Talking to The Hindu last week, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special presidential envoy for Afghanistan commented, “I believe that New Delhi’s policy of avoiding any engagement with the Taliban has had its day, especially in view of the upcoming launch of intra-Afghan talks and eventual transformation of the Taliban movement into an influential legal political force in Afghanistan.”
The rationale for talking to the Taliban has never been the same for each of the different stakeholders engaged in Afghanistan. All have had to recalibrate and renegotiate their terms of engagement with the Taliban as the group has persisted in the country, seeming destined to be a fundamental player in how war-torn Afghanistan is governed in the near future. As the possibility of an American-led military victory appeared distant, negotiating with the Taliban became the only feasible path forward. It became even more clear when U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his South Asia policy in 2017.
With the signing of the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban in late February, the question as to India’s engagement with, or rather estrangement from, the Taliban is being debated more intensely. As the U.S. prepares to withdraw the majority of its forces from Afghanistan by 2021, it is imperative to interrogate the new terms of engagement with the Taliban, India’s understanding of the new political and security landscape in Afghanistan, and whether India has a new playbook for a new Afghanistan.
Is There a Red Line Anymore?
America’s position on talking to the Taliban has transitioned from the maximalist — preconditions including renouncing al-Qaeda, laying down arms, and accepting the Afghanistan Constitution — to a minimalist posture, signing a peace agreement that included conditions that the Taliban will denounce al-Qaeda and participate in intra-Taliban talks. The peace agreement that Washington signed with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 dissolved the red line of preconditions that the United States had set since the idea of talking to the Taliban emerged. The conditions placed by the U.S. were aimed at maximizing the limited gains it had achieved and minimizing its losses, thus paving a path for it to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Afghan government, which had earlier expressed its concerns about its lack of involvement in the U.S.-led peace talks, eventually declared support for the peace agreement and its conditions.
The agreement saw support from the international community. India lent its support by sending Indian Ambassador to Qatar P. Kumaran to attend the signing ceremony. India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that India would support every opportunity leading to a “political settlement through an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled process.” However, a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, without the Afghan government, did raise a lot of skepticism. At the very least, in the Indian strategic community, some viewed such a deal as leaving India high and dry and giving Pakistan an upper hand in Afghanistan. Concurrently, it also raised questions about a need to reboot India’s approach to Afghanistan and engage with the Taliban.
Has India Accepted the New Reality?
India is one of the largest contributors to Afghanistan’s civilian construction efforts. However, most of its efforts are focused around Kabul, associated with the U.S. presence and the sense of security that comes along with it. With the United States determined to withdraw its forces, India will have to worry about the sustainability of its presence in Afghanistan. In light of the shifting political and security environment, India needs to reassess its Afghanistan policy, more specifically its approach to the ongoing peace talks involving the Taliban.
In the rapidly evolving circumstances in Afghanistan, how does India see the Taliban? India’s official statements so far indicate that it refuses to acknowledge the Taliban as a stakeholder in the future Afghan political scenario. Following a statement by the Taliban on its stance to not interfere in internal matters of other countries, Tilak Deveshwar, a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, told Indian news agency ANI that the Taliban were playing “good cop, bad cop” and trying to undermine the Ashraf Ghani government by trying to open dialogue with India.
Yet, there is a widely shared view among Afghan watchers that Kabul’s leverage in the peace talks has reduced significantly over the years. The lack of political stability, factional politics, and ambiguities over the structure of the new power-sharing agreement between Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah make it imperative and pragmatic for India to diversify its equities in Afghanistan.
India’s Afghanistan policy continues to be assessed vis-a-vis Pakistan, which opposes any security role for India in Afghanistan and sees India’s presence there as detrimental to its interests. Despite India’s overwhelming significance as a development partner of Afghanistan and New Delhi’s camaraderie with Kabul, India’s influence in the politico-security future of Afghanistan remains highly circumscribed. Irrespective of whether or not Pakistan can credit its own strategy and tactics for counteracting India in Afghanistan, such a situation should concern New Delhi. However, India on its part has done little to countermand the challenge and has shown limited interest in the emerging political scenario of Afghanistan. While emphasizing an “Afghan-led process,” India kept its hands away from the complicated peace talks. There have been exceptions, like the Russia-led conference in November 2018 that saw the presence of two Indian diplomats — but they kept their interactions to a minimum. India’s official presence at the signing of the peace agreement in February this year did not convey any material change in India’s stance as it chose its words carefully, avoiding naming the Taliban entirely in the body of its statement.
Even as several countries including Russia, China, and the European Union sent special envoys to Afghanistan, India refused to establish any diplomatic efforts to talk to the Taliban. The policies of the countries underscore their understanding of the constantly changing reality of Afghanistan and demonstrate their efforts to stay relevant in the long run. India, on the other hand, has attempted to maintain the higher moral ground by not talking to a group it considers a terrorist organization. While explaining support for the Afghan government, India’s decision makes it vulnerable in the long term, especially if and when the U.S. withdraws its forces from Afghanistan.
Quest for a New Playbook
Some are of the view that India has indeed engaged in backdoor contacts with the Taliban to secure guarantees for the protection of the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Such an assurance, if gained, is expected to lead to possible public engagement between India and the Taliban. However, the changing political and security situation requires India to be more open to adapting its maximalist position and starting a dialogue with the Taliban. Now, more than ever before, the strategic community in India is discussing New Delhi’s position on the peace talks and even urging India to diplomatically engage with the Taliban. Going ahead, India would certainly have to re-evaluate its decisions and be more omnidirectional in its approach to deal with all forces that are central to the future of Afghanistan, where India is still in the quest for a new playbook to protect and promote its interests.
Monish Tourangbam is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.
Neha Dwivedi is a Research Analyst at Janes and has a MA in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India. She was also a SAV Visiting Fellow at Stimson Center, Washington D.C.