On January 29, in an unprecedented move, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan organized its first international conference since its capture of Kabul in 2021. Dubbed the Regional Cooperation Initiative, the multilateral meeting aimed at “establishing a region-centric narrative aimed at developing regional cooperation for a positive and constructive engagement between Afghanistan and regional countries.” Areas highlighted included security coordination, economic collaboration, and the development of regional connectivity and trade among others.
The targeted members and attendees of the conference included representatives of 11 countries from the Eurasian region including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, and India.
While no detailed official statement was released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi was represented by the head of its “technical team” in Kabul, who highlighted India’s “longstanding friendship with the Afghan people and the humanitarian assistance that we [India] are carrying out in the country.” The Indian attendance has led to speculation regarding a change in India’s view on engagement with the de facto ruling Taliban regime and whether this change can be translated into any sort of strategic gain for India in post-U.S. Afghanistan.
Since returning to power in 2021, the Taliban regime has faced international isolation and condemnation including the freezing of Afghan Central Bank assets worth $7 billion by the U.S. and its partners in the West because of the Taliban’s curbs on women’s rights and education and unresponsiveness toward forming an “inclusive government.”
Countries in Afghanistan’s near and extended neighborhood, including Russia, China, Pakistan, and even India, have maintained unofficial representation in Kabul. Facing the brunt of its deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in the face of Western obstinacy, the Taliban have been reaching out to countries in the “Eurasian continent,” stretching from “China in the east to [Turkey] in the west and from Russia in the north to India and the Gulf monarchies in the south” in order to attract investments. The Taliban seek to use Afghanistan’s strategic position between Central, South, and West Asia for energy and economic connectivity thereby providing some sort of relief and amelioration. It is this seeming synergy of interests which can be said to have led to the Regional Cooperation Initiative meeting held last week.
On the part of India, while New Delhi immediately shut down its diplomatic mission and evacuated its personnel and staff in the wake of the fall of Kabul in August 2021, India did continue to maintain a sort of presence in Afghanistan via vehicles such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue.
In 2022, New Delhi took a step further by deploying a junior-level technical team to Kabul to oversee and assist the delivery and distribution of Indian humanitarian aid to the Afghan populace and maintain a de facto diplomatic presence in the country.
Last year, the Afghan embassy in New Delhi was closed on November 23 following the extended tussle between diplomats appointed by the former Republic government and the Taliban. In shutting down the embassy, the Afghan Republic’s ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay accused the Indian authorities of non-cooperation and the Taliban of withholding assistance.
These events have led to speculation that India is trying to establish unofficial ties with the Taliban. In addition, the tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban over the fencing of the Durand Line and the latter’s alleged support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have led to murmurs in Indian strategic circles about the urgent need to develop some sort of engagement with the Taliban (or with its more pragmatic faction) on security and strategic issues. Moreover, while India has not expressed any intent yet of formalizing diplomatic outreach, such as extending official recognition to the Taliban, New Delhi continues to “engage with the Taliban on various formats” including the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program and extending an invitation by the Indian embassy in UAE to the Taliban envoy in Abu Dhabi on the occasion of Republic Day in 2024.
In view of the above, the recent Indian participation in the Regional Cooperation Initiative meeting provides a window of opportunity for New Delhi to step up its presence and game in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban’s praise for India’s development aid and the latter’s call and invitation for the continuation of stalled Indian-led and funded projects (some believe in a bid to balance against Pakistani pressure) provide a certain degree of conducive conditions for more robust participation by New Delhi. The need for such an active role has been underlined by the Chinese uptick in consolidating its influence in Afghanistan and within the Taliban, including accepting the credentials of the Taliban ambassador in Beijing, which could have adverse implications for India’s sensitive presence in the region while giving Pakistan further leeway through its “all-weather ally.”
With regard to Indian participation in the Regional Cooperation Initiative, New Delhi should seek and utilize the robust partnership with Russia and its longstanding resilient ties with Iran − countries that have equal stakes in a stable and conflict-free Afghanistan. Joint Indo-Iranian-Russian efforts could be aimed at promotion of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as kickstarting momentum at Chabahar port − projects that can be linked with the Regional Cooperation Initiative and benefit all parties including India, Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan. The linking between these initiatives would not only allow New Delhi access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan, but also act as a counter or another viable option vis-a vis the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for the Taliban regime.
There remain concerns about Indian outreach to the Taliban alienating the goodwill and relations India has with exiled members of the previous Republic as well as among sections of the Afghan populace. At the same time, realpolitik and India’s current security and strategic interests dictate a different course. As the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate calls for developing a “region-centric narrative,” which would dictate the regime’s relations with its neighbors, India can’t afford to be left out. Participation ensures New Delhi gets to help to frame the narrative in a way that ensures peace and stability for the region, as well as for India.