India’s Silent Presence in Afghanistan

By: Shujauddin Amini

For the twenty years of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, India was ranked sixth among countries providing aid to Afghanistan with more than three billion dollars in various fields. However, the fall of the republic and the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan had a negative effect on India, and unlike many countries in the region, it quickly suspended diplomatic relations with Kabul. Faced with the Taliban, the Indian authorities had to choose between engaging or continuing the past policy of supporting forces opposing the Taliban. India chose the first option, opening a communication channel with the Taliban. This is why an Indian diplomatic delegation led by JP Singh, the Deputy Foreign Minister of India, visited Kabul last year to oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid sent by India to Afghanistan.

New Delhi did not simply provide humanitarian aid and oversee its distribution; it also agreed to reopen its embassy in Kabul, which came as a surprise to many. Indian officials have stated that the purpose of reopening the embassy is to facilitate humanitarian affairs and expedite the process of distributing aid, not to attempt to establish official relations with the Taliban. Furthermore, in meetings between the Taliban and Indian officials, the need to strengthen the relationship between the two sides has been discussed, prompting the Taliban’s Defense Minister to express the readiness of the Taliban to send their soldiers to India for military training. Additionally, the Taliban once again declared that India has agreed to organize training programs for the group’s diplomats and foreign ministry employees in the field of diplomatic affairs.

India’s attempt to establish a relationship with the Taliban is highly questionable, given the lack of any prior connection between the two and the potential danger posed by the Taliban, who are said to be under the influence of Pakistan. This raises the question of why New Delhi agreed to engage with the Taliban. To answer this question, it is necessary to consider the following points:

  • In regards to Afghanistan, India and Russia both have a security-based approach. India views Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s influence is evident, as a “geography of danger” for itself, and the potential return of the Taliban to power has only increased this danger. Additionally, China’s strong economic presence in Afghanistan is another factor that has caused India to be concerned. As Pakistan and China are two of India’s regional rivals, India is disturbed by the role these two countries play in Afghanistan’s affairs, as well as the Taliban’s affiliation with Pakistan. China also has a strong relationship with the Taliban, and is not only unapologetic about it, but proud of it. Therefore, India believes that in order to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the backyard of Pakistan and China under the rule of the Taliban, it is necessary to maintain an open channel of communication with the group and not provoke tension between the two sides.
  • New Delhi is deeply concerned about the growing activity of cross-border terrorism, particularly from Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which India believes are being armed and equipped by Pakistan to threaten India’s national security. Indian officials fear that the return of the Taliban as an extremist group will embolden these groups to pursue their goals within India’s borders, as happened during the first round of Taliban rule. Kashmiri militant activity remains a major concern for India, and the potential for these extremist groups to join forces with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K) further threatens the security of India’s borders. New Delhi believes that it is not appropriate for another enemy to establish itself in Afghanistan when dominating a country, despite the hostility of so many extremist groups.
  • India’s attitude towards the Taliban is distinct from that of other countries in the region. India has reluctantly agreed to reopen its embassy in Kabul, but has not yet welcomed Taliban diplomats, unlike other countries in the region who have done so despite the backlash. This demonstrates that India is not as naive as other countries in the region in attempting to establish a relationship with the Taliban. India does not view the Taliban as a permanent and dependable ally, but rather is attempting to minimize the costs of its presence in Afghanistan. India is in no rush to form a relationship with the Taliban. By re-establishing ties with the Taliban, New Delhi wants to ascertain the extent to which the Taliban’s approach towards India is influenced by Pakistan’s approach towards this country. If India recognizes that the Taliban’s approach towards this country is independent, then it will attempt to strengthen its relationship with the group, otherwise, it will continue to remain silent. It does not appear that the Taliban will adopt an approach towards India that is not intertwined with the approach that Pakistan has towards this country.
  • India is attempting to utilize the Taliban to its advantage in order to destabilize the situation in Pakistan. The fact that the majority of Taliban officials are Pashtuns may make this situation favorable for India. Additionally, the dissatisfaction of Pashtuns and the separatism of the Baloch in Pakistan can be used to India’s advantage. According to Indian officials, the protest movements of Pashtuns in Pakistan, which is followed by a movement called “Pashtun Protection”, are attractive to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, and the continuation of these movements can encourage the Taliban to support it. “Pashtun Protection” (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement) considers Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs to be illegal and advocates for the unity of Pashtuns on both sides of the border- a claim that is supported in Afghanistan and the previous governments were somewhat in agreement with this movement. India is attempting to politicize the claim for its own benefit and to the detriment of Pakistan. New Delhi may believe that the Durand Lines’ claim is attractive to the Taliban and they will not cease pursuing it.
  • India’s attitude towards the Taliban can be influenced by the United States’ attitude. India is the only country in the region that is unhappy with the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the United States’ presence in Afghanistan presented a great and historic opportunity for India. Consequently, India is less enthusiastic about Afghanistan without the presence of the United States. It appears that one of the factors causing India to proceed cautiously in the face of the Taliban is the United States’ dissatisfaction with the Taliban. That is, the United States should not assume that its regional ally (India) has reconciled with the Taliban group and is attempting to recognize this group, which is contrary to the wishes of the United States. India is a strategic and dependable ally for the United States in the region. The United States relies on India even more than Pakistan due to the fact that Pakistan is caught in the dilemma between the United States and China.
  • India and the Taliban are both determined not to repeat their past errors. India believes that it was wrong to back an anti-Taliban resistance in the past, and is therefore unwilling or unable to do so again. The Taliban, meanwhile, recognize that their mistake in the past was not taking the necessary steps to gain the world’s approval and legitimize their government, which they have yet to achieve. As a result, the Taliban are now attempting to maintain a balance between India and Pakistan without sacrificing one for the other, unlike in the past.

India has invested heavily in Afghanistan over the past two decades and expects to have a role in the country’s policymaking that is commensurate with this investment. New Delhi is concerned that if it does not engage with the Taliban, it will be at a disadvantage. Therefore, it is willing to interact with the Taliban, if not to improve upon its previous successes in Afghanistan, then at least to not lose them. In a situation where all countries in the region have engaged with the Taliban, India believes that it would not be prudent to remain the only one to avoid interaction with this group, though not necessarily confrontation. However, the Taliban are unlikely to be able to manage their relationship with India, given the terrorist and takfiri tendencies that are taught in schools on both sides of the Durand Line.