India’s Afghan Dilemma Is Tougher Than Ever
As the United States contemplates leaving, New Delhi quietly reaches out to the Taliban.
India has never been able to make up its mind about Afghanistan, and now the stakes are higher, and more pressing, than ever. Should it engage, officially or unofficially, with Pakistan-backed groups such as the Afghan Taliban—or not? An unfolding breakthrough between the United States and the Taliban, which seems to promise a full U.S. troop withdrawal in 18 months if the Taliban pledge an enduring cease-fire, makes this long-standing dilemma suddenly especially acute.
Officially, India maintains support for an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led reconciliation process. New Delhi wants the Kabul government to be the key player in the talks with the Taliban.
India’s Afghanistan policy is not driven by ideological or humanitarian concerns. It is driven by a desire to limit Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan. This is because increased Pakistani influence in Afghanistan may not only lead to a reduced Indian presence but will also make India more susceptible to Pakistani-inspired terrorism and marginal in the wider region. As the most recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir, which claimed the lives of more than 40 personnel, underscored, India will be the first target of those who see in a U.S. withdrawal a Taliban victory. The suicide bomber was reportedly inspired by the “Taliban victory” in Afghanistan.
India’s room for maneuver in Afghanistan is constrained by structural aspects, such as its limited material capacities, reputational concerns, and lack of geographical contiguity. Unlike the United States, for instance, India does not have the financial resources to support state building in Afghanistan. In reputational terms, it values its role as a constructive regional player that has helped build the capacity of the Afghan state in economic, political and military terms.
New Delhi requires partners both outside and inside Afghanistan to protect its presence and interests in the war-torn country. That led to an alliance with the Afghan communists in the 1980s, alongside the Soviet Union, and a similarly futile effort in the 1990s, when it threw its weight behind the so-called Northern Alliance with support from Iran and Russia.
India’s latest choice of partner has been the Kabul government alongside the United States. Since 2001, under the security umbrella of U.S.-led NATO forces, India has built a sizable developmental and considerable intelligence footprint in Afghanistan, spending more than $2 billion in aid and infrastructural development, and reopened consulates across the war-torn country.
From a security perspective, the training of Afghan police, army, and intelligence officers, as well as its consular presence, offered India insight into the ground realities of the Afghan war. But in response to such inroads, outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network, supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, began targeting Indian personnel and installations. What began as a series of kidnappings in 2005 of Indian workers building the Zaranj-Delaram highway in the Afghan province of Nimruz transformed into targeted attacks against the Indian Embassy and consulates after 2008.
Today, with Iran, Russia, China, and the United States directly engaging with the Taliban, and the credibility of the Kabul government at an all-time low, India is heading toward yet another crisis in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, after the Soviet withdrawal, India supported the beleaguered regime of Mohammad Najibullah until the end. The then-external intelligence chief, A.K. Verma, had reassured Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 that Najibullah would last a “long time” with Soviet support.
It took India’s embarrassing failure to save Najibullah from being ousted in April 1992, and the mujahideen takeover of Kabul soon after, for New Delhi to officially recognize the new rulers. In the same way, as the mujahideen factions went to war with each other and the Taliban rose from Kandahar to take over most parts of the country with Pakistani support, India chose to back the officially recognized government from 1992 on, refusing to shift tack in light of the Taliban’s visible military successes.
The hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999 by Pakistan-based militants raised questions about the acuity of India’s decision to avoid even an informal channel with the Afghan Taliban or have some credible presence in Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartlands. The plane was taken to Kandahar, which was then under the Taliban’s control. After seven days of tortuous negotiations, India released three top militants—including Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad—to secure the release of all passengers. Still, with support from Iran and Russia, and with the United States becoming increasingly preoccupied—and paranoid about—with Islamist militancy, New Delhi felt no urgency to accommodate the Taliban.
But now, when much energy, lives, and capital have been exhausted, and the United States is unwilling to fight a forever war, India is feeling the need to reconsider its options. India today is much more confident about its ability to shape regional developments, given its strategic partnership with the United States and significant investments in Afghanistan over the last two decades.
However, India is unlikely to change its position. Because Indian policymakers know that no deal—definitely not the one being crafted between the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and his ISI handlers—that favors one entity (e.g., the Taliban) over the other (e.g., the Kabul government) is likely to succeed. They also know that peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan are unlikely, especially with Pakistan involved. A combination of domestic compulsions and regional insecurities is likely to make Pakistan party to another round of violence in Afghanistan, not long after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Pakistan’s own botched approach thus makes India’s conservative support of Kabul a success. Talking to the Taliban, then, becomes a secondary political tactic rather than a central policy dilemma. After all, what all can India gain from talking to the Taliban that it cannot by consolidating relations with allies within the Kabul government? If the aim is to ensure a strategic balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then India needs to support Afghan political factions that—at the least—stand their ground against Pakistan.
And while it has eschewed them in public, India has had backdoor contacts with the Taliban. Indian intelligence and diplomats reached out in 2005 after the killing of Indian workers, forming a tentative understanding that led to a temporary decision not to target each other’s personnel. But that relationship failed thanks to the Taliban’s ultimate dependence on Pakistan.
Outside the public eye, the authors have been told in private conversation that India has reached out again in recent months. But the Taliban remain unable to guarantee the protection of Indian interests and installations after a U.S. withdrawal. These are big red lines for New Delhi. If these protections can be credibly promised, public engagement remains a possibility. If not, India will stick to its guns. Despite continuing to officially dissociate itself from the Taliban, New Delhi has underlined that it “will participate in all format of talks that could bring about peace and security the region.”
As New Delhi gears up for a new set of equations in Afghanistan, it will have to work closely not only with the United States to ensure that Pakistan doesn’t get a free hand in managing the Afghan transition but also with other regional stakeholders, such as China, Russia, and Iran, to ensure that the balance in Afghanistan’s polity is maintained.
The Afghan war is far from over. As a neighbor that, unlike the United States, does not have the luxury to disengage at will, New Delhi is likely to seek the protection of its material interests at a minimum in the short term—which includes the denial of Afghan soil as a training ground for anti-India militants by the ISI. In the medium to long term, it will seek to expand its space for maneuver by exploiting the inevitable fissures that are expected to surface between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan. The ultimate goal will be the same as it always has been—keeping Pakistan from running the show.
Harsh V. Pant is the head of the strategic studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a professor of international relations at King’s College London.