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Resistance against inclusion of Taliban in SAARC is justified. The Islamist group has much to do to win world’s trust

Now, with the Taliban in Kabul, and Pakistan playing its local guardian, regional cooperation in South Asia is bound to remain a chimera.

No tears need be shed for the cancellation of the SAARC foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, given that so much in the region is lost already. Afghanistan was inducted into SAARC in 2007, a decision that recognised its struggle to emerge from years of war and isolation, and its historical, political, religious, economic and cultural links to the rest of the region. The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban is a massive setback to South Asia. It is yet to be officially recognised by any country, or by the United Nations, though some Western nations are engaged with it to provide humanitarian aid. In the SAARC grouping, even Pakistan, which makes no secret of its support for the Taliban government, has yet to declare official recognition of the new set up in Kabul. So it is surprising that it wanted the Taliban symbolically represented at the planned regional meeting, with an empty chair (Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s “acting foreign minister”, designated and sanctioned as a terrorist under United Nations Security Council resolution 1267 like many other Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan cabinet members, could not have attended). The move appears to have been an attempt to pressgang SAARC to grant de facto legitimacy to the IEA. It is not clear how many SAARC capitals pushed back against this, but it is certain Delhi would have been among them, and rightly so. As SAARC works by consensus, the meeting has had to be called off.

However, the larger issue of recognition of the IEA is looming. The IEA has written to the UN Secretary General to accept its own chosen Permanent Representative to the UN. But recognition is the only leverage the world now has with the Taliban, and it is in no position to grant this easily, especially as the IEA has conveyed quite clearly that it does not intend to address, at least to begin with, global concerns about a Haqqani heavy government without women and ethnic minorities. The UN should take its time considering the Taliban request.

It may be time to face up to the fact that there is no real chance of reviving an already moribund SAARC. It has been years since there was a summit, principally because it is Pakistan’s turn to host it, and Delhi has refused to participate due to the tensions between the two countries over terrorist incidents and other issues. Other SAARC arrangements, including regional trade, have never been able to get off the ground due to the forever hostility between the two big neighbours. To get around this, there was already talk of a separate grouping that would be “SAARC minus 1”. Now, with the Taliban in Kabul, and Pakistan playing its local guardian, regional cooperation in South Asia is bound to remain a chimera.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 23, 2021 under the title ‘Af-Pak ambush’.

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