Is the diplomatic road to Kabul re-opening? Human rights be damned

If India and China are changing, so are many other countries who realise the futility of trying to persuade a bunch of religious fundamentalists, now enjoying absolute power, to change their way of treating their people.

Mahendra Ved Feb 07, 2024
Taliban rulers in Kabul (Photo: Twitter)

After several months of a sullen pause by the world community that watched the United States execute a messy withdrawal in August 2021, leaving its people to be ruled by the Taliban, a new phase of the “Great Game” that imperial Britain began 190 years ago, is gaining pace in Afghanistan.

China, a new player, nowhere in the early phases, leads the pack.   President Xi Jinping recently accepted the credentials of Maulvi Asadullah, aka Bilal Karimi, as the Taliban envoy. Although not a formal diplomatic recognition, it is the first official recognition of the interim Taliban government by a major power. Chinese officials have stated that China believed that Afghanistan and the Afghan people should not remain isolated in terms of their engagement with the international community.

This marks a major geopolitical change in the region when the world as a whole has denied the Taliban recognition, stipulating that they allow education to their girls, work to women and set up governance that includes other ethnic groups.

The important thing is that the Taliban have set out the global isolation for 30 months now, but have not moved an inch to meet the expectations of a toothless world community that continues to voice them without the ability to secure them.

India deepening contacts

Matching the Chinese, India has reopened the embassy in Kabul that it had closed when the Taliban returned and has dispatched several what it calls "technical" officers to carry out relief and assistance to the Afghan people who are in dire economic stress. Its officers also attended a recent meeting in Kabul. Last November, the Taliban gained control of the embassy in New Delhi after several officials loyal to the previous regime resigned and the rest switched allegiance.

While this has been carried out low-profile, and contacts have been maintained through the Indian embassy in Doha, Qatar, India notably invited the Taliban envoy to the UAE, Badruddin Haqqani, to the Republic Day reception held in Abu Dhabi. The envoy belongs to the family of Haqqani Network, which targeted Indian missions and projects, allegedly at Pakistan’s behest.

India officially played it down with external affairs ministry spokesman calling the invitation "routine" and stressed that there was “no change” in New Delhi’s stance on relations with Kabul.

Diplomatic circles that have watched India’s Afghanistan policy, and officials who represented Kabul during friendly times of Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, have expressed dismay, complaining that this was not expected of India which had historically nurtured ties with the Afghan people.

Given the close India-US ties, it is safe to assume that New Delhi’s move may be in consultation with Washington which has concerns about Beijing making its forays into Afghanistan. For India, the concern is to stay ahead of Pakistan in Afghanistan, the way it had invested in public and USD three billion worth of projects from 2002 onwards till 2020.

Geoeconomic considerations

If India and China are changing, so are many other countries who realise the futility of trying to persuade a bunch of religious fundamentalists, now enjoying absolute power, to change their way of treating their people.

In a sense, the world that had supported the US-led “war on terror” after 9/11, has, despite the American failure, felt it prudent to deny recognition to the Taliban, as good diplomacy with the super-power and also supports the humanitarian objectives that the Taliban are expected to meet. That the Taliban have not obliged could not be entirely unexpected to the sharp diplomatic minds the world over.  But then, the interests of big powers are involved.

The approach was similar to the Taliban’s first regime (1996-2001). Overriding considerations were both geostrategic and geoeconomic. Many countries, especially the United States, wanted to explore oil and gas in Central Asia and build a pipeline for their safe passage via Afghanistan. Pakistan was enrolled as the country through which the pipeline would reach the Arabian Sea. That regime was recognised by the region’s three major Islamic nations: Saudi Arabia, the UAE (for a period) and Pakistan. The Taliban were hosted by Pakistan for two decades after they were evicted in end-2001.

Humanitarian sentiments overlooked

For Pakistan, the new Kabul regime that it facilitated has, however, been a mixed experience. It did not get the “strategic depth” it hoped. Border tensions have persisted. Islamabad is sore that Kabul shelters thousands of Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) who, it says, operate from Afghan soil. But it is conscious of its role in Afghanistan that it must play in tandem with Beijing.

Hence, significantly, there seems to be a quiet halt in Islamabad pushing out the Afghan refugees. In the last quarter of 2023, over 300,000 Afghans were forced out. Charging that they were involved in terrorism, the army-backed caretaker government set an abrupt deadline. That caused misery to the Afghans and angered Kabul’s Taliban rulers. The United Nations and many rights bodies expressed concern. It all ended before end-2023. Unmistakably, the red signal came from Beijing. 

Pakistan wants to help China also because it hopes to benefit as and when the latter extends the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. The former Shehbaz Sharif government vigorously advocated that Turkey, another major player in the region, join the China-led effort.  

For now, China’s state-owned company MCC is keen to begin work delayed by long years of conflict, on a USD 3.8 billion contract on Mes Aynak, the world’s second-largest copper deposit. It is close to Bamiyan, where the historic Buddha statues, once the pride of the Afghan people, lie destroyed. With no prospects at all of their being restored, Bamiyan is on its way to gaining a new identity. It suits everyone.

 “China has apparently conveyed to other countries that the Afghan Taliban’s control over Afghanistan or the Taliban’s Afghan interim government is a reality that cannot and should not be ignored,” Dawn newspaper wrote on February 5, 2024.

Forget the lofty humanitarian sentiments for the Afghan people, especially its suppressed women, that every international player will continue to talk about: geoeconomics appears to govern the gingerly opening of the diplomatic road towards Kabul. Prospects are that this may gain momentum in the coming months.

As of now, the US and its Western allies are not directly in the picture, but will not lag once the quasi-recognition gains momentum. The US is still clueless about how to deal with Kabul. President Biden carried out the withdrawal as per the legacy he inherited from Donald Trump, his predecessor. The US may await a new president to determine its Afghanistan policy in 2025. It will be business as usual thereafter. 

(The author is a veteran journalist and President Emeritus,Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). Views are personal. He can be reached at

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