India must come out in support of the rights of women in Afghanistan

It is in India’s strategic interest to continue its engagement with the Taliban, but withhold any official recognition, and continue to wait and watch to see if the regime’s assurances are matched by its deeds, writes Nisha Sahai Achuthan for South Asia Monitor

Nisha Sahai Achuthan Oct 06, 2021
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Afghan women protesting

As per media reports, the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has written to the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) India, requesting commercial flights to Kabul be resumed. India had stopped the flights after August 15 when the Sunni Islamic group took over the Afghan capital.

Earlier, the Indian Ambassador to Qatar Deepak Mittal held a meeting with the head of the Taliban's political office in Doha, Qatar, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai on August 31, upon the latter's request. The Indian side had then expressed fears that anti-India militants could use Afghanistan's soil to mount attacks, and an assurance was given by the Taliban that “these issues would be positively addressed."

Stanekzai -- trained at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun in the 1980s—was cleverly being used by the Taliban for softening India, and who had reportedly reached out to India informally in July too, asking it not to shut down its embassy. Further, as per Indian press reports, on the eve of the August 31 meeting, Stanekzai, in a video posted on Taliban’s social media platform, while dwelling upon Taliban’s views on relations with key countries in the region, including India, Pakistan, China and Russia, stated: “India is very important for this subcontinent… We give due importance to our political, cultural, economic and trade ties with India and we want these to continue like in the past. . .We are looking forward to working with India in this regard…Trade with India through Pakistan is very important for us. With India, trade through air corridors will also remain open.”

In the same breath, he added that “Afghanistan wants to have brotherly relations with Pakistan,” and thanked them for hosting millions of Afghan refugees.

Later, following the formation of the Taliban’s interim government, acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi too is said to have reached out to India on the matter of travel by Afghan students, who have secured scholarships offered by the Indian government.

Taliban wooing India

All these are moves designed by the Taliban to seek legitimacy by having India consider recognition of the regime officially and resume its economic aid and work on infrastructure and developmental projects. In a statement, Afghanistan's former ambassador to India, in April 2017 said: "India is the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth-largest donor globally with over USD 3 billion in assistance. India has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over 1,000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students."

So far India, like many other countries, UN and multilateral agencies, have held out on official recognition to the regime while using the Taliban’s baits to incrementally have them come round to offering assurances on its topmost security concern - terrorist activities from Afghan soil. India has also been highlighting the concern at UN fora and with the top leadership in the US and other countries, in particular focusing on Pakistan’s role in instigating the same, given its close historical ties with the Taliban.

Concurrently, India’s immediate and urgent goal during August was to evacuate its citizens, before the US troop withdrawal. India’s first air rescue operation was carried out on August 17, when an Indian Air Force aircraft brought back 120 Indians, including the Indian Ambassador. It also flew 44 Afghan Sikhs, who safely brought back three copies of the Sikh holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib. It may be recalled that in March 2020, when the gurudwara in Kabul was attacked, the Indian government had helped  383 Afghan Sikhs  come to India.

India operated the last Indian Air Force flight out of Kabul on August 21 to evacuate another lot of its citizens along with some nationals of other countries via Tajikistan capital Dushanbe.

At an all-party meet on August 26, the country’s ruling BJP-led NDA informed the opposition parties that its priority had been the evacuation of all Indians from Afghanistan.

India’s tactical moves

It was only after these operations were over in late August, and the Taliban announced a hardline interim government on September 6. that India felt it was in a position to publicly criticize the Taliban. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a virtual address to a joint meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on Sept. 17 said that the “change of power in Afghanistan was not inclusive and has taken place without negotiation…that this raises questions about the acceptability of the new regime”. He stressed on representation of all sections of Afghan society, including women and minorities, in the government.

“Therefore, the world community must decide on the recognition of the new regime thoughtfully and collectively…India supports the central role of the UN on this issue,” he added.  

By implication thereby India concurred both with the UN on the matter of recognition of the Taliban and also presumably with the conditions the UN and its human rights agency had placed before the Taliban on August 30, and also thereafter.

PM Modi’s statement was followed by a similar one by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar on September 22 while addressing the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting on Afghanistan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). He said: “The world expects a broad-based inclusive process that involves representation from all sections of Afghan society…UNSC resolution 2593, which reflects global sentiment, should continue to guide our approach.”

Assessment of India’s position

India has drawn flak from some quarters for saying too little, too late, against the Taliban, and that to date it has not come out with strong condemnation of Taliban’s reported highhandedness against certain sections of Afghans, including women and minorities, and its denial of their basic rights, in clear violation of internationally accepted norms and also in holding them accountable for it, as the US has.

As for the “too late” part of the criticism, one could easily find an analogy in the US as a case study, where its leadership too held out its criticism of the Taliban and holding it accountable for protecting the rights of women and minorities, until its prioritized security goal of undertaking the herculean task of evacuating most of its citizens had been met before its withdrawal on August 31.

On August 26, US Vice President Kamala Harris, upon being asked by reporters on the last day of her trip to Southeast Asia, had to respond by saying that the “Biden administration will work with its allies to protect women and children, as the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan continues…There’s no question that any of us who are paying attention are concerned about that issue in Afghanistan.”

As for the US State Department, it was only on August 30, that it released the statement of Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support. The message is any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned. The Taliban can do that by meeting commitments and obligations – on freedom of travel; respecting the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities; upholding its commitments on counterterrorism; not carrying out reprisal violence against those who choose to stay in Afghanistan, and forming an inclusive government…”

On September 14, following the UN appeal “for helping 11 million Afghans facing an escalating humanitarian crisis in their homeland…with the poverty rate spiraling and basic public services nearing collapse,” US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the US was committed to providing humanitarian assistance for Afghans, and would add USD 64 million in new assistance for UN and partner organizations.

But she added: “We need oral and written commitments made by the Taliban about operating rights of humanitarian agencies and the treatment and rights of minority groups, women and girls to be upheld”.

“Words are not good enough. We must see action,” she concluded.

On September 13-14 itself, Blinken, in his first official testimony on Afghanistan after the US exit to members of the US Congress clarified that “the money, the US pledged, will bypass the Taliban government and go directly to NGOs and local aid groups.” and added that the international community holds "significant leverage" over the Taliban, given the country's reliance on international aid.

“What we have to look at is an insistence that every country, to include Pakistan, make good on the expectations that the international community has of what is required of a Taliban-led government if it’s to receive any legitimacy of any kind or any support…ensuring that the Taliban respect the rights of women, girls and minorities, as well as adhere to promises that the countries not again become a haven for outward-directed terror.”

Blinken also said that he “planned to establish a position in the State Department dedicated to assisting Afghan women and girls.”

On September 21, in his speech at the UNGA, US President Joe Biden stated: ‘We all must advocate for women — the rights of women and girls to use their full talents to contribute economically, politically, and socially and pursue their dreams free of violence and intimidation — from Central America to the Middle East, to Africa, to Afghanistan — wherever it appears in the world. He also referred to the “expectations to which we will hold the Taliban when it comes to respecting universal human rights.”

India’s stand

To sum up, in the context of the Taliban, while there is a seeming parallel between India and the US on when a country’s prioritized security goals supersede all else, in India’s case its stand is also predicated on its long-term security concerns close to its borders, and as such are more immediate.

For instance, the hardline Haqqani faction of the Taliban, having close ties with Pakistan historically, are well represented in the Taliban interim cabinet, and as such it is in India’s strategic interest to continue its engagement with the Taliban, but withhold any official recognition, and continue to wait and watch to see if the regime’s assurances are matched by its deeds.

But while playing a delicate balancing act, India also needs to now go the extra mile by officially coming out in support of the rights of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban and holding it accountable, as the US and many others have done. The time too seems to be right, given the added leverage India has, following the recent overtures of the Taliban. There is also India’s robust record of working for women’s education and empowerment for decades with the previous government in Afghanistan.    

(The writer was a Joint Secretary in the Joint Intelligence Committee, Cabinet Secretariat and former Member-Secretary, National Commission for Women, India. She holds a doctorate in International Relations from Columbia University. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at ns570@columbia.edu)

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