Explained: Engaging with the Taliban

When India sent an official delegation to Kabul earlier this week, it marked the first time New Delhi has expressed its desire for formal engagement with the Taliban.

With this, it appears that the Indian Foreign and Security Institute is less divided over the need to formally engage with the Taliban and avoid being marginalized in a country that New Delhi considers essential to its strategic interests in the region, and where the affection of the people because India is legendary.

While recognition of the Taliban government is not yet on the agenda, Thursday’s visit may have paved the way for the reopening of the Indian embassy, ​​albeit with a lower rating.

From 1996 to now, India’s journey from initial opposition, then trepidation to contacting the Taliban, to resigned acceptance of its inevitability, is in no small part a narrative of India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan.

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In 1996, when the Taliban first fought their way through the warring mujahideen factions into Kabul, India, fearing a spillover from the Kashmir insurgency (there were indeed some), supported the Northern Alliance with money and weapons. . As the scholar Avinash Paliwal has noted (My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Union to the US Withdrawal), New Delhi briefly considered opening contacts with the group but dropped the idea because the establishment was divided when the contact searched with a group tied to Pakistan.

India bore the brunt of this nexus twice. During the 1999 hijacking of IC814, when the Pakistani hijackers took the plane to Kandahar, the then-ruling Taliban acted as the support arm of the hijackers. Second, the CIA traced the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul to the Haqqani group, part of the Taliban and deeply rooted in Pakistan’s security institute. The bombing was allegedly carried out on behalf of the ISI. In addition, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are said to be increasingly present in Afghanistan.

Rethinking the Taliban

After 9/11, under the umbrella of the US, India invested money and energy in rebuilding Afghanistan. But by 2010, with growing doubts about the survival of the US, India again considered contacting the Taliban.

In the closing months of UPA-2, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the ambassador to Pakistan during the first Taliban regime, made a splash at a literary event in Goa. He was invited as the author of the bestseller My Life with the Taliban. Then Interior Minister P Chidambaram was featured in a photo that also featured him. Then the BJP, in opposition, turned its weapons at the government to keep company with an Islamist extremist.

Media reports then quoted government sources as saying that it was not Zaeef’s first visit and that it was necessary to keep a door open for the Taliban. The reasons were the same as now: New Delhi did not want to be excluded or marginalized in the Afghanistan of the future. After the Obama administration got Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, she geared up to declare an end to the war, and the US and the Taliban had already tentatively established contacts with a view to talks.

But as Pakistan continues to grow – the Pakistani security institution that played a major role in the birth of the Taliban, Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders had given refuge in Quetta after the US invasion of 2001, backing them with money and weapons – New Delhi did not have the will to pursue the plan seriously.

Pakistani shadow

When talks started between the Taliban and the Trump administration, the Indian establishment decided to rally behind President Ashraf Ghani and the government of Afghanistan, which had been left out of the talks. As it became increasingly clear that the talks, far from collapsing, could lead to Taliban rule or at least a set-up in Kabul with a significant Taliban presence, India expressed “concern” about terrorism even as it sought a seat in the table in one of several regional groups, and also for openings to the Taliban.

One vision was to build relationships with anti-Pakistan factions in the Taliban, but there was little clarity about how strong such factionalism was and whether such factions had any influence. An Indian diplomat once approached by a Taliban leader in a foreign capital said talking to the Taliban was “the same as talking to the ISI”.

It was clear that India had missed the bus. Pakistan had extradited the Taliban to the Trump administration for talks. Russia fully supported the Taliban as the future ruler of Afghanistan and saw in this sweet revenge for its own defeat in Afghanistan by US-funded, Pakistan-trained mujahideen; Iran, also pleased with America’s defeat at the hands of the Taliban, received a delegation from the Shia persecution group in Tehran. China took advantage of its relationship with Pakistan to gain a foothold in Kabul.

Nine months after the Taliban took Kabul, 15 countries have a diplomatic presence in the country. Pakistan, China and Russia have never been closed; others, including the EU, have reopened to facilitate humanitarian aid. The Taliban regime is not yet recognized by any country. When members of the counter-terror subgroup of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization recently met in Delhi to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, India was the only host country without a diplomatic presence in Kabul.

Counterintuitive Timing

India’s tentative opening to the Taliban comes at a time when the group has made it clear that it has not changed from its earlier medieval times. Restrictions on women have increased, from not being allowed to go to school to restricting free movement in public spaces and at work. A UN Taliban monitoring committee has reported that the Taliban remain close to al-Qaeda, with a significant presence of their multinational force in Afghanistan. The report also identifies JeM and LeT training camps in Nangarhar and Kumar, close to the Pakistani border. India chairs the Taliban Sanctions Committee.

However, one view that has gained ground among the Indian establishment is that it is time to uncouple Pakistan from the Taliban, especially since the Pakistani security agency is struggling with the Kabul regime.

The Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which has spread terror in Pakistan since its inception in 2007, has found refuge in Afghanistan and has taken several rounds of negotiations, brokered by the Afghan Taliban, to bring the Pakistani security agency into a ceasefire. bring with the TTP. There are other disagreements between the Kabul regime and Pakistan, including over the Durand Line as the border between the two countries.

Another reason for India’s policy change is that the Taliban in power are more divided than they were as a fighting force, and the situation may allow for layered political and diplomatic engagement with different actors. It also helped that the Taliban have not made hostile statements about Kashmir since they took power in Kabul.

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The ban on girls in high school is said to have opened up rifts between hardliners led by Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and others perceived as pro-Western Taliban, such as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai. In all this, the Haqqani project themselves as the true moderates.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, a former Indian ambassador to Kabul, said the regime’s hardening, widening internal rifts and opposition to the more organized Taliban have led to “far from stable Taliban rule”.

As long as the move helps the Afghan people, facilitate humanitarian aid through international organizations and pave the way for access to consular services, Mukhopadhaya said it was a step in the right direction.

“It is a good move towards the Afghan people, provided that the [Afghan] opposition is confided in and contacted on a parallel track, and basic principles are not sacrificed for formal relations,” Mukhopadhaya said.

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