By Dr Raj Kumar Sharma
A year after the Taliban shocked the world with capture of Kabul in August 2021; India’s policy towards them has seen a gradual but significant change; moving away from ‘calculated indifference’ to ‘cautious engagement without recognition’. There are several factors behind New Delhi’s change of approach towards the Taliban, however, before discussing them, it is important to assess India’s response to the Taliban when they came to power for the first time in 1996 (Taliban 1.0).
In terms of the DNA of Taliban 1.0, there were two problems faced by India. One, Taliban’s ideology was based on conservative form of Islam as it combined strict interpretation of Quran mixing it with Deobandi traditionalism, Wahhabi puritanism and a conservative
Pashtun social code known as Pashtunwali to create a brutal and repressive regime. Taliban’s model of governance was an anti-thesis of India’s secular model which became clear in coming years. Some elements in the Taliban tried to reach out to India but their brutal treatment of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus ended any such possibility. Two, Heavy influence of Pakistan on the Taliban was another reason for India to stay away from them. Like most of the countries, India had closed its embassy in Kabul after Taliban’s accession to power in 1996 and supported the UNSC Resolution 1076 which proclaimed that continued conflict in Afghanistan was the reason behind terrorism and drug trafficking, the two issues that could destabilise the region.
The Taliban 1.0 had a direct impact on the situation in Kashmir as the circumstances in the valley began to change, acquiring a religious dimension, something which was absent earlier. Terror activities had increased in Kashmir and Pakistan sponsored anti-India terror outfits like Harkat ul-Ansar and Lashkar-e-Taiba had their training camps in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Pakistan already had a lot of experience in managing an insurgency through the Afghan war against the Soviets and they were ready to use this experience against India in Kashmir by turning Kashmiri resistance into an organised insurgency.
Pakistan was paying the Taliban to take Kashmiri militants under its protection. At the same time, it also encouraged Bin Laden to join the Taliban since he was also sponsoring bases for Kashmiri terrorists in Khost province of Afghanistan along the Durand Line.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar had openly supported Jihad in Kashmir in 1998. It was clear to the Taliban that as long as they provide safe havens for Pakistani and Kashmiri militants, Pakistan would not refuse them anything. Former CIA expert, Bruce Riedel has also supported this view that Pakistan’s ISI had facilitated links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda while contending that the hijacking of India’s IC-814 plane clearly established anti-India links between Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, radical Kashmiris, the Taliban and Pakistan’s ISI.
The Northern Alliance headed by Ahmad Shah Massoud was strongly contesting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan and was annoyed with Pakistan for supporting the Taliban. They had also promised that all militant camps would be closed if they came to power. These were enough reasons for countries like India, Russia, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to support the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. This was also the wider regional consensus that since the Taliban is a mutual security threat, there should be regional cooperation to tackle this problem.
India provided assistance to Northern Alliance like funds and non-lethal military equipment. New Delhi had also gifted two Mi-8 helicopters between 1996 and 1999 while a military hospital was also maintained at Farkhor near Afghan-Tajik border to treat wounded fighters of Northern Alliance. Indian military advisors also assisted Northern Alliance fighters with high-altitude warfare techniques, an experience they had gained from their counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir.
It can be concluded that India’s response to Taliban 1.0 was aligned with the regional and international approach which was to isolate and contain it. From 2001 to August 2021, New Delhi remained a strong and lonely supporter of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan and did not open any channel of communication with the Taliban, although supporters of former Northern Alliance like Russia and Iran were already doing so.
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India had closed its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan as the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. India contemplated engaging the Taliban through direct communication only in July 2021, although interactions had taken place between the two sides even before this. New Delhi has been sending humanitarian assistance to Taliban ruled Afghanistan as it has always stood by the Afghans in their hour of need. After receiving firm assurance from the top leadership of Taliban that Indian diplomats and staff would be safe, New Delhi reopened its embassy in Kabul in June 2022, although it would not be headed by an ambassador as India has not recognised the Taliban.
Following reasons explain India’s change of attitude towards Taliban 2.0
One, unlike the last time, there is no credible domestic opposition to Taliban rule this time. Most of the Northern Alliance leaders have grown old and many have shifted out of Afghanistan due to which they do not have any direct impact on the situation on the ground. The northern Afghan provinces felt alienated from the Ghani government while these areas were beginning to be more religious in line with the approach of Taliban towards conservative Islam.
Two, the regional sentiment this time was to engage the Taliban and moderate its behaviour. Until recently, India was the only member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which had not reopened its embassy in Kabul. Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran had not even closed their embassies during the chaos of Taliban takeover. India’s continued reluctance to engage the Taliban would have also impacted its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy as Afghanistan is an important factor of New Delhi’s outreach to Central Asian Republics (CARs). All the CARs have diplomatic links with the Taliban, a development that India could not have ignored. These developments signalled a regional desire to engage with the Taliban, something that was missing in the 1990s. India would assume SCO Presidency in September 2022 and since the past SCO summits have favoured engagement with Taliban, India is going by the larger regional sentiment.
Three, Russia’s changed approach to the Taliban could have been one of the factors having impacted India’s response to Taliban 2.0. When Taliban 1.0 came to power in 1996, former Security Council Secretary of Russia, Alexander Lebed had stated that the Taliban were eyeing the territory of CARs like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, Russia’s view about Taliban 2.0 is totally different. Moscow now argues that the Taliban has learnt from its mistakes and the nature of their movement has changed over the years. There seems to be a belief that due to its nationalistic character, Taliban would remain limited to Afghanistan but the Islamic State has international designs and poses a serious security threat to Russia and the CARs.
Four, it was an important question from India’s security point of view that which countries would try to fill the vacuum created by the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. New Delhi wanted to prevent extension of the China-Pakistan nexus to Afghan territory, making it a China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus which would have seriously threatened its security interests. This would have also established Chinese hegemony in India’s western neighbourhood without New Delhi even contesting it. At the same time, it would have been a serious blow to India’s credentials as a rising power capable of shaping the regional environment according to its interests.
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Lastly, India is exploring the real DNA of Taliban 2.0 as there are signs that many elements in the Taliban want to stay independent of Pakistan’s influence. There have been public instances of Pakistan-Taliban rift in recent months which offer an opening for India. The rift has been over the Durand Line issue, Afghan Taliban’s support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and control over the Wakhan corridor. At the same time, the Taliban has been sending feelers to India about improving ties with New Delhi. From vowing to protect the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) gas pipeline, thanking India for sending humanitarian assistance, assurance to act against anti-India Pakistan based terror groups in Afghanistan to praising India for refusing to get militarily involved in Afghanistan under American pressure, the Taliban has been sending signals to India that it can dehyphenate India-Pakistan and are capable of acting independent of Pakistan on India’s security concerns.
Hence, India feels that it may be worth the effort to explore the ‘autonomous’ nature of Taliban which could open up the possibility of a pragmatic relationship between the two sides in which ‘values’ like human rights and democracy could take a backseat. India’s current engagement with the Taliban does not mean endorsement of their policies. The Taliban, on the other hand, know that India is the foremost regional country which can ‘really’ provide assistance amidst the current economic crisis while it would also balance out Pakistan’s overbearing influence, a move that could strengthen Taliban’s nationalist credentials in Afghanistan.
Author is Maharishi Kanad Post-Doc Fellow, Delhi School of Transnational Affairs, Institution of Eminence, University of Delhi.
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