India’s “quiet” rendezvous with the Taliban in Doha was confirmed by a senior Qatar official, thereby marking a striking policy shift in New Delhi’s approach to Afghanistan. The development highlights the transition from a nonexistent relationship to the onset of a diplomatic engagement, underscoring New Delhi’s acknowledgment of the Taliban as a critical component of future Afghanistan. However, communication was predictably restricted to the “nationalist” factions of the Taliban and those outside the influence of Iranian and Pakistani deep states. In the past, while Indian intelligence agencies have purportedly maintained contact with various Taliban factions, the transition of intelligence-motivated association into a diplomatic outreach policy will necessitate governmental intervention.
New Delhi’s willingness to engage largely stems from the concern about a potential upswing in anti-India militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), particularly with the Taliban’s increasing territorial dominance. The security threat is highly pertinent given the deep-rooted historic ties of the aforementioned militant outfits with the Afghan Taliban, as well as the association of certain factions with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). After all, the Taliban-supported 1999 Kandahar hijacking served as a watershed in India’s history of terrorism.
Developments in Afghanistan are happening alongside persistent domestic resentment in Kashmir over the revocation of the region’s special status, granted under the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, in August 2019. An AQIS communication in March 2020, calling for the group to strengthen its position in the India-administered Jammu and Kashmir region, corroborated New Delhi’s apprehensions.
The latest engagement debilitates the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s “no-talks-with-terror” hardliner rhetoric. An absence of confirmation or acknowledgement from the Indian government officials further signal New Delhi’s qualms over the domestic discourse, given the traditionally adversarial India-Taliban relationship. Such apprehensions came into play immediately after reports emerged of India’s engagement with the Taliban, with the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, questioning the BJP’s unwillingness to open dialogue with Pakistan.
As such, the strategic move to talk with the Taliban broadly demonstrates a regional security imperative for India, with Pakistan’s intense interventionism in Afghanistan and the departure of foreign troops until September 11. While India has batted for “an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process,” the development indicates New Delhi’s efforts to regulate Islamabad’s influence in the process. Additionally, with China in the picture, the regional race for influence in Afghanistan is unlikely to alleviate in the near future.
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India’s reported billion-dollar investments in Afghan developmental projects further dictates New Delhi’s interests. In November 2020, India announced over 100 projects worth $80 million. In that context, to sustain its relevance in the country and deter the Taliban from nurturing anti-India components, it is wise for New Delhi to continue extending financial assistance to Afghanistan in the near term, irrespective of a change in the country’s power structure.
Meanwhile, the engagement points to the Taliban’s efforts to gain international relevance and posture itself as a legitimate political entity by engaging with the regional players. In February 2020, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deputy leader of the Taliban, asserted that the Taliban “acknowledge importance of maintaining friendly relations with all countries and take their concerns seriously.” Meanwhile, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen distanced the outfit from the Kashmir conundrum.
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Irrespective of such a narrative, New Delhi’s trust deficit is unlikely to be mitigated, considering the Taliban have played host to vast anti-India militant outfits in the past. India’s inevitable skepticism is further a product of the enduring anti-India position of the Haqqani Network, an autonomous branch of the Taliban with a deep affiliation to Pakistan’s security elements. The Haqqani Network has explicitly demonstrated its stance by launching repeated offenses against India’s interests in Afghanistan, including attacks on India’s diplomatic missions in Kabul in 2008 and Herat in 2014.
The India-Taliban engagement is still at a very early stage, and both sides are expected to be wary of each other’s moves and motives. Concurrently, observers from Kabul and Islamabad are expected to closely monitor any progress, with Pakistan already exhibiting its discomfort over the developments. In the coming term, India should further widen its engagement with other regional nations including Russia and Iran, and explore possibilities of cooperation to avoid alienation in Afghanistan’s future.