Last week, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States in an interview said that “India should talk to the Taliban if Delhi feels it will bolster [the] peace process.” Asad Majeed Khan’s statement came in the context of Zalmay Khalilzad’s earlier recommendation that India should directly discuss its terrorism-related concerns with the Afghan Taliban.
Shortly after Ambassador Khan’s statement, Pakistan’s foreign office denied all reports claiming that he had made any suggestion that India should talk to the Taliban. Pakistan’s foreign office further said that “This is the time to focus on the earliest commencement of Intra-Afghan negotiations rather than dwell on any extraneous issue.”
The statement attributed to Pakistan’s U.S. ambassador and its hurried denial by the country’s foreign office offers some key insights about Islamabad’s likely view of India’s potential rapprochement with Taliban.
Clearly, the ongoing Afghan peace peace process that has brought the Taliban’s role to the center of Afghanistan’s future has created a dilemma for India. In the past, both India and Pakistan have supported different political groups in Afghanistan to suit their regional security interests. Pakistan remains closely allied with the Taliban while India has supported forces that stand to neutralize or isolate the Taliban’s role in the country. However, not much has worked in favor of forces that aim to establish democracy in the country. The present scenario whereby the Taliban are eying another takeover in Afghanistan doesn’t present an ideal condition for India’s policymakers. Moreover, suggestions for India to establish ties with the Taliban and be close to the group are coming from places that have previously followed a containment policy alongside India.
India’s leadership appears to have realized that the country will have to reach out to the Taliban in a bid to directly build a relationship with the group. To a great extent, any such possibility should take place in the context of neutralizing Pakistan’s threat in Afghanistan.
However, for now there are several questions that India’s leadership should be wary of before reaching out to the group. For instance, India’s key concern would be to discuss the issue of Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban and the group’s position on militant groups that present a threat to India’s national security interests in the region.
Arguably, much of this has been answered by the Taliban in their direct or indirect communication with India. Last week, an unexpected flood in social media posts claimed that the Afghan Taliban had announced to attack India and also publicly declared that the group cannot develop friendly ties with New Delhi unless the Kashmir issue is resolved. These claims were also widely covered in Pakistan’s domestic media including Urdu and English newspapers. A day after these claims were printed, Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson in a Twitter post said that “Media reports about Taliban joining Jihad in Kashmir are incorrect. The policy of the Islamic Emirate entails that the organization does not interfere in the internal affairs of any other country.” At the outset, this is an encouraging view for voices in New Delhi that are interested in talking to the Taliban. Moreover, the clarification from the Taliban negates the view that Pakistan has overwhelming control over the Taliban.
For decades, Pakistan has employed the idea of the Taliban’s dependency and relationship with Islamabad to threaten its foes in Afghanistan, particularly India. However, that calculation may have outlived its usefulness as the Taliban grow independent and expand its diplomatic ties. Hassan Abbas, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy (CGP), recently wrote that “The Taliban’s old guard respects Pakistan, and their contacts with Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex are deep-rooted. However, the old guard (that includes Mullah Baradar, the Haqqanis and Mullah Haibatullah) is struggling constantly to maintain its control over young field commanders, aligned drug smuggling networks, and a new generation of insurgents inspired by a variety of local interests – some of which are not always in line with those of Taliban. To believe that Pakistan can control all these elements of the Taliban is an exaggerated assessment.” He further noted that the group has become increasingly “critical of Pakistan’s way of handling the Taliban” and its growing financial and diplomatic independence means it is not reliant on Pakistan anymore.
At the moment, New Delhi should be skeptical of the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan, which will have a significant impact on India’s decision to open talks with the group. However, the Taliban’s growing independence shows that, down the line, the organization would not want India to stay back from opening talks due to Pakistan’s relationship with the group. For now, the beginning of the debate on the issue should be seen as a first step towards the development of a broader effort. The growing debate related to India-Taliban’s reconciliation demonstrates that Islamabad is intent to keep New Delhi out of Afghanistan is not defensible if the Afghan Taliban take it on its own to develop a relationship with India.
For the Pakistani state, proposals and counsel related to India-Taliban rapprochement are not a sought-after outcome as far as the country’s policy to contain India’s role in Afghanistan is concerned. Essentially, the rejection of Khan’s statement underscores Pakistan’s official position that India cannot play a constructive role in Afghanistan. For Pakistan’s policymakers, India can only play a positive role in Afghanistan if New Delhi doesn’t have any political role to play in the country. Over the years, Islamabad has made determined efforts to ensure that New Delhi is pushed out of any peace agreement that may decide Afghanistan’s future. To an extent, this also involves keeping the Afghan Taliban reliant on Pakistan and making all possibilities of the group developing ties with New Delhi a nonstarter.
The possibility of India’s rapprochement with the Taliban is not going to be welcomed in Pakistan. Arguably, Islamabad is expected to view the the India-Taliban rapprochement as a challenge rather than a welcome move to establish peace in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, any idea of peace in Afghanistan must involve a process that doesn’t include India. If Islamabad has worked for decades to minimize New Delhi’s role even when the latter was not associated with the Taliban, how will Pakistan’s policy planners react if Taliban-India talks make a headway? It’s expected that Islamabad may use its allies within the Taliban’s ranks to snub any such idea or reach out to other players, particularly the Haqqani Network, to disrupt the initiative.
Moreover, Pakistan’s expected pressure on the group to drop this policy line may further estrange anti-Pakistan lobbies within the Taliban’s ranks. While India has a lot to reset before it can officially begin a meaningful dialogue with the group, Pakistan may not view the Taliban’s growing role in Afghanistan as a strategic win in the medium to long run. It remains to be seen, however, whether Pakistan will continue to consider the Taliban as a strategic partner in its India containment policy for Afghanistan or view it as a threat if it develops ties with New Delhi. In any case, India’s potential reconciliation with the Taliban will have significant impact on Pakistan’s Afghan policy.