups like LeT, JeM finding bases to operate from that country.

A realist’s approach would be to reach out to the Taliban in order to continue aid and development assistance, and a constructivist approach seeking to link aid with conditionalities that will help in mainstreaming and blunting the extremist worldviews particularly in dealing with women, minorities and children.

While the Taliban’s ascendancy is clearly a disruptor of India’s presence in Afghanistan, some opportunities for its continued engagement could also be available in the near-medium term. The Taliban leadership has made favourable statements asking India to continue with its developmental activities. The Taliban search for legitimacy may help India retain its foothold in the country, although it may not be as intense as it used to be. However, engagement should not be tantamount to granting recognition or legitimacy.

India needs to continue its aid policy for Afghanistan to prevent a humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis. It must establish some communication links in that country to moderate the extremist movements ideology and protect the rights of women and minorities.

Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in the Laghman province on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The Northern Alliance is nothing like what it was in the 1990s. Do you believe there is space for India to continue to court players in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban?
Yes. The erstwhile Northern Alliance is a redundant force as most of the leaders have reached out to the Taliban, surrendered or fled the country. The call by the Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, to be a caretaker President to counter the Taliban and defend the territory could lead to a new resistance. To gather India’s support, Mr Saleh will have to establish his reach and unifying effort within the NA as a potent adversary to the Taliban.

You’ve written that India “missed the bus” on Afghanistan, and that “in strategic terms, India’s loss would be Pakistan and China’s gain”. Could you explain to the reader why you believe that is the case?The withdrawal of the US and resultant political change has created a huge strategic vacuum in Afghanistan. Pakistan, due to its locational and strategic advantages and links with the Taliban, and China, due to its proactive policy and links with Pakistan can hope to occupy much of this vacuum. India had twenty years to make up for its strategic and locational disadvantages.

However, it chose to rely on a policy, which looked impressive while at work, but had no long-term strategic thinking and planning built into it. One can understand the strategic competition with Pakistan which had nurtured the Taliban to regain strategic depth. But at one point of time, India was thinking of joint projects with China in Afghanistan as declared at the Wuhan informal summit. Did that fail because of China’s attitude or New Delhi’s own lackadaisical approach? This needs to be answered by policy-makers.

Do you think the current Indian administration has sufficient capacity and will to engage with all dimensions of the Afghanistan question?
The MEA is understaffed and doesn’t have enough capability and skills to get feelers from the ground. As the situation was rapidly deteriorating, New Delhi continued with its “wait and watch” policy. This has led to systemic inertia, risk aversion, lack of long-term planning, and policy fuzziness. The MEA needs trained specialists who know the language, culture, ethnography and have contacts in the field for real time information flow and action.

Some fear that the Taliban’s return to Kabul will empower terrorists and militants, and that India may see fresh surges on the LoC. Others have said that the security implications for India may not be so direct or immediate. What do you make of these fears?
The security threat is real if not immediate. Pakistan-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad have a presence in Afghanistan and are known to have built checkpoints in certain areas with the help of the Taliban. While the US-Taliban peace agreement obligates the Taliban to stop using Afghan territory for terror attacks by the al Qaeda and the Islamic State against the US and its allies, no such guarantee insulates countries like India from the activities of Kashmir-specific groups such as the LeT and JeM, and even the AQ and Islamic State’s Khorasan Province.

Its assurance to not operate in Kashmir notwithstanding, the Taliban’s capacity to prevent self-activation of these groups against India is questionable. It will boost terrorist morale and ability. However, whether it will actually result in a dramatic rise in terror attacks in J&K remains to be seen. India has pursued militancy with a multi-dimensional approach, which includes neutralisation of hundreds of cadres, targeting their over-ground networks and their financial resources. Yet, the infrastructure and the factors that breed terrorism and militancy remain.

Just a month ago you wrote a number of policy prescriptions for India in Afghanistan over the next decade, but most of them were predicated on at least a prolonged period of civil war, and not such a quick Taliban takeover. What would your list look like today?
My list had also included suggestions in the wake of a rapid take over by Taliban. My writings and suggestions were based on scenario-building, which included the rapid takeover of power by the Taliban as the worst-case scenario which the policy makers in New Delhi needed to pay heed to.

A pragmatic and astute policy would explore ways and means of engaging the Taliban to ensure continuation of its present development assistance for the Afghans to prevent a humanitarian crisis and preservation of the gains of the last two decades. The Taliban have sent such feelers for engagement for some time now that need to be carefully explored for the near and medium-term.

Such engagement could work in moderating their extremist ideology. Aid can be provided with conditionalities of preserving women, minorities and human rights. The engagement with the Taliban could be based on the Agreement on Strategic Partnership which India had signed with Afghanistan in 2011. India, having a seat at the UNSC, can take a leadership role in building international consensus of preventing the subversion of the democratic experiment in Afghanistan, ensuring that the linkages between Taliban and global terror groups are severed through monitoring by counter-terrorism committees, linking any international aid to the Taliban to protecting women and human rights and reaching out to the Afghan by the deployment of quick response teams to avoid a catastrophic humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis.

Finally, the last three questions we like to put to everyone: Are there misconceptions about Afghanistan or the India-Afghanistan relationship that you find yourself having to correct all the time, whether coming from scholars, journalists or lay people?
Yes. There are a lot of preconceived notions and stereotypes about Afghans and Afghanistan that get fed into policy and public information through the media. Most academics and journalists write on Afghanistan without even going to the country. Others write and report from Kabul, which does not depict the reality or diversity evident in the provinces. No one has made a serious effort to understand urban-rural differences or to use ethnographic data to understand the tribal and local dynamics of that country.

Are there areas of research on Afghanistan that you wish the Indian government or those in the policy space put more resources into?

  1. India’s aid and development assistance policy review & impact studies
  2. India’s security and strategic planning including hostage negotiation, evacuation and crisis management
  3. Anthropological, ethnographic and linguistic studies
  4. Institution building in fragile states
  5. A special cell on Afghanistan with external experts

What three books (or podcasts/papers/videos) would you recommend to those interested in the subject?

There are several. However, a few that stand out are:

  1. Louis Dupree, Afghanistan
  2. Ali A Jalali, A Military History of Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror
  3. Thomas J Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History
  4. Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars
  5. Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan
  6. Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos