India is preparing to minimize threats to its interests in Afghanistan as US-led military operations in Afghanistan are about to end and the prospect of the Taliban emerging as a vital component of the next Afghan government is becoming inevitable.
India has a bitter experience with the Taliban when it controlled Kabul between 1996 and 2001. After all, this was the outfit that had played a notorious role in helping and escorting terrorists into Pakistan following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999.
It remained thoroughly antagonistic to India those five years. It provided Pakistan the so-called strategic depth against India, apart from supporting, directly and indirectly, the terrorist violence in Kashmir.
That the Taliban has close links with the Pakistani ISI is well-known. One key Taliban faction, the Haqqani group, remains firmly anti-India even today.
This group, in close collaboration with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has done everything at the bidding of the ISI, including frequent attacks on Indians and Indian diplomatic establishments.
In addition, the Taliban position on women, education, entertainment, and democratic governance are ideologically antithetical to India, which has built Afghanistan’s Parliament and educational institutions, among other developmental works such as roads and dams, since 2001.
India’s Limited Options In Afghanistan
And yet, if India has now to find out a way how best to have a working relationship with the Taliban, it is because its options are otherwise limited.
The increasing consensus in New Delhi’s strategic circles, consisting of serving officials, retired officials, and academic analysts, is that the Taliban should no longer be seen as an enemy in overly stark terms.
In fact, arguments are made that the Taliban is not exactly anti-India and that like any organization or group it is not necessarily monolithic and that there are internal conflicts, which India can utilize to its advantage.
According to Avinash Paliwal of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University of London, and the author of a well-received book on Afghanistan, My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal, Indian intelligence agencies in recent years have reached out to the dominant elements in the Taliban.
It may be noted here that the seven kidnapped Indian engineers and personnel working in Afghanistan’s Baglan province in May 2018 were quietly released in batches (the last prisoner, Mantu Singh, was freed on September 13, 2020) by the Taliban through negotiations.
Shakti Sinha, a retired senior Indian official who also worked for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2006-2009), points out that the Taliban have not given any anti-India statements since 2001.
They have, in fact, publicly said they would like India as a development partner of Afghanistan and have not attacked India-funded projects.
Arguing why the Taliban can be partnered with, Sinha says, “India must ride the tide at its flood and not wait, lest it gets stuck in shallows and miseries.”
Taliban ‘Not Interested’ In Kashmir Issue
Significantly, last year the Taliban officially dismissed “claims” made by a section of its members that it could join Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir.
The statement published in the media about the Taliban joining Jihad in Kashmir is wrong…. The policy of the Islamic Emirate is clear that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, ” Suhail Shaheen, the spokesperson for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the political wing of Taliban calls itself, had tweeted.
Apparently, this clarification came after India worked the backchannels to confirm reports about the group’s approach to India, and on Jammu and Kashmir.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) March 29, 2021
If anything, this clarification revealed that the Taliban wasn’t a monolithic body and comprised people who hold different beliefs than that of the Pakistani agencies and outfits.
Those arguing on this line say that once the Taliban becomes a responsible part of the Afghan government, it would toe a more independent line, which it is constrained to do at the moment since its top decision-making body Shura is based in Quetta and its sword arm, the Haqqani network based in Peshawar, both in Pakistan.
It is further argued that the Taliban should be seen not only through the religious prism but through the broader ethnonational framework. They are proud Pashtuns and highly nationalistic.
Therefore, once the Taliban becomes a part of a strong, secure, and stable Afghan government, it will demand the return of its territories (inhabited by Pashtuns), now parts of Pakistan because of the Durand Line, drawn arbitrarily by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, who was foreign secretary in the colonial government of British India.
He had signed a document with the king of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan on November 12, 1893, relating to the borders between Afghanistan and the-then India.
However, no Afghanistan government, including the one led by the Taliban between 1996 and 2001, has ever ratified the document and the border issue is an ongoing contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
India’s Presence In Key Meetings
That India is reconciled to the Taliban participation in the future Afghan governments is becoming increasingly evident, given the presence of Indian officials at international peace conferences in recent months on Afghanistan that are attended by the Taliban representatives.
Last September, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar participated (via video link) in the commencement ceremony of intra-Afghan talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha.
Subsequently, India also participated in the Doha Conference, the Geneva Conference, and recently, the Heart of Asia Conference in Dushanbe. It is also going to participate in the 10-day Istanbul conference beginning April 24.
Spoke at the 9th Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in Dushanbe.
Three key points: pic.twitter.com/M3Nl79Y6Tv
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) March 30, 2021
Similarly, in a recent event organized by the Delhi-based think-tank, Observer Research Foundation, while avoiding a direct reply to the question of whether India is engaging the Taliban, Jaishankar gave enough hints to that effect when he said –
“The situation is evolving and everybody wants to make the best contribution that they can and shape the outcomes in Afghanistan as positively as they can. So anybody responsible would consider all the aspects of that.”
India’s ‘Soft Power’ In Afghanistan
It may be noted that India’s Afghan policy all these years has been marked by its “soft power” projections in Afghanistan. This has been based on the premise that India would avoid military involvement in that country and concentrate instead on its social and economic development.
This policy has covered four broad areas: infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, small and community-based development projects, and education and capacity-building programs.
Within this framework, India has invested heavily in Afghanistan. Then there is the India-Iran transit agreement on transporting goods to landlocked Afghanistan (expansion of the Chabahar port through Indian investment of more than $100 million, which will serve as a hub for the transportation of transit goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia) at a cost of $115 million.
Besides, Afghan people have received aid from Indian people and private organizations such as TATA local busses for major cities and many other humanitarian aids.
Overall, Afghanistan is now the second-largest recipient of Indian aid just behind Bhutan. No wonder why a Gallup poll suggested that the majority of Afghans preferred Indians over both Americans and Pakistanis.
Seventy-one percent of Afghans said that India was playing the most positive role in the country. A BBC-guided opinion poll in Afghanistan has also established that India is the most popular country among Afghans.
India obviously thinks that its “soft power” has impressed the Taliban too. Therefore, it can do business with it.