The war in Ukraine relegated the developments in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to the background once more. However, just months before Russia invaded Ukraine and the whole world turned its eyes to the European crisis, the United States’ hasty withdrawal from a war spanning more than two decades in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s quick takeover of the reins of power caught global attention. The change of political powers in Afghanistan has been nothing less than a roller coaster ride: the U.S. intervention after the 9/11 attacks, which overthrew the Taliban regime, through two Washington supported-presidencies — Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani — and now coming full circle with the return of the Taliban to power.
When the Taliban swept into Kabul in August last year, India was one of the many countries to shut down its embassy in the Afghan capital. But on June 23, 2022, India reopened its embassy in Afghanistan after over 10 months. New Delhi deployed a “technical team” consisting of diplomats and others as a step toward re-establishing its presence in Afghanistan, with the stated mission to closely monitor and coordinate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Kabul.
What does this move from New Delhi convey about the terms of its engagement with the Taliban regime? Does this reveal a new playbook, a pragmatic step in its tumultuous relations with the Taliban?
The move to reopen the embassy comes weeks after the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran division lead, J.P. Singh, visited Afghanistan to meet the Taliban’s Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mottaqi and Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, during which the Taliban requested that Indian reopen its diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said that “the return of Indian diplomats to Afghanistan and reopening of [its] embassy demonstrates that security is established in the country, and all political and diplomatic rights are respected.” Although the decision to reopen the Indian embassy, like most foreign policy decisions, was not spontaneous, it did come as a surprise some given the manner in which New Delhi pulled out its diplomatic presence last August.
The series of backchannel meetings and the recent statements made by senior government officials signaled a coming restoration of India’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, speaking at the regional security summit at Tajikistan in May this year, hinted at New Delhi’s desire for a regional solution to Afghanistan’s situation, which included a role for India itself. India’s outreach to Central Asia also reflects New Delhi’s push for regional stability, by addressing the threats of terrorism, drugs, and refugees emanating from Afghanistan. In response to India’s reopening of its embassy, the Taliban have reportedly given assurances to act on intelligence against some of the major jihadi groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and al-Qaida. Such assurances needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, given Taliban’s past record of ties with Pakistan-based terror groups.
India’s Afghanistan policy has focused on the well-being of ordinary Afghans and providing them with humanitarian assistance, with Indian military assistance during the last two decades largely limited to training Afghan military officers in India. Although New Delhi was able to establish a positive working rapport with the previous Western-backed Afghan government in the last 20 years, its initiatives also understandably drew the ire of neighboring Pakistan, which is perennially insecure about any signs of growing Indian influence with the Afghan government and people. Overhauling the framework of ties, or rather the lack of ties, between New Delhi and the Taliban leadership will be a monumental task for the Indian foreign policy and national security establishment.
The Taliban’s outreach to India signals the group’s urgent need for wider recognition for transaction of bilateral business, even in the absence of more formalized legitimacy in the international system. If the Taliban sre to survive and gain some relative reciprocity, they cannot merely depend on a handful of supporters. In this context, creating a conducive working relationship with New Delhi matters. This is a turnaround of sorts for the Taliban as the group during the last two decades deplored India’s support to the Afghan Republic and carried out attacks on Indian personnel, with the most gruesome example being the 2008 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani network.
India, on the other hand, over the last two decades detested U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, which New Delhi viewed as amounting a discrediting of the Afghan government. India questioned the inclusivity of the much glorified “Afghan led, Afghan owned, and Afghan controlled” process. The Taliban’s return to power was seen as synonymous with Pakistan’s growing influence in Afghanistan, but the chain of events since August 2021 suggests that outcome is not so preordained. Assuming such a linear causality is tantamount to reducing the traction that New Delhi could explore in opening ties with the Taliban, while not losing sight of the risks and vulnerabilities involved. Meanwhile, the relationship between the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Taliban has energized the former’s presence in Pakistan, creating a wedge between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
The latest round of talks between India and the Taliban reportedly focused on counterterrorism. To what extent the Taliban will walk the talk is still in the realm of conjecture, given the complex web of terror organizations that operate along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob assured India that it would not be attacked from Afghan territory and even expressed interest in sending Taliban cadres to India for military training. In the hope of re-engagement with India, the Taliban for the first time allowed former Afghan CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who is under house arrest, to visit his family in India.
What chance is there for India and the Taliban in these mutual efforts to find a framework for conducting business and putting in place a pragmatic working relationship? On the one hand, the Taliban are in need of global and regional recognition. India, despite its checkered past with the group, is too important a player in terms of its economic and security clout to be ignored. In terms of optics, India’s reopening of its embassy in Kabul might seem a surprise, but it is a decision grounded in realpolitik and a hard-nosed assessment of the regional environment. Getting one’s skin in the game is the way to promote and protects one’s interest.