New Delhi is no longer reluctant to share the table with the insurgent group it has long perceived to be an extension of Pakistan's military establishment.

As the Afghan peace process continues to sail through with all its complexities, neighbouring India has begun to take an active role in resolving the conflict.

New Delhi has almost always maintained a low-profile in Afghanistan, mainly focusing on development projects and aiding the Afghan government with military training and infrastructure. Now with US-led negotiations entering their climax, India appears to have taken a major stride by showing signs of directly engaging with the Taliban, a proxy of Pakistan in the eyes of New Delhi.  

In the 90s and 2000s, as part of its push to secure its interests, India, alongside Russia and Iran, was a supporter of the Northern Alliance, the main contender to the Taliban at that point. From a security angle, India feared that the Taliban’s association with militant groups like Harkat ul Ansar and Jaish e-Mohammed, would facilitate a blowback against itself in places like Kashmir. Yet, over the years, this antagonism towards the Taliban softened.

How India and the Taliban converged 

The reasons for India’s openness to establishing relations with the Taliban are located in the geopolitical changes within the region. Over the years, the Taliban’s persistence as a power broker in Afghanistan cemented its importance against competing interests, including India. As such, while never formally declared, many analysts long speculated that India had opened up backdoor negotiations with factions of the groups since 2006, although they argued that it did not sustain this because of Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban. 

Nevertheless, debates over the engagement with the Taliban continued within policy circles in India, as documented by Vikram Sood, the ex-director of India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The argument for talking to the Taliban received a solid boost in the early part of 2020 when the US hammered out a peace deal with the group and committed to withdraw its troops by January 2021. Although, it is unsure if this commitment will be met (due to the evolving geopolitical situation), this withdrawal gave India a stronger impetus to fill the vacuum that the US is leaving, as well as to specifically develop relations with the Taliban. 

This is due to a number of reasons: first, with the only major military force that opposed the US’s departure, it is likely that the Taliban will only become stronger, both militarily and politically necessitating talks if India were to continue its presence in the war-affected country. 

Second, with the US and the Afghan government providing credibility to the Taliban by talking to it, India will not be as reluctant as it has previously been. Third,India would want to entrench itself further to offset Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan Lastly, India is likely to be watching China’s growing presence in Afghanistan with trepidation given that on many occasions, China has left India out of crucial discussions such as the China – Afghanistan – Pakistan trilateral talks in 2015.  

Against this backdrop, there have been signs that indicate that both India and the Taliban have discarded some of their mutual animosity. For instance, in April 2020, the Taliban declared that it had no intentions to interfere in India’s internal issues such as Kashmir, a major Indian sore point. Since then, India, too, reluctantly shed its defences against the group and conclusively signalled its shift in approach when external minister, S. Jaishankar, addressed the Doha peace talks where the Taliban was present as a party. It has still not officially declared as much, but the participation in the peace talks could not have happened without India tacitly acknowledging Taliban’s importance in the talks. 

Implications: Ideology, Security and Politics

Although much is still yet to materialise, it is interesting to note that despite having a right wing Hindu party in power, India still is ready to engage with a hardline Islamist organisation once designated a terrorist group. This demonstrates that India’s foreign policy in the region and beyond, is built on pragmatic, and not ideological, grounds. 

This rationale is further underscored by the expected security implications of this move. With the Taliban distancing itself from Al Qaeda verbally (although US reports note that they still surreptitiously support the group’s activities), India hopes that the Taliban will also be able to control its associate such as the Haqqani group which has launched attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan multiple times. 

Whether Al Qaeda will abstain from pursuing its agenda in Kashmir remains in doubt. The group changed the name of its magazine, Nawai Afghan Jihad (Voice of the Afghan Jihad), to Nawai Ghazwa-e-Hind (Voice of the Conquest of India) in the early part of 2020. In it, the group declared that it was successful in Afghanistan and that it was now going to focus on the big target in the region, namely India and its increasing oppression of Muslims in the country. This could be a crucial factor in the negotiations. 

India's interest in Afghanistan ranges from securing access to energy markets in Central Asia, stabilising Afghanistan, and balancing out Pakistan’s influence in the nation - and by extension, South Asia as well. To this end, India has taken many steps to engage with successive Afghan governments. Its assistance to Afghan actors includes the provision of billions of dollars in aid, helping construct different facilities in the nations and establishing cultural links. 

Regionally, Indian efforts in Afghanistan and its new phase with the Taliban, may also encourage it to line itself up more with Russia and Iran who are also growing closer to the Taliban - to counterbalance China and Pakistan’s overtures in the country. Interestingly, India’s relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also strengthened over time and one of the many reasons was also their converging positions on the Taliban. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have long supported the Taliban even if these relations have weakened over time. 

Ultimately, South Asia is just witnessing the very first phase of the shift in India’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Materialising these ties is subservient to many geopolitical factors, namely the US elections (a Taliban spokesman recently expressed hopes for Trump’s re-election since his interests are aligned with theirs - although they denied this later on), the withdrawal of American troops, the Taliban’s relations with Al Qaeda, China’s growing interest in the country, and Pakistan’s interests in influencing the Taliban as well. 

A new round of intense diplomatic manoeuvres have begun, with regional players once again competing for strategic dominance. 

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Source: TRT World