India’s Evolving Afghan Policy

India’s Evolving Afghan Policy

Six months since the Taliban took over the reins of power in Afghanistan, India’s Afghan policy has come a long way, firmly rooted in local realities, compulsions of geopolitics and realistic. In August last year, when New Delhi decided to abandon its past policy of viewing the Taliban purely as a terror group, there was considerable consternation in New Delhi’s strategic community. Today, much of that criticism has given way to caution and sobriety towards Kabul’s new rulers. 

The Fears Of August

In August 2021, when the Taliban surprised everyone including India by running over the war-torn country with relative ease, many Indian analysts had predicted that it would be disastrous for India- that it would lead to a spike in terror activities and violence in Kashmir. The received wisdom in India was that being a puppet of the Pakistani deep state, the Taliban would work to hurt Indian interests in the region, to please their masters in Rawalpindi. India’s USD 3 billion-plus investment would go down the drain, they argued. 

But six months hence, the fears of August appear to have been proven wrong, mostly. What has really helped matters is the right noises from the Taliban. On Kashmir, the pro-Pakistan Taliban Interior Minister Anas Haqqani said in late 2021 that “Kashmir is not part of our jurisdiction and interference is against our policy.” I might not take the Taliban by their words, but by what they do, and so far the evidence before us shows that they are keen on developing a cordial relationship with India, and are not keen on promoting terror in the Kashmir valley. What the Taliban needs today is international, including India’s, diplomatic recognition and economic aid. India has offered humanitarian aid and been engaging the Taliban regime through various channels. 

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Engaging The Taliban

While a number of international actors are currently negotiating with the Taliban, the international community, in general, has not decided to come to Afghanistan’s rescue without first receiving iron-clad guarantees from the Taliban that they would give up on their old ways. In general, the international community has two demands: one, the Taliban shouldn’t nurture or export terror to other countries; and secondly, it should moderate its behaviour internally, especially towards women and minorities. Taliban have been more receptive towards the first demand than the second one for well-known reasons. 

Norway, a non-permanent member of the UNSC like India, was one of the first Western countries to reach out to the Taliban. The ongoing meetings between Norway and the Taliban leadership in Oslo will be an opportunity for the Western nations to clarify to the Taliban leadership what they expect from them in return for loosening the purse strings. China, Russia and Pakistan have also been in negotiations with the Taliban but their ability to galvanise the rest of the international community to provide monetary or other forms of aid to the Taliban-led Afghanistan is rather limited. 

Key Features Of India’s Evolving Afghan Policy

First of all, India appears to have decided that it doesn’t wish to go solo in Afghanistan despite being an important stakeholder in the region. India has been coordinating its Afghan/Taliban policy with the rest of the international community given its roles as a member of the UN Security Council and the chair of the Taliban Sanctions Committee of the United Nations. The second feature of India’s Taliban policy has been to keep contacts and negotiations with the Taliban alive at various levels. 

Thirdly, India has been attempting to evolve a regional consensus or a regional approach towards post-American Afghanistan. The recently held (January 27, 2022) India-Central Asia Summit created a joint India-Central Asia Joint Working Group on Afghanistan to explore ways to cooperating to stabilise the country. India has also been discussing the matter with the Russians (during Putin’s recent visit to New Delhi and during 2+2 meeting) and the Iranians (the Iranian Foreign Minister is currently on a visit to New Delhi). 

While working to create a regional consensus is a policy priority for New Delhi, there is another reason why New Delhi seeks to coordinate its Afghanistan policy with Russia, Iran and the Central Asian states – lack of direct physical access to the country. India needs Iran to access Afghanistan, and it requires the backing of Russia and the Central Asian states to effectively implement its Afghan policy in Afghanistan or coordinate action at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

Pakistan Angle 

Pakistan has traditionally been critical of India’s engagement with Afghanistan – for instance, it has consistently refused to allow India to trade with (or provide aid to) Afghanistan through its territory. Therefore, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in August last year, Pakistan was evidently jubilant. However, there appears a certain dampening of spirits in Pakistan in the recent past. Even Pakistani commentators are arguing today that by aiding and abetting the return of the Taliban to Kabul, Pakistan may have bitten off more than it can chew. For instance, reports show that terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2021 registered a 56 per cent rise in comparison to 2020. 

Pakistan had, reportedly using the Afghan Taliban’s mediation, negotiated a month-long ceasefire with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terror group operating inside the country. TTP refused to extend the ceasefire when the agreed period ended in December last year. While Pakistan continues to have a great deal of influence on the Taliban, what the Taliban needs now, and urgently so, is monetary assistance which Pakistan, given its own unenviable economic situation, can’t offer to Afghanistan. Repeated requests by Pakistan, China and even Russia to recognise the Taliban government and to unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets abroad have not yielded any results so far. If indeed the current situation continues in Afghanistan and the country slides into a humanitarian disaster, their implications for Pakistan would also be severe. And yet, Pakistan has so far refused to give India transit permission to provide aid to Afghanistan.

India’s Afghan diplomacy has so far been thoughtful and wise. However, this clearly is just the beginning of a long-drawn out process to mainstream a Taliban-led Afghanistan into the international community. New Delhi would need to carefully calibrate its Afghan policy and continue to engage like-minded states to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become hostage to Chinese and Pakistani strategies. 

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Happymon Jacob

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the honorary director of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research. New Delhi. He is the author of Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics (Oxford University Press, 2019), and Line of Control: Traveling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies (Penguin Viking 2018)