When Army Major General Christopher T Donahue boarded a C-17 On August 30 2021 at Kabul International airport, he drew to an end the 20-year Western involvement in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Taliban completed its rapid advance on the capital, taking power and instilling its government.

The fall which resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, women crisis and collapsing of the economy was in every sense catastrophic. It created crisis of domestic security in Afghanistan and international security as the terrorist organisation got back to the country.

In the year that has passed since this moment, Afghanistan's troubles have exacerbated because of the political crisis of an illegitimate government and absence of national and international support. The country is now home to one of the world's biggest humanitarian crises. At least 90% of the population are currently living below the poverty line.

The country's economy has been crippled by the added pressures of financial sanctions on the banking sector. Islamic State and other terror groups have attacked the nascent regime. Minority groups have been attacked adding to the drivers of outward migration.

Human rights groups are concerned as the Taliban continue implementing their extreme interpretations of Sharia Law which predominantly bans women to homes. The regression of women rights and banning girls from school beyond grade-six are stark reminders of the difficult conditions in Afghanistan.

Once the focus of international attention, Afghanistan has been abandoned by much of the international community as the events of 2021 fade from memory. Afghans are also competing for international attention as crises in other parts of the world occupy Western policymaking and media.

In Jun 2022 an earthquake measuring magnitude 6.2 struck south-eastern Afghanistan. It affected the provinces of Paktika and Khost. As reported it was felt over 500 km away by at least 119 million people. At least 1,163 people died and more than 6,000 others were injured throughout eastern Afghanistan the deadliest in Afghanistan since 1998. At least 10,000 homes had collapsed or were severely damaged.

However, the rescue and relief was never like what it has been for the rest of the world. Further the flooding in Pakistan and Afghanistan could not have come at the worst timing. While this has affected mostly the poor, the sanctions that have been imposed have impacted the poor and the middle class the most. And of course the women have suffered the maximum.

In Tashkent on July 26 2022, Uzbekistan convened an international conference on Afghanistan. More than 100 delegations from nearly 30 countries attended the event, mingling with the Taliban. Many of the governments, especially those from Central Asia, were clearly pushing toward an eventual normalization of relations with the new powers in Kabul.

It was agreed by most participating nations that the economy and people's livelihood are facing serious difficulties Frequent natural disasters have also added hardship. Around 72% of the Afghan population live below the poverty line, with 23 million people facing a shortage of food.

The IS launches terrorist attacks every now and then, and the terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ETIM are taking advantage of that situationto accumulate strength. Terrorism and security threats in Afghanistan are far from alleviation. With distraction from the Ukraine issue, external attention and input to assist Afghan people both have declined.

Life under the Taliban is the worst women's rights crisis on the planet. When the Taliban returned to power last August, they imposed immediate and brutal restrictions, the harshest of which were reserved for women. They quickly imposed a ban on girls' secondary education, which remains in place despite domestic and international demands to lift it.

They also placed restrictions on women's movement, requiring women to be accompanied by a male family member while traveling, and women's dress, ordering women to cover their faces in public. Girls and women are also no longer allowed to play sports. Amnesty International, in its latest July 27 2022 report "Death in Slow Motion" noted that "Women in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban group are experiencing slow-motion death caused by a system of repression" as the Taliban "have violated the right of women and girls to education, work, and free movement.

The US and European countries froze US $9.5 billion of Afghanistan 's assets after the Taliban came to power in August 2021. The country is in a devastating economic crisis that plunges the population to hunger and poverty. The participants in Tashkent conference unequivocally impressed the importance of unfreezing Afghanistan's financial assets.

These should be directed by the country's government to address socio-economic and humanitarian issues, problems in the areas of health and education, meet the needs and requirements of the 35 million Afghan population, and implement major investment projects.

The forum stated that today the main priority should be the revival and strengthening of the Afghan economy, the promotion of the country's integration into interregional economic processes, the promotion of socially significant and infrastructure projects, including the formation of transregional transport, energy and other corridors.

However, any progress on this front seems remote in the near future as there is a need for reasonable and serious steps to be taken to professionalize the central bank, to enhance its anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing architecture.

In the same forum, Taliban acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan Amir Khan Muttaqi, who led the delegation of the Interim Government stated that Afghanistan will no longer be a source of instability in the region. Because the leadership guarantees that the territory of the country will not be used by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and will function as a state with whom the world can engage.

However, the Taliban as a political entity behaves very differently to how a state should function. It is giving minimum deliveries of state services and in certain sectors none at all. There is this lack of understanding which makes it very difficult to make sense of the situation. All that was claimed to have been implemented have not happened on ground. The transition of Taliban from an insurgent group to a political entity has not happened in any sense at all.

There are questions on the decision making process, capacity in that domain and doubts on engagement and with whom to engage. Nowhere in the world does the government stop children from going to school. Nowhere a central bank is involved in money laundering.

As the situation is moving from crisis to crisis, is there a way out for Afghan people and this unprecedented human crisis? It is understandable that Afghan people and state leaders were responsible for the fall of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. While on one side it was poor judgement on part of the international community, on the other it was consequences of the irresponsible action of many. However, the only way forward now is to engage and engage.

There is a need of political strategy to tackle the issue of legitimacy of the current dispensation along with security against terrorism on the other side. The Doha agreement still stands as the only available legal framework to move forward. This has been endorsed by the UN Security Council, though only one agreement has been honoured so far. The same can be leveraged as the Taliban say that they are committed to it. They did not want peace when they were out of power. But now they do.

The country continues to suffer, with all sorts of humanitarian crises and draconian social laws which slowly but surely is strangling the life out of the people. Afghan people are being punished for no mistake of theirs. They were not responsible for 9/11. After 20 years of bloodshed the livelihood and lives of people are in danger.

For the countries of the region at least remember what it was when once the Afghan jihad had been won, Soviet forces expelled, the country was forgotten till the 9/11 attacks happened. The price of forgetting Afghanistan is too high, but the world seems to be doing just that.

It is difficult to envisage any meaningful engagement between the international community and Afghanistan if there is no change in the attitude and ways of government and governance. The Taliban are slowly but surely reverting to the style of governance that they had introduced during their previous stint.

Forming a broad representation of all layers of the Afghan society in state governance, ensuring basic human rights and freedoms, especially of women and all ethnic-confessional groups remain a fundamental condition for establishing a lasting peace in Afghanistan. Yet this is not happening.

The Taliban have been repeatedly urged by the international community to implement a broad-based government and respect the rule of law. While the group keeps giving assurances of doing just that. What is happening on the ground is starkly different. There have been more attacks on minorities. About 50 people were killed when the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) attacked the Karte Parwan Gurdwara in Kabul on June 18 of this year.

When Ayman Al Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda was killed on Afghan territory, The Taliban's reaction was to issue a reprimand of US actions which violated Afghan "sovereignty". The Haqqani Network continues to be part of the current Afghan administration. Meanwhile, internal strife continues inside the country between the Panjshir Resistance and the Taliban, as also between the Taliban and the IS-KP.

The Panjshir Resistance also has external support. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan should not be viewed in silos as it is the outcome of the political realities that have unfolded in the region over the past few decades. Without internal peace and security, it is difficult to envisage Afghanistan as a state as also a stable link in regional connectivity and development.

What is the Way Forward for India?

The ties between the sovereign nation-states India and Afghanistan go back to 1950, when a 'Treaty of Friendship' gave a concrete political shape to their "civilisational" relationship. Evidence suggests that Afghanistan, which India today describes as its "contiguous neighbour", was approached as an "equal partner" well up till the 1980s.

However, with the invasion by the USSR (1979-89), a deadly Civil War (1992-96), and finally the takeover of Afghanistan by an extremist Taliban (1996-2001), the Afghan nation-state underwent a series of crises from which there has since been no return.

With its interests in the region, it will be imprudent for India to leave the evolving Afghan situation to its fate, especially when the other regional players involved in the process are not particularly friendly towards India. For that matter, India must make its presence felt for its own sake and for the well-being of the larger Afghan nation, which has often looked to it for support.

Its engagement with the Taliban ought not be viewed as an acceptance of the Taliban regime as Afghanistan's legitimate political leadership. Instead, it must be seen as an attempt to deal with a government that lacks the administrative and political wherewithal to run a country in the long run as also batting for Afghan people.

The initiative started in Feb 2022 with the movement of wheat to ameliorate immediate food crisis has been a welcome step. The same must be pursued continuously as Afghan people have faith in India and the Indian community.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have been making a series of public moves to India, which was really an unlikely prospective partner country, given that the Taliban have been allied with Pakistan, which is an arch rival of India. So in many ways, this is a stunning development.

There are some real tensions between the Taliban and the Pakistani government in the recent past. For one, the Taliban have taken a position which is contrary to Pakistan's expectation on the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is fair to assume that there is enough distance between the arch-rival Pakistan and the Taliban, that the Taliban after all are not a mere proxy of the Pakistanis, and that there might be some room for India to forge a working relationship with the Taliban.

The Taliban interest is also based on economics, which is an even more progressive domain to engage. And that is because the Taliban are really struggling to govern the country. The fact that they are not diplomatically recognised is making it difficult for them to just fund their government: it's short on resources, there's a humanitarian crisis in the country, there are issues of food security.

The Taliban are hoping that the Indians would increase their supplies of wheat to the country. And over the medium term, the Taliban seem to be interested in India reviving its development projects in Afghanistan. India built a lot of hospitals, so the Taliban appear to be interested in India reviving some of those activities as well.

The Indian government has told the Taliban, that if they want a relationship with us, there is need to also engage on our terrorism concerns. The Taliban for their part appears to have reciprocated with some guarantees similar to what they have provided to the United States government, that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used against India. It seems the Taliban have said that they are even ready to take action on any intelligence that the Indians might provide.

Given the recent developments and drive by other nations as is evident from the Tashkent Conference, India, with its age old people to people ties and more interest in the region with maximum stakes, must not lose its space and continue to engage both with people and the government, Whether it be through the soft power of humanitarian aid or in policy and hard issues, any opportunity misses will be to a great disadvantage.

Lt General JK Sharma,PhD is an Army veteran.