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India’s outreach to the Taliban: An opening with limited expectations

The Taliban, on the other hand, assiduously tried to exert themselves as an independent sovereign authority in Afghanistan, which was also reflected in the series of interviews that the group’s senior leaders gave to Indian media just before Singh’s visit. They also assured, on multiple occasions, that if New Delhi decided to re-open its embassy, they will be provided security, India’s prime concern, writes Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar for South Asia Monitor

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Jun 12, 2022
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India’s outreach to the Taliban (Photo: Twitter)

India made an official opening to the Taliban—for the first time on Afghan soil—when it recently sent its External Affairs Ministry's Joint Secretary J P Singh, the department head for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, to Kabul where he met senior Taliban leaders. The visit, though portrayed officially by New Delhi to take stock of the humanitarian assistance, has more meanings, but the expectations of both sides are limited, and that makes the whole exercise precisely useful.

In August last year, India closed its embassy in Kabul and consulates in other Afghan cities, when the Taliban toppled the US-backed Afghan government, marking the end of both the two-decade-long US intervention in the country and the peace process that Washington initiated in 2018.

Unlike other regional countries, which had managed to reach out to the Taliban well in advance, India put its weight behind the US-backed Afghan government, whose fall was nothing but inevitable, especially after the Doha Deal which paved the way for the exit of the foreign troops.

Later, the Taliban’s return posed an old dilemma: whether or not New Delhi should engage with the Taliban, a group it has traditionally considered a proxy of Pakistan. 

And secondly, how would New Delhi safeguard its ties with the Afghan people and the immense goodwill it had generated in the last two decades through community-based projects.

The statement of India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval last month—that the special relationship with the Afghan people over the centuries will guide India’s approach— and later the visit by Singh suggests the departure from the past, especially changes in the way it sees the Taliban.

Although the Taliban regime in Afghanistan remains the least favorable option for India, it has now become a reality New Delhi could do little to change. Lately, it appears that New Delhi seems to have stopped seeing the group as a whole proxy of the ISI, the infamous intelligence agency of Pakistan, as was the case during the two-decade-long insurgency. The possibility of this perception also being influenced by the Taliban’s own tensions with Islamabad over the TTP issue could not be disregarded.

The Taliban, on the other hand, assiduously tried to exert themselves as an independent sovereign authority in Afghanistan, which was also reflected in a series of interviews that the group’s senior leaders gave to Indian media just before Singh’s visit. They also assured, on multiple occasions, that if New Delhi decided to re-open its embassy, they will be provided security, India’s prime concern.

The acknowledgment of India’s development assistance in the last two decades, totaling over $3 billion, and New Delhi’s goodwill among Afghans by the Taliban’s leaders indicated their keenness to see India returning to Afghanistan.

Interestingly, a recent report in Hindustan Times said that J P Singh also met Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, and Mullah Yaqoob, the group’s defense minister. These reported meetings also indicated New Delhi’s willingness to make contact with all Taliban factions - even those perceived as pro-Pakistan- without any exception.

Both leaders have reportedly promised that they will not allow terrorism against third countries from their soil but also act against terrorists of Pak-based groups on basis of pin-pointed intelligence. While these assurances are easier said than done, given the group’s years-old ties with jihadi organizations, including al-Qaeda, New Delhi may hope that the Taliban, in exchange for the opening with New Delhi, will avoid allowing these groups to plan their attacks against India. 

(The author is Research Associate, Society for Policy Studies. Views are personal)

(SAM) 

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