Afghan Interim Government headed by Taliban, on 1st October 2023, decided to close its embassy in India on account of on accounts of lack of support from India and a reduction in personnel and resources. Before the Taliban takeover, India enjoyed an excellent relationship with Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul. Cooperative modes included training Afghan security forces, boosting bilateral trade, and investing in development projects. India’s continued investments, totaling $3 billion, aimed at enhancing water and road connectivity and reinforcing the parliamentary system in Kabul. Since Taliban assumed power, despite being critical of the Taliban’s ideology, and the group’s notorious ties with Al-Qaeda.
India closely monitored the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021, which terrorist groups like ETIM, IMU, Al-Qaeda, and TTP celebrated as a triumph against the US. After assuming power in Kabul, several hundred TTP fighters were released from Afghan prisons by Taliban, resulting in transnational terrorism resurging in Pak-Afghan border areas. Since 2021, ISK-P started targeting Taliban and diplomats in Kabul, later internationalizing operations across the same border. Trans-nationalization of terror across South Asia is a regional security concern including India. Yet it remains aloof to various attempts by regional states to form a coordinated response on trans-national terrorism. Although after assuming power Afghan Taliban categorically disowned trans-national militancy and mentioned Kashmir to be a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India to resolve. But in the past groups like LeT and JeM enjoy Afghan Taliban support and operated under the umbrella of TTP, which has pledged allegiance to Taliban’s leadership in Kabul. Despite changing the status of the disputed territory of Kashmir unanimously in 2019, India has not yet faced any backlash from trans-national militant groups that have in the past shown sympathy for Kashmir’s struggle and maintained close ties with Afghan Taliban.
India is cautious about jeopardizing its substantial investments in Afghanistan. These include an estimated US$3 billion in civic infrastructure, including the 218 km-long Zalranj-Delaram Highway that connects Afghanistan to the Chabahar Port via Milak in Iran, opening Central Asian access to India. It hence sustains a diplomatic engagement with Afghan Taliban and reopened its embassy in Kabul. Further affirming its support, India announced a shipment of 20,000 metric tons of wheat to Afghanistan. Last year, India dispatched approximately 40,000 metric tons of wheat through land routes via Pakistan. India seems to be caught between a rock and hard place, where it is cautious of engagement, but cannot disengage altogether from Taliban that have effective control of Afghanistan.
Despite being nuclear rivals, Pakistan and India share common concerns regarding transnational terrorism stemming from Afghanistan. India’s apprehension about the transnational spread of terrorism and insurgency from Afghanistan, potentially reaching Indian Occupied Kashmir, holds merit. Concurrently, Pakistan’s security forces have repeatedly accused India of supporting the Baloch insurgency and granting amnesty to its leaders. Recent reports tell on Baloch insurgent factions to have joined TTP ranks, leading to escalated attacks on Pakistan’s security forces along the Pak-Afghan border terrain that touches ex-FATA and Balochistan region. BLA is extending tactical support to TTP to operate against Pakistan security forces. TTP now aspires to establish an Emirate in the ex-FATA, extended to Balochistan region under Sharia law. Despite being ideologically different, TTP and Baloch insurgent groups are united against Pakistan’s security forces, since both groups are aiming to establish political control over areas, where they have operational leverage. Despite being an enticing option, this is high time that all regional states including India refrain from using proxy wars via arming militancy to balance power in the region.
Through aiding Afghanistan during its deepening humanitarian and food crisis, India aims to foster goodwill among the Taliban and Afghan populace. Like other regional states India also seems aware of Taliban’s potential to prevent groups like ISK, Al-Qaeda, and TTP from utilizing Afghanistan as a springboard for transnational operations in neighboring regions. In July 2023, Taliban’s leader Hibatullah Akhunzada, issued a ruling labeling TTP’s cross border attacks against Pakistan as forbidden. This came after of Pakistan’s Special Representatives to Afghanistan’s visit to Kabul and Taliban coming on board with Pakistan and China for CPEC-related connectivity projects. Incentive based cooperation is not out of the question with the Taliban it seems.
Meanwhile in India, the BJP government seems to be cautious about opening borders or extending people to people contact in a Taliban controlled Afghanistan. India’s historical role as a preferred destination for Afghan students, with over 60,000 having completed their studies in the past 16 years, contrasts with the recent actions of the Indian government. Following the Taliban’s ascent to power, New Delhi ceased granting visas to Afghan students and revoked existing ones, barring some 2000 Afghan students to return to India and resume studies. Furthermore, no new scholarships have been awarded. Some Afghan students even claim being labeled as terrorists while on campus in India. It is not uncommon for border regimes to become stringent in light of strained bilateral relations. The flexibility of visa regimes in particular are often subject to threat perceptions of regimes. It is, unfortunately, the people that suffer as a result, BJP’s discriminatory citizenship laws discourage any other ethnic groups than Hindus to migrate and settle in India. BJP’s treatment of Muslims in India is quite indicative that India is not likely to facilitate amnesty or refuge to Afghans.
To remain relevant in Afghanistan, India must reassess its stance, particularly towards its neighboring states, notably Pakistan. Currently, India’s limited yet ongoing engagement with the Taliban aims to maintain strategic relevance while avoiding explicit endorsement of the Taliban as legitimate political players. Notably, the growing influence of China in Afghanistan, exemplified by its increased financial stake in Chabahar, challenges India’s interests. Chabahar, pivotal for India-Afghanistan trade, underscores the need for peace along routes traversing Afghanistan to Central Asia, given India’s escalating energy demands and aspirations for broader trading partnerships.