India’s reluctance to engage with the Taliban not only jeopardises its long-term interests in Afghanistan but also puts it at odds with the international community

In a recent article for The Diplomat, Joy Mitra argues that India should engage with the Taliban. This is an unusual suggestion, but it makes a lot of sense.

Although Delhi has considerable economic and security interests in Afghanistan, its influence there is limited. Current Indian policy eschews troop deployments in favour of military training on the one hand, and development and humanitarian aid on the other.

But Kabul is currently struggling to contain the insurgency and wants a peace deal to resolve the conflict. It seems increasingly likely that the Taliban will at some point return to government. India should, therefore, form contacts with the group to maximise its leverage in Afghanistan’s future.

True, Delhi supports President Ghani’s reconciliation efforts. It participates in the Kabul Process he inaugurated in 2017 to pursue a negotiated settlement.

India was also a signatory to the Tashkent Declaration of March 2018, which endorsed an Afghan-led peace process. However, the Taliban was not involved in those gatherings and India does not have direct contact with the group.

While a backchannel has been rumoured to exist, this is unconfirmed and the evidence for it is meagre. By contrast, the Taliban has extensive and widely-reported contact with other countries. Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, Pakistan and even the US have all been talking to the Taliban. So has the Afghan government.

India is an outlier. Its reluctance to engage stems in large part from the Taliban’s association with Pakistan, Delhi’s nemesis, which allegedly supports the group.

However, India has not always cold-shouldered pro-Pakistani militants in Afghanistan. As Avinash Paliwal has written, it engaged with mujahidin factions in the 1990s and recognised the Pakistan-backed government that took power in 1992.

The difference then, writes Paliwal, was that the international community backed the Kabul government, while the Taliban regime which ruled from 1996-2001 was only recognised by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

But the Taliban is no longer so isolated. Conducting energetic diplomacy from its political office in Qatar, the group has formed contacts with multiple countries, including former adversaries such as Iran and Russia, who, together with India, opposed it in the 1990s.

Even the US, which has been sceptical of negotiations, met this year with Taliban officials for direct talks. An international consensus is emerging that there is no military solution to the conflict and that a peace process is the only way forward.

India should, therefore, change course and engage with the group, just as it engaged with Afghanistan’s pro-Pakistani groups in the early 1990s.

This would fit well into India’s broader foreign policy agenda. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cultivated closer ties with Central Asia.

He recently signed a spate of new deals with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on defence, trade and other issues. India and Uzbekistan are also working on a new railway link between Mazar-i Sharif and Herat.

The Taliban poses a potential threat to the security of this and other infrastructure projects. For that reason, it would be sensible to form contacts with the group. And, indeed, Tashkent has hosted Taliban officials for talks this year and even agreed to open an office. It is time for India to align itself more closely with the Uzbek approach.

Engagement with the Taliban may also improve Sino-Indian relations.

The two Asian giants have been trying to soothe tensions since the Doklam border standoff in 2017. At the Wuhan summit this year, Modi and President Xi agreed to cooperate in Afghanistan. 

One new project involves the joint training of diplomats; another might see collaboration on a railway line. Closer coordination on Afghan peace talks could be another point of convergence.

China has long maintained contacts with the Taliban, both to protect its economic projects and also to ensure Uighur militants do not use Afghanistan as a base for attacks.

Then there is Russia.

Delhi is currently trying to boost its flagging relationship with its old ally, Moscow, which it fears is drifting too far into China’s orbit.

Afghanistan has been one of the main points of contention between the two countries. Moscow and Delhi both supported the Northern Alliance in the Afghan civil war. But, since then, Russia has changed direction, forming contacts with the Taliban and improving its ties to former Cold War foe Pakistan.

Delhi is concerned by Moscow’s rapprochement with Islamabad. A deeper Indian role in Afghanistan, which includes engagement with the Taliban, could put India and Russia back on the same page.

India also has interests in Iran. It has invested in the Iranian port of Chabahar and railway infrastructure allowing it to trade more easily with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Tehran is believed to have links with the Taliban, allegedly harbouring fighters and supporting them with money and weapons. Afghan officials have accused Iranian-backed Taliban of sabotaging its dam projects to ensure more water flows across the border into Iran.

Some of the dams are financed by India, meaning that Delhi has a strong interest in preventing such attacks. Contacts with the Taliban, in coordination with Iran, could help resolve threats to these dams and other Indian-funded initiatives in Afghanistan.

When President Trump unveiled his new South Asia Strategy for the Afghan war in 2017, he called on India to do more.

Given that Delhi has ruled out sending troops, deeper involvement in peace talks is one way of meeting American demands. Whether this will happen is another matter. Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is apparently still based, may not be happy with Indian engagement.

Furthermore, 2019 is an election year in India, and Modi may not want to be seen associating with a group that many believe is supported by Islamabad. However, Delhi’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban isolates it from the international community while jeopardising its long-term interests in Afghanistan.

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