Evolving Equation between India and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Almost a year has passed since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August last year and the end of the international military and diplomatic presence in the country. States not having diplomatic engagement with the Taliban stood to lose more from the situation, including India. However, a year into power, it seems that the Taliban are here to stay as they have few internal or external threats to their regime. Realising that the Taliban is a long-term reality now, staunch opponents of the Taliban, in some capitals, have been easing their relations with them. India, which has a long history of supporting anti-Taliban groups financially and militarily, has also re-established its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. New Delhi believes its absence will give Islamabad an uncontested space in Kabul. Other regional players’ presence, such as that of China, Russia, and Iran, also motivates India to regain its lost place in Afghanistan, more so as it has regional and global ambitions.

From Aid to Diplomacy

Anticipating the future of the Afghan war tilt in favour of the Taliban, Indian officials started meeting Taliban representatives long before August 2021. Not that India was desirous of welcoming them, but it was to prepare the grounds in case the Taliban gained control in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it also continued to undermine the Taliban and support the long-term presence of the international coalition against them, which best served its interests.

After the August 2021 takeover by the Taliban, appeals made by United Nations and other international organisations provided India with the grounds to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. India committed to sending wheat and other essential items. Sending humanitarian assistance was the first practical step in India-Taliban warming up. After small sympathetic gestures of providing aid, India started to open up diplomatically. Fast forward to 2 June 2022, an Indian foreign ministry delegation made its first official trip to Afghanistan, where they discussed diplomatic and trade relations with Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. After this maiden meeting between Indian and Taliban officials, India reopened its embassy in Kabul on 23 June 2022, on the pretext of monitoring and coordinating assistance to Afghanistan.

Both parties have realised the benefits of engagement against the extreme positions they had taken in the past. For India, the absence from Afghanistan has given Pakistan an open field, and for the Taliban, India is important as a source of aid and legitimacy.

Due to its support to anti-Taliban groups such as the Northern Alliance and the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, India was completely cut-off from Afghanistan during the last rule of the Taliban in 1996 and after their recent return to power. India could only see events happening in Afghanistan from the outside. This time it seems to have realised its disadvantageous one-sided position in Afghanistan and decided to have an uninterrupted presence in the country. Now, India may also want to expand its relations with different Afghan groups in a bid to maintain a broad-based and continued presence in Afghanistan.

For India, countering Pakistani influence remains a major policy objective in Afghanistan. In this regard, it took proactive measures during the previous Afghan regimes. On the one hand, India worked to widen the gulf between Pakistan and Afghanistan diplomatically. On the other hand, it used Afghan soil against Pakistan by providing training facilities to the anti-Pakistan insurgents with support from Ghani and Karzai governments in Afghanistan. However, this time, due to the changed reality, India may not be able to freely support anti-Pakistan elements operating from Afghanistan. Therefore, the focus will be mainly on the psychological domain. Re-establishing contact and providing possible moral and material support to them will remain near-term Indian objectives in Afghanistan.

Besides supporting anti-Pakistan elements, India hopes to create mistrust between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan. Recently, Indian media tried to link the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) attack on a Gurdwara in Kabul with Pakistan. It claimed, quoting Indian intelligence sources, that Pakistan was using ISKP to send Kabul and New Delhi a message about its unhappiness with their rapprochement. By using such tactics, India will not only hope to gain the sympathy of the Taliban but also create mistrust against Pakistan.

The Taliban are Welcoming Too

It is not only India that wants to make inroads in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are also welcoming the resumption of contacts with India. Afghan ministers have, in several instances, shown their willingness to work with India. Afghan Defence Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob has signalled to send Afghan army personnel to India for training.

The primary objectives behind the Taliban’s openness to India remain to get aid from it and, at the same time, the hope that diplomatic engagement with India would bring legitimacy to their rule. Indian assistance to Afghanistan during the previous regimes demonstrates the Indian capacity and possibility to provide similar aid in the future to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan if both sides agree to bridge their political differences. Like other Muslim countries, the Afghan Taliban have also started to stay away from commenting on the rise of extremism and anti-Muslim violence in India in the interest of commercial and political benefits.

This time both parties have realised the benefits of engagement against the extreme positions they had taken in the past. For India, the absence from Afghanistan has given Pakistan an open field, and for the Taliban, India is important as a source of aid and legitimacy. Both sides see there are tangible benefits from the warming up. Consequently, the challenge for Pakistan is to deal with this emerging situation.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali works on nuclear and strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He tweets at @samranali6.

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