Implications of India’s engagement with the Taliban for Pakistan
On June 2, the Indian External Affairs Ministry’s (EAM) delegation met the Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul. Indian EAM’s Joint Secretary J.P. Singh and focal person for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, led the Indian delegation to Kabul to oversee Delhi’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. In January, some Indian officials quietly visited Kabul to assess Afghanistan’s ground situation since the Taliban took power last August. Months of quiet diplomacy between India and the Taliban preceded the two visits. The June 2 visit is a precursor to reopening the Taliban embassy, albeit at a lower level, to resume consular services and monitoring of Indian humanitarian assistance to Kabul.
In recent years, India’s Afghan policy has undergone a paradigm shift as its longstanding approach of not talking to the Taliban has been replaced with realist pragmatism. Delhi covertly met the Taliban leadership for the first time in Qatar in 2020. Subsequently, Indian EAM participated in the signing ceremony of the US-Taliban deal in Doha in February 2020. Like several other countries, India closed its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover. Two weeks after that, India’s Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met the current Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Abbas Stanikzai to request a secure evacuation of remaining Indian officials and workers from Afghanistan. Some analysts believe the Taliban’s assistance in facilitating the remaining Indians’ safe exit from Afghanistan served as the first confidence-building measure between the two sides.
In the 1990’s, India was part of the Russia, Iran and Central Asian regional grouping, which supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Partly, the current Indian approach is consistent with the policies of these regional states who have engaged the Taliban regime without diplomatically recognizing their regime. Since 2020, Washington’s prodding to Delhi to directly discuss its security concerns with the Taliban also pushed India out of its ambivalence towards the militant group.
In recent years, India’s Afghan policy has undergone a paradigm shift as its longstanding approach of not talking to the Taliban has been replaced with realist pragmatism.
Abdul Basit Khan
The following three factors have shaped Delhi’s current outreach to the Taliban.
First, since embracing the US as its strategic partner against China, India is keen to assert itself as a major power in the region. Hence, instead of ceding the geopolitical space to its regional rivals Pakistan and China after the US exit, Delhi wants to retain a foothold in Afghanistan. In the last two decades, India has spent over $3 billion in economic reconstruction and infrastructure development in Afghanistan, including the new parliament building and the hydropower and irrigation Salma Dam, also known as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam. At the very least, India wants to preserve these projects.
Secondly, by continuing humanitarian assistance, India wants to build some leverage over the Taliban regime. So far, India has sent 500,000 COVID-19 doses, 20,000 metric tons of wheat, medicine and warm clothing. Delhi’s outreach to the Taliban is akin to the US approach of pursuing limited engagement without recognizing their regime to create a synchronized response towards Taliban-ruled Afghanistan over shared interests. In the current circumstances, this lowest-common-denominator approach allows states like India to stay relevant in Afghanistan amid a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment. For states like India, abandonment is not an option as it will obliterate the limited leverage it has built over the Taliban. Partially, this outreach has been shaped by the Taliban’s reluctance to act against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) despite Pakistan’s repeated requests. The Taliban’s defiance of Pakistan has given Delhi an optimism to engage with the Taliban selectively.
Thirdly, Indian engagement with the Taliban emanates from the transnational terrorist threat from Al-Qaeda and Daesh Khorasan. Since the Taliban’s takeover, Al-Qaeda’s present chief Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri has appeared in several videos which have targeted India. Zawahiri has consistently commented on political developments in India, particularly the ban on hijab in educational institutes by some Indian states and other Islamophobic trends. More recently, Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate Al-Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent (AQIS) has threatened Delhi with terrorist attacks after incendiary remarks of two officials of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar, against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is essential to mention that in April 2020, after the US-Taliban deal, AQIS changed the name of its Urdu-language monthly propaganda magazine from Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad to Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind, indicating a shift of focus from Afghanistan to India. Likewise, after threatening suicide attacks in retaliation to Sharma and Naveen’s remarks, ISKP targeted a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul on June 18. During their meeting with Indian officials in Kabul, the Taliban have assured Delhi of acting against AQIS and other threat groups on pinpointed intelligence.
The Indian outreach to the Taliban will not impact Pakistan’s ties with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Though the Taliban have defied Pakistan’s pressure to act against TTP, the group can maintain a balance in its dealings with India and Pakistan. The Taliban will not allow Afghanistan to become a ground for the India-Pakistan proxy war.
The Taliban also realize that given their ethnic and geographical proximity to Pakistan, the militant group cannot afford to alienate Islamabad. Delhi’s humanitarian assistance to Kabul through Islamabad gels well with Pakistan’s pivot from geo-strategy to geo-economy under the new National Security Policy framework. The new policy framework envisages peace with neighbours as the prerequisite of trade and regional economic integration.
Finally, with the passage of time, the growing Taliban-Delhi engagement will pave the way for India-Pakistan cooperation on shared interests concerning Afghanistan. Hence, while being watchful of its interests and threats to its security from Afghanistan, Pakistan should see India’s outreach to the Taliban in a positive light.
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of. International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher.