By Manish Rai
Recently India has reinvented its engagement policy with the Taliban. As in the first week of June, a high-level Indian diplomatic delegation led by J P Singh, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs held a meeting with the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in the Afghan capital. This was the first-ever official visit by the Indian officials to Afghanistan. Since New Delhi closed down its embassy in Kabul following the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. Also, India was quick in responding and providing relief material to Afghanistan after the recent devastating earthquake. In wake of this natural disaster, India has operationalised its embassy in Kabul in a limited manner by deploying a technical team to monitor and coordinate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. India still has no formal diplomatic ties with the Taliban government. But its envoys have previously met the group’s representatives in Doha, where the group has a political office. India is stepping up engagement with new rulers in Afghanistan, insisting that it has only humanitarian motivations. But the message is clear: New Delhi is ready to have limited engagement with the Islamists. When the new regime took power in Kabul India followed a wait and watch approach but now this has changed to act now approach.
Definitely, New Delhi was a direct beneficiary of two decades of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. But the American complete exit has been particularly difficult for India and has sharply curtailed its role and influence in the country. But now India wants to make a new start with the Taliban so that it can have some decent presence in Afghanistan. Indian policyholders realize that the Taliban regime is a reality, and engagement with them can ensure some form of regional security and stability. Given the huge investments, India has made in Afghanistan over a long period of time. Total disengagement with the Taliban will only allow the vacuum to grow which is something India can’t afford. Particularly considering Pakistan’s interests and China’s footprint in the country. Also, New Delhi has economic and strategic ambitions in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. Which cannot be fulfilled without establishing ties with the rulers in Kabul. Also Extending aid and developing trade and diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime are seen as ways to prevent it from acting against Indian interests.
Since mid-1990 India has carefully avoided any public engagement with the Taliban. Whom it has seen solely through the lens of the support that they received from the Pakistani deep state. India acknowledges the failure of its traditional approach to the Taliban and of the changing dynamics in South Asia and beyond. In the 1990s, when the Taliban first came to power, India abruptly shut down its embassy in Kabul and effectively withdrew from Afghanistan. But that only allowed Pakistan to entrench itself in Afghanistan as a de-facto power behind the scenes and used Afghanistan as its strategic depth against India. While the United States of America, Russia, China, and Iran pivoted from treating the Taliban as enemies to building relations with them in recent years. New Delhi still remained inflexible, leaving it with little leverage when the militants returned to power. But recently some disputes between Pakistan and the Taliban like border tensions, fencing of the Durand line, and sheltering of TTP members in Afghanistan by the Taliban got flared up. This gave a hint to New Delhi that the Taliban are in no mood in working merely as proxies of Pakistan. Under these circumstances, India is seeing a little opening for itself.
On the other hand, the Taliban is also looking eager to engage with India. The Indian diplomats amazingly found all the embassy property in Kabul—the ambassador’s residence, the new Indian chancery as well as the residential accommodation inside the complex–in good shape. The Taliban had made sure that all the properties had been properly guarded these last ten months, sending a powerful signal that it wants to re-engage with India. There are strong reasons driving their wooing of India. The regime is desperate for economic and humanitarian aid, which India can and has provided in the past. A stronger relationship with India will also provide the regime with greater leverage in its relations with Pakistan. Taliban also realizes that India has played a significant developmental role in Afghanistan as one of its largest bilateral donors. India has the economic clout to assist Afghanistan.
A lot of things have changed in the Afghan political landscape since 2001. When first in power in 1996 Taliban was just a ragtag militia with no strategic thinking. But today’s Taliban are shrewd politicians; it won’t be a cakewalk for anyone to use them at will. The Taliban is looking for sovereignty and economic independence from Pakistan. For them, India is a very viable option. India was never averse to any reconciliation process with the Taliban as far as New Delhi is concerned, the Taliban is not the central problem. Pakistan’s overwhelming influence on the Taliban and the latter’s inability to liberate itself from such influence is the main issue. The best thing about India’s diplomatic return to Afghanistan is that at last a direct contact with the Taliban regime will be established. So India won’t have to depend on third-party contacts, via the US or Russia, or Qatar. It is always better to speak directly to a concerned party rather than through someone else.
(Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Editor of the geo-political news agency ViewsAround)
Also published on Medium.