India is finally engaging with the Taliban

Indian news outlets broke a story about an Indian delegation meeting up with the Taliban in Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office. Indian officials made a ‘quiet visit’ to Doha to speak to the Taliban delegation there, said a Qatari official. This development marks a decisive shift in Indian policy towards the Taliban.

The Taliban is a hardline Islamic movement in Afghanistan that is a formidable military force. According to the Long war journal, the Taliban controls more districts than the government in Kabul. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 until the US declared war on Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda militants. Despite decades of effort at defeating the Taliban and rebuilding Afghanistan, the US has failed. After 2006 the Taliban started making a comeback, and now they are more potent than ever.

India is known for putting all its eggs in one basket. When Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister, he is said to have a deep personal relationship with Najibullah, the last communist president of Afghanistan who was forced to resign and subsequently assassinated by the rebel groups in a UN compound where he took shelter after the Mujahideen occupied Kabul. Despite signs that Najibullah’s power was waning and was increasingly becoming a liability, there was no concentrated effort from India to engage other groups. Furthermore, failing to evacuate its long-time ally, India got a reputation of being an unreliable partner. 

India witnessed first hand the folly in not having any lines of communication with the Taliban when an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked and forced to land in Kandahar airport. India was forced to release three terrorists in exchange for the passengers. The Minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Panja, later said in the Indian parliament that it was the “best possible solution in a basket of worse alternatives.” India’s hands were tied because they had no relations with the Taliban. The incident also convinced India of the Taliban-ISI collusion, forcing it to embrace the anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan further.

The hijacking was nothing short of a complete strategic failure. It was also a flawed reading of the Taliban. The reality was that Pakistan’s undue influence over the Taliban was resented by their leaders, who were looking for ways to diversify away from Pakistan. The Taliban thought of the incident as an opportunity to establish diplomatic contact with India. The Indian leadership, unfortunately, was unwilling to take the risk. Instead, the minister of external affairs, Jaswant Singh, had to fly out to Kandahar to hand over the prisoners embarrassingly.  This Indian approach is in sharp contrast to China, which was willing to work with the Taliban to protect its interests.

India’s chief concern about the Taliban was the various militant training camps operating in Afghanistan, which produced militants fighting in Kashmir. This was again a lack of good judgement. The Taliban was extensively infiltrated by the ISI and hence had little influence to say no to such training camps. The decision to allow such camps were likely to be pragmatic to ensure resources keep flowing from Islamabad. At the same time, they resented the undue Pakistani influence. India did not make the situation any better by not engaging with the Taliban. On the contrary, it played into the Pakistani hands because the Taliban now had one country less to rely on, forcing them to keep coming back to Pakistan for material and diplomatic help.

India failed to realize that there can be different types of Taliban. While some groups like the Haqqani network were firmly in Pakistani hands, other groups would have been willing to engage with New Delhi.

However, India continued putting all its eggs in one basket by ultimately supporting the Karzai regime. The looming threats of a Taliban revival were ignored. This was despite even the US engaging in backroom talks with the Taliban from 2010 onwards. The conflict was lagging on, and the US realized eliminating the Taliban was not a reality. However, again, such pragmatism was absent in the Indian foreign policy as it continued with non-engagement with the Taliban.

With the US troop withdrawal, engaging the Taliban has now become unavoidable.  India has good relations with all immediate neighbours of Afghanistan except Pakistan and can play an important role in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan has tried to block India out of the peace process repeatedly. However, all parties seem to be coming to the conclusion that India is a crucial ally in bringing stability to Afghanistan and can help limit Pakistani influence.

In a letter to the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed a United Nations-level meeting with the foreign ministers of India, Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, and the United States to develop a “unified approach” to peace. Indian external affairs minister S Jaisankar addressed, via video, the inaugural session of the Doha peace process, signalling a newfound urge to get involved in Afghanistan.

The recent meeting between Indian and Taliban, held in Doha, is a step in the right direction. However, India needs to come out of its shell and engage the Taliban more. They are a reality that needs to be dealt with. Being a mute spectator will only aid Islamabad and harm Indian interests.

Ajay P Karuvally
Ajay P Karuvally
I am a post graduate scholar at the school of politics and International relations, Pondicherry University, India.