The Taliban regime is eyeing diplomatic representation in New Delhi.
According to a report in The Print, it is pushing India to allow it to station its envoy in the Indian capital. It had apparently broached the matter first in July 2022, when a team of officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs visited Kabul.
According to a former Afghan diplomat, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, the Taliban regime has “stepped up its requests” to India “to allow its officials to represent the country in New Delhi.” These requests have “intensified in recent months,” amid a deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban regime over the latter’s reluctance to act against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
At present, the Afghan embassy in New Delhi is staffed by diplomats appointed by the Ashraf Ghani government. The Taliban would like to change that.
Underlying the Taliban’s request is its desperate drive to secure international recognition for the regime. No country has extended it formal recognition yet, but some like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China have accepted Taliban-appointed officials to represent the regime in their capitals, a step toward recognition.
Getting India to accept diplomatic representation would be “a valuable feather in the Taliban’s cap, given that it is a democracy and close to the U.S.,” a former Indian diplomat said, adding that the Taliban regime can be expected to also use its growing ties with India to leverage concessions from Pakistan.
Conceding to the Taliban’s request for diplomatic representation in New Delhi has serious implications.
“New Delhi must be cautious in adopting any strategy that involves accepting Taliban diplomatic representation, as it amounts to recognition of the Taliban regime,” Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, founder-president of Mantraya, an independent research forum, told The Diplomat.
“The Taliban is a terrorist organization, which captured power illegally. The regime lacks legitimacy not only among the international community but also, among the Afghan people,” she said. Consequently, “India should refrain from recognizing the regime at this point as this would result in loss of goodwill for India.”
Relations between India and the Taliban were hostile for decades. Following the ouster of the first Taliban regime in 2001, India built strong ties with the democratic governments of Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani and participated robustly in Afghanistan’s development.
Following the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, New Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan declined dramatically. It shut down its diplomatic missions in the country and suspended development and livelihood projects.
Within weeks of returning to power, the Taliban were making overtures to India to provide aid, revive its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, restart development work in the country, resume flights, and issue visas to students with scholarships to study in India.
India responded by sending humanitarian aid to Afghans and in June last year dispatched a team of officials to Kabul. Indian officials engaged with regime officials. It paved the way for India’s re-opening of its embassy in Kabul. India is expected to re-open its consulate in Kandahar soon.
Deepening engagement with the Taliban could enhance India’s leverage over the regime to act against anti-India terror groups operating from Afghanistan. This would be particularly “rewarding” since Pakistan’s “strategic stock with the Taliban is at an all-time low,” the former Indian diplomat said.
D’Souza observed that regional powers are competing for influence in Afghanistan and India has “joined the bandwagon.” While the fraying of Taliban-Pakistan relations has opened up space for India, New Delhi should use this space “not merely in a strategic sense but to engage at the grassroots level,” she said. India should seek to “create a national dialogue, reconciliation and inclusive government in Afghanistan.”
She stressed the need for an engagement that moves beyond government officials to include the people-to-people connect, particularly women and youth groups who need help with income generation, markets and sustainable development.
This approach would ensure that India “gets a foothold in Afghanistan for the long term,” she said.