A Shadow War on the Taliban?

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A Shadow War on the Taliban?

India’s discussions with Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. could form the core of international opposition to Taliban rule.

A Shadow War on the Taliban?

Taliban soldiers walk towards Afghans shouting slogans, during an anti-Pakistan demonstration, near the Pakistan embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, September 7, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon

Alarm bells are ringing in various capitals following the appointment of ultraradicals and listed terrorists in the Taliban’s new government in Afghanistan. One particular capital that feels rattled by this government formation is New Delhi, India. As many Western powers follow a wait-and-see policy, New Delhi is taking a proactive role in reaching out to like-minded friends to cobble together a narrative that is likely to be anti-Taliban and may lead to some heavy-handed approaches in dealing with this new regime.

While the Taliban were busy announcing the formation of their new government, in the backdrop there was a crucial meeting between the United States’ CIA Chief Williams Burns and India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. There was no official announcement on the nature of their discussion. However, one could assume, the nature and character of the new interim Taliban government in Afghanistan and the attendant security issues were the top priority.

This meeting of minds between New Delhi and Washington is not at all surprising.

The U.S. anxiety with the new Taliban regime in Kabul stems from the fact that it is now led by two known terrorists. The interim cabinet is led by Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who is on a U.N. blacklist. Another figure, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is wanted by the American FBI for his role leading the notorious Haqqani Network.

Just when Burns visit wrapped up, New Delhi received General Nikolai Patrushev, the Russian secretary of the Security Council. This visit came on the heels of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agreement to form a permanent bilateral channel for consultations on Afghanistan. Patrushev’s visit is especially significant, as he is often called Putin’s right-hand man.

To underline the importance of this visit, in its official communique, New Delhi announced that “all aspects related to Afghanistan and threats emerging out from there will be discussed.” As expected, Indian media were in overdrive covering the general’s trip. To stress the importance of this visit, many editorials were at pains to describe New Delhi’s engagement with Moscow as an initiative “aimed at advancing the national interest of both,” since the two sides share concerns on terrorism emanating from Afghan soil.

To keep things in perspective, these two U.S. and Russian high-level consultative meetings in New Delhi came soon after a similar trip made by Richard Moore, chief of the British counterintelligence agency, MI6. While Moore’s trip to New Delhi was a top-secret affair and received no official announcement from either country, many commentators in New Delhi were openly talking about the changing security dynamics in Afghanistan as the key topic of discussion.

New Delhi hosting these high-level meetings with foreign intelligence chiefs is a demonstration of its own strategic insecurities.

India’s Afghan Debacle

India always had a curious relationship with Afghanistan, going from highs to lows in the blink of an eye. Afghanistan does not share a direct border with India, but an unfriendly disposition in Kabul will take a toll on the country.

During the thick of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, New Delhi provided critical support to the anti-Taliban forces belonging to the Northern Alliance. When the Taliban emerged as the victorious power in Afghanistan’s civil war and took over the country in 1996, New Delhi hit a brick wall. After a brief and isolated rule, when the Taliban were shunted out of power in 2001, New Delhi found itself at the high table of Afghanistan’s internal policy decisions.

During this phase, New Delhi successfully used Afghanistan to isolate its regional rival Pakistan. India leveraged is position with the Western-backed regime in Kabul by implementing several large-scale soft-power undertakings in the country with a view to extracting long-term benefits.

Now the tables have turned, once again, for New Delhi. Owing to India’s intimate links to the previous civilian regime in Afghanistan, the Taliban view the former with a healthy dose of suspicion. Hence, despite New Delhi’s fretting and fuming they never allowed India a voice in the Doha talks, which led to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What fuels New Delhi’s deep anxieties toward the Taliban-led Afghanistan?

With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, India finds itself completely encircled by a melange of enemy states to the north. All these states, from China in the east to Pakistan in the west, and Nepal thrown in between, harbor different levels of antipathy toward India. India has border disputes with most of its neighbors. New Delhi has fought several border wars with China and Pakistan, with the most recent altercation being the infamous high-altitude Galwan Valley clash between China and India in June 2020.

Nowhere is New Delhi’s tenuous hold more evident than the disputed area of Kashmir. Ever since Indian independence from the British, both Pakistan and China have been challenging its claims over the restive region. To add insult to its injury, the new hard-line Islamic regime in Kabul has made it abundantly clear they intend to join Pakistan in raising Kashmir on the international stage, saying, “We have this right, being Muslims, to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India.”

Most of the population of Kashmir are Muslims and they maintain a not-so-friendly relationship with New Delhi. The Taliban takeover has compounded India’s woes. Now it fears the Taliban government headed by an ultraradical regime, supposedly aided by India’s arch-rival Pakistan, is going to create havoc in Kashmir through terrorist infiltration and stoking insurgency.

Not all of India’s fears and anxieties regarding the future security challenges in Kashmir are baseless and unfounded. With the Taliban regime assuming power in Kabul, the mood in the Pakistani establishment is very upbeat indeed. Shortly after the Taliban assumed power, a leader of Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party said that the Taliban would help the country in “liberating” Kashmir from India.

Taking Aim at the Taliban?

New Delhi has its justifiable concerns vis-a-vis the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. What might be motivating London, Moscow and Washington to court New Delhi in their Afghan policy?

First, there is an unofficial and unanimous reckoning in all these capitals that the Taliban regime is going to be a headache when it comes regional and international security. Compounding that concern is the shared view that the Taliban are a divided lot, and it is just a matter of time before their differences spill over and mar Afghanistan’s domestic peace.

Second, there is a prevalent thinking that the new regime in Kabul cannot maintain Afghanistan’s sovereignty effectively, in the face of challenges posed by the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK). This, in the view of these intelligence chiefs, is likely to turn the country into an attractive destination for non-state terrorist actors in the not-so-distant future.

Viewed from afar, New Delhi, with its established badge as “an outsider” and “a spoiler” in Afghanistan’s internal politics, is a perfect actor to engage with and cultivate in the event of any future offensive against the Taliban.

As one editorial portal in an Indian newspaper put it, the back-to-back visits to New Delhi by some of the world’s most powerful intelligence chiefs, suggest the growing importance that the world community is attaching to India, especially when it comes to addressing any security challenges emanating from Afghanistan under the Taliban. It may be that we are in for a long-drawn-out shadow war in South Asia, with India at the center of the anti-Taliban movement.