A Taliban patrol in Kabul, August 18, 2021 (Photo: AP)
Christine Fair, Professor Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, has over the years earned a reputation for being one of the world’s foremost experts on military affairs and politics in South Asia. A polyglot, she has spent quality time in Afghanistan and Pakistan besides other countries to study how terror outfits and armies there operate. Fair, who was once a political officer with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in Kabul, is an authority on anti-India terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba; Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War; and Urban Battlefields of South Asia: Lessons Learned from Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. She speaks to Openabout the visit of an India external affairs ministry team to Kabul to engage with the Taliban and the opportunities and challenges of such an outreach.
What are your immediate thoughts on India engaging with the Taliban?
The Taliban have no governance abilities such as the provision of public goods and services. This is what is motivating the outreach. Afghans (the people) dislike Pakistan and prefer India so this is a clever move on the Taliban’s part. India no doubt thinks that engaging the Taliban will secure its interests. (This is the US’ faulty logic). Also, the personnel deployment to resume India’s stalled projects is an intelligence opportunity. That’s the ostensible upside. Downsides? The Taliban haven’t severed ties with groups targeting India nor can the Taliban protect Indians from attacks by other groups, such as the Islamic state. How many Indians will die to secure interests that aren’t likely to be secured?
Taliban has requested India to return to Afghanistan to resume its infrastructure and other projects. They have also said India must reopen its missions in that country. How feasible is it for India to do that?
I’m not an Indian. So, I will be circumspect. The biggest problem is security. The Taliban may not attack Indian assets or their personnel, but they remain vulnerable to LeT (Lashkar-e-Tayyaba) and ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) among others. India in some considerable measure benefited from the security from the US-NATO presence. In Kabul, the Indian embassy was in the NATO-secured enclave. So, I would be concerned about security for the personnel.
What do you think is the significance of this outreach to the Taliban?
The Taliban is screwed: they can fight with Pakistan’s unstinting support, but they can’t govern. This, in my view, is what is motivating this. In effect, India will be exposing its personnel to advance Taliban governance on the vague hope that doing so will secure India’s interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
What are the hazards of a long-term engagement with the current regime in Afghanistan? What kind of role do you expect Pakistan to play in Afghanistan that India should be wary of?
Pakistan supports the Taliban because of their hostility to India. This (development) will motivate Pakistan to continue its support to the Islamic State. It also provides an appealing target set to the LeT. There will be more strikes on India if Pakistan feels it is constrained by China in attacking Indian assets in Afghanistan.
Is the Taliban regime as stable as it is perceived to be?
Militarily, yes. but it needs Pakistan’s help. This move will cause friction between the Talibs and Pakistan as well as between the Taliban and China. This move will likely bring more insecurity than security. But India’s MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) may see these benefits to be greater than the costs. The Indian voter probably doesn’t care. So, this will be low cost for the government politically.