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Is India Preparing to Allow the Taliban Regime Diplomatic Representation in New Delhi?

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Is India Preparing to Allow the Taliban Regime Diplomatic Representation in New Delhi?

Last week, Afghan diplomats aligned with the Ashraf Ghani government announced the ceasing of operations in the Afghan embassy in the Indian capital.

Is India Preparing to Allow the Taliban Regime Diplomatic Representation in New Delhi?

A cyclist pedals past the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, India, Sept. 30, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File

Afghanistan’s embassy in New Delhi, which was hitherto run by diplomats appointed by the deposed Ashraf Ghani government, is a step closer to coming under the control of the Taliban regime. It ceased operations on October 1.

“It is with profound sadness, regret, and disappointment that the Embassy of Afghanistan in New Delhi announces this decision to cease its operations,” a statement issued by the Afghan embassy in the Indian capital said.

Among the reasons it cited for the closure of the Delhi embassy was the lack of support from the “host government,” i.e., India.

“The Embassy has experienced a notable absence of crucial support from the host government, which has hindered our ability to carry out our duties effectively,” the statement said. It also cited the “reduction in both personnel and resources” due to “the absence of a legitimate functioning government in Kabul,” a reference to Afghanistan under the Taliban regime since August 15, 2021.

On Thursday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs refuted the embassy statement. The “Afghan embassy in New Delhi is functioning or continuing to function. We are in touch with the Afghan diplomats who are there in that embassy as well as with the Afghan diplomats who are at the consulates in Mumbai and Hyderabad,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

Admitting that the MEA received the communication “purportedly from the embassy, indicating that it intends to suspend operations at the end of September,” Bagchi pointed out that “the Afghan consulates general in Mumbai and in Hyderabad voiced their objection to that decision or to such a decision.”

The MEA also rejected the Afghan embassy’s allegations of lack of support from India, suggesting instead that it was the depleted strength of the mission that resulted in its closure. “There has been a prolonged absence of the ambassador,” Bagchi said, adding that “a large number of Afghan diplomats have left India in the recent past.”

In addition to its embassy in Kabul, India had consulates at Jalalabad, Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif. While the latter were shut down as the Taliban advanced through Afghanistan in 2021, the Kabul embassy was evacuated just ahead of the Taliban’s arrival in the capital.

India has not recognized the Taliban regime. However, it has been engaging Taliban officials. In June 2022, it set up a three-person technical mission in Kabul ostensibly to oversee consular matters and distribution of humanitarian aid and subsequently “upgraded” its presence in the Afghan capital.

Although India has been engaging Taliban regime officials in Afghanistan, it is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s tricolor flag that has flown atop the Afghan embassy in New Delhi.

The Taliban regime has reportedly been pushing for diplomatic representation in New Delhi. According to reports in the Indian media, between July and May of this year, the Taliban wrote 15 times to the Indian government asking for the replacement of Ambassador Farid Mamundzay, an appointee of the Ghani government, with a Taliban representative.

Matters came to a head in April and May this year, when the Taliban regime recalled Mamundzay, who was then out of the country, and appointed the trade counselor, Qadir Shah, as the chargé d’affaires (originally an appointee of the Ghani government, Shah is said to have grown close to the Taliban). However, the Taliban’s attempt to take control of the embassy failed, with embassy officials standing by Mamundzay and evicting Shah from the embassy premises.

The recent closure of the Afghan embassy in New Delhi, which essentially marks the exit of diplomats who represented the Afghan Republic in India, paves the way for the Taliban to station those aligned with the regime in India.

Around 14 countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia have allowed the Taliban diplomatic representation in their capitals. India is not among them. That could change in the coming months.

During the first Taliban regime (1996 and 2001), India did not host Taliban officials in New Delhi. It was representatives of the Northern Alliance that ran the Afghan embassy in the Indian capital.

Should India allow Taliban officials to take charge of the New Delhi embassy, it will mark a change from its policy in the late 1990s.

However, as a former Afghan government official, now in exile, told The Diplomat, this “is not a new turn in Delhi’s policy but just a manifestation of an older pivot that started at the urging of [the U.S. envoy Zalmay] Khalilzad,” who brokered the exit of American troops from Afghanistan.

As part of this pivot to the Taliban, “India did nothing at the U.N. Security Council about the Taliban despite its presidency in 2020-21, even though the Ghani government repeatedly asked Delhi for help at the United Nations because the 5,000 released Taliban convicts were turning up at the battlefield,” the former Afghan official pointed out.

India’s likely decision to allow the Taliban regime diplomatic representation in New Delhi therefore does not mark a shift in India’s policy; rather it is the culmination of a “pivot” to the Taliban in India’s policy that took place when the Ghani government was still in place.

Since the Taliban captured power in Kabul, the Indian government has sought to play safe on the issue of diplomatic representation in India, repeatedly describing rifts that spilled over into the public domain as Afghanistan’s “internal matter.”

Yet, it seems to have picked sides.

When Afghanistan’s New Delhi embassy announced the end of its operations, the heads of consulates in Hyderabad and Mumbai distanced themselves from the decision. The mission would “remain open” to provide “consular, cultural and commercial services” to Afghans in India, they said.

Unlike the embassy in New Delhi, which remained loyal to the Afghan Republic, diplomats in the Hyderabad and Mumbai consulates are “more willing to work” with the Taliban regime in Kabul. “This is a big reason why Delhi extends more cooperation to them than it did to the embassy,” the former Afghan official told The Diplomat.

The Indian government contributed to the difficult situation in which the Afghan diplomats in the New Delhi embassy operated over the last couple of years. In addition to restricting funds to the New Delhi mission, it reportedly denied visa renewals to Afghan diplomats in the Indian capital.

It is likely that New Delhi will allow the Taliban regime to station its appointees in its missions in India sooner rather than later. Taliban loyalists from the consulates will be quietly moved to the embassy in Delhi. India will want to avoid a dramatic change in diplomatic representation in its capital; hence, the MEA’s claim on Thursday that the New Delhi embassy is “continuing to function.”

The rapid strides that China is making in its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban regime is no doubt an important factor behind India’s keenness to build its own ties with the Taliban. Not only has China signed major business deals with the Taliban regime but also, on September 13, it became the first country to station an ambassador in Kabul since the Taliban came to power.

“China is all in on the Taliban, and Delhi does not want to be caught flat-footed again, so it is trying to build equity to have a hedge,” the former Afghan official said.

In August 2022, when India “upgraded” its diplomatic presence in Kabul, diplomats who were stationed in its Kabul embassy before the Taliban came to power returned to the Afghan capital. India did not send an ambassador to Kabul then. However, the possibility of India sending an ambassador to Kabul in the coming months cannot be ruled out.