Last week, India dispatched 27 tons of emergency relief aid to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 5.9-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people. Earlier this month, New Delhi sent diplomatic staff to Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban takeover in August last year. It has been sending food aid to Afghanistan as well. These efforts are seen as an Indian attempt to re-establish a diplomatic foothold in Kabul.
The Afghan Taliban have welcomed India’s decision to send diplomats, saying that the move demonstrates the country’s security situation had improved. “IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) welcomes decision by India to return diplomats and technical team to their embassy in Kabul to continue their relations with the Afghan people and their humanitarian assistance,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesperson of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
“The return of Indian diplomats to Afghanistan and reopening of embassy demonstrates that security is established in the country, and all political and diplomatic rights are respected,” the statement noted.
For some time now, India and the Taliban have been making efforts to open channels of communication. A number of delegations from the Indian side have met Taliban representatives over the last year. For its part, the Taliban have been wooing India persistently to assuage New Delhi’s terrorism-related concerns. For instance, the group has said that it will not allow Pakistan to use Afghan soil against India. The Taliban have also clarified that Pakistan and India’s conflict should not undermine its relationship with New Delhi.
Recently, the Taliban’s powerful Defense Minister Mullah Yaqub, son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, said that he doesn’t have an issue with sending Afghan army personnel to India for military training. He urged India and Pakistan to resolve their issues through dialogue. “We will not allow Pakistan to use Afghanistan’s soil against India and we will not allow India to use Afghanistan’s soil against Pakistan,” he said in response to a question regarding the presence of militant groups on Afghan soil.
Developing relations between India and the Taliban are surely being watched closely by Islamabad and Pakistan’s military which, for decades, has not been able to accept the idea of India’s presence in Afghanistan. For decades, Pakistan has pushed the narrative that India uses Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan. Thus, for Pakistan, the presence of India in Afghanistan, in any form, is bad news.
Pakistan is unlikely to be at ease with the growing outreach between India and the Taliban. It will make efforts to reverse the trend.
In the past, the Afghan Taliban were considered Pakistan’s best bet to contain India in Afghanistan. However, that has changed over the last year as the group’s dependence on Pakistan has gradually waned as it expands its partnerships with other countries in the region and beyond.
Since taking over Kabul, the Taliban have openly attempted to block Pakistan’s plans to finish fencing the 2,600 km (1,615 mile) border. The group has also shown a willingness to use the current instability in Pakistan’s tribal areas as a leverage against Islamabad. For instance, the Taliban openly offered sanctuaries to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership and fighters that continue to launch cross-border attacks.
For many in Islamabad, this demonstrates that the Taliban will no longer take orders from Pakistan when it comes to Islamabad’s efforts to contain India’s role in Afghanistan. More importantly, this shows that Islamabad’s strategy of containing India with the help of Taliban may not be as effective as it may have been in the past.
However, it doesn’t mean that Islamabad cannot exploit the longstanding distrust between India and the Taliban to undermine the budding relationship. To begin with, the Taliban will have to prove to India that it is serious in taking action against Pakistan-backed militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) that are based in Afghanistan. Taliban’s action against LeT and JeM is not going to be easier as both groups not only remain ideologically close to the Taliban but have also fought together in the past.
According to a recently published United Nations report, both of these groups still operate training camps in Afghanistan and some of these training camps are directly under the control of the Taliban. Given Pakistan’s close relationship with LeT and JeM, resistance to Taliban’s push to develop partnership with India cannot be ruled out.
Moreover, Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan may have waned but Islamabad still retains capacity to upset the India-Taliban alliance. There are groups within the Taliban ranks that are still considered sympathetic to Pakistan’s interests. There is a possibility that Pakistan could reach out to these groups to dent the growing outreach between India and Taliban leadership.
Reportedly, Pakistan has already asked its missions in Afghanistan to highlight ideological and political contradictions between India and the Taliban. It is important to note here that the Taliban still remain a jihadi organization with strong ties with Al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
Moreover, the “Afghan Taliban’s political project is built around the centrality of jihad.” This essentially means that there is plenty which could go wrong between India and the Taliban if the latter doesn’t give-up its militant connections.
As India and the Taliban partnership deepens, Pakistan’s direct and indirect pushback against the development will gain momentum.