Although India disapproves of the Taliban in public, it has engaged secretly with its representatives, which will raise the Taliban’s confidence and jeopardise New Delhi’s goal of a democratic government in Afghanistan.
Reports of Indian officials secretly meeting the Taliban leadership in Doha, Qatar, have drawn strong reactions from some Indian defence and security experts about New Delhi’s new policy on Afghanistan. Since February 2020, when the US declared its plan to withdraw from its longest war, India has searched for ways to secure its strategic interests in case the Taliban topples the elected Afghan Government. India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated that it was in contact with various stakeholders in Afghanistan, a clear indication that it regarded the Taliban as a legitimate political entity. That could be an attempt to deny the use of Afghan territory by another regional state to foster terrorist activities in Kashmir, which has happened previously. India should refrain from initiating any communication with the group, however, until all ambiguity about its real motives is removed. New Delhi should maintain its decades-long stand of trying to bring about a free and liberal Afghanistan and maintain its economic and social aid programmes.
The Taliban is an extremist group that wishes to rule Afghanistan based on a particular interpretation of Islam. It recently claimed to control over 85 per cent of Afghanistan. The group has often been lambasted for being evasive and using dubious tactics. While ninety per cent of American troops have been withdrawn from the country, the US aims to complete the process by 31 August 2021. That could leave a security vacuum. Taking advantage of the situation, the Taliban has, in the last few days, captured as much territory as it can, possibly to use as leverage in the Intra-Afghan talks or, in the worst-case scenario, carry on the offensive to replace the Afghan Government. In either case, the violent takeover will not succeed, and there will be no winner. The civilian and regional Islamist groups that come together against the Taliban could lead to further chaos. The Taliban’s successful territorial campaign is likely to continue unless the Afghan forces implement a different fighting strategy or the Afghan Government manages to slow down the advance through talks but, at the moment, both appear to be unlikely.
After two decades of hardship, expenditure and sacrifice followed by a hasty withdrawal, the US will perhaps only exercise limited diplomatic intervention, and that with great caution. Besides, it may abstain from providing any direct military assistance to Afghanistan in the future. Consequently, it becomes imperative for regional players which are directly or otherwise affected by the power vacuum to take steps to ensure that their national security is not compromised due to a spillover in the absence of coalition military forces. When asked about the situation in Afghanistan, the US commander of the Afghanistan mission, General Austin Miller, stated that the country could experience a long and chaotic civil war while describing the ground situation as a ‘concern for the world’.
India has, so far, pledged US$1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) towards the socio-economic development of the war-torn country and, as part of a Strategic Partnership Agreement, continues to assist Afghan security agencies by providing them with logistical support and training to cadet officers in the Indian military academies. Thus, New Delhi’s backdoor engagement with the Taliban could be perceived as a transition from its non-existent ties to recognising the group as a legitimate political entity. This strategy, however, may backfire on India due to considerable risk to its hard-earned influence on the Afghan people, the majority of whom aspire to a free and liberal state. Moreover, a covert relationship with the Islamist group would lack credibility and may not provide the security benefits that India seeks.
The Taliban’s rapid territorial gains, Pakistan’s relationship with the group and its obsession with blocking India’s efforts to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan, and the Sino-Russian quest for influence in the region, are some factors behind India’s talks with the Taliban. Strategic co-operation between Pakistan, China and Russia is at an all-time high and, in the wake of the US withdrawal, it is difficult for India to challenge their combined influence in the region. Thus, its move to hold talks with the Taliban seems more a matter of compulsion than desire. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar highlighted the ‘legitimacy aspect’ of who rules Afghanistan and emphasised the importance of Russia and India working together to achieve ‘an independent, sovereign and democratic Afghanistan’. If, however, India still wishes to continue its engagement with the Taliban, it should do so overtly so as not to confuse the Afghan Government and the Afghan people who do not support the Taliban in order that neither feels abandoned by a regional ally as they may do about the US.