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India Is Scrambling to Get on the Taliban’s Good Side

After decades of supporting the Afghan government, New Delhi is planning for its potential fall.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives ahead of the inauguration of the Salma Hydroelectric Dam in Herat, Afghanistan on June 4, 2016.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives ahead of the inauguration of the Salma Hydroelectric Dam in Herat, Afghanistan on June 4, 2016. AREF KARIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

India is worried. As the last U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, there is palpable fear in New Delhi that the return of the Taliban to power might mean the return of Pakistan-funded jihadi groups that have a history of attacking India. The growing possibility that Indian troops might be called on to enter Afghanistan sparks the greatest fear of all.

The Indian government is not alone. Russia, Iran, and China are also worried about spillover from an extended Afghan civil war, including a large-scale refugee crisis. India, however, is in the most disadvantageous position. While Russia, China, and Iran started talking to the Taliban years ago, to be better able to address their concerns directly with the group if it returned to power, India stuck to its principled opposition to the group and stood by its allies in the Afghan government.

India is worried. As the last U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, there is palpable fear in New Delhi that the return of the Taliban to power might mean the return of Pakistan-funded jihadi groups that have a history of attacking India. The growing possibility that Indian troops might be called on to enter Afghanistan sparks the greatest fear of all.

The Indian government is not alone. Russia, Iran, and China are also worried about spillover from an extended Afghan civil war, including a large-scale refugee crisis. India, however, is in the most disadvantageous position. While Russia, China, and Iran started talking to the Taliban years ago, to be better able to address their concerns directly with the group if it returned to power, India stuck to its principled opposition to the group and stood by its allies in the Afghan government.

Now, as a civil war in Afghanistan seems imminent and even Indian experts agree that the Afghan government’s writ will be limited to urban centers, New Delhi has reportedly been scrambling to send reconciliatory messages to the Taliban—messages that have thus far gone unanswered.

The Afghan government, meanwhile, is none too pleased with the reports and is appealing for India to provide more support at its hour of need. A high-ranking Afghan official told FP the United States has already committed to providing $4.5 billion a year, a large chunk of it for the Afghan security forces, and 29 Black Hawk combat aircrafts. “More Black Hawks would change the calculus of the war in our favor,” the official said.

The Afghan government has not yet sought military intervention by India, but Afghanistan’s envoy to India Farid Mamundzay told Foreign Policy that it might have to. “Should we reach a complete deadlock with the Taliban then we would want India’s military assistance,” the envoy said. The collapse of the Afghan state is a likely scenario and may occur sooner than anticipated. According to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, the government could fall within the next six months.

Syed Akbaruddin, India’s former ambassador to the U.N. and a senior diplomat, said there is no chance of India deploying its army in Afghanistan. “We have challenges on our own frontiers too. In the current situation I don’t think there is any political or public acceptance for it,” he said. Rahul Bedi, an Indian defense analyst, added that India is opposed to militarily intervening in other countries, especially those such as Afghanistan where most foreign armies have been defeated. “India has provided military hardware like four helicopters, artillery field pieces, small arms, radar, ammunition, amongst other ordnance. In the 1990s it had also stationed air maintenance crews to service the Afghan army’s Soviet helicopters,” Bedi said. “India can supply more military hardware, maybe through third parties, fund and arm friendly militias too, but it won’t send its army.” Bedi added that India might have to abandon its projects and pull out about 3,100 Indian nationals, mostly engineers contributing to the reconstruction effort.

India is too cautious a military player to deploy its army in Afghanistan, but some Afghans contend that India could send its peacekeepers under the flag of the United Nations. Davood Moradian, an Afghan analyst, wrote that the U.N. must play a leading role, including in filling the emerging security vacuum by deploying its peacekeeping mission for Afghanistan. “A UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan can bring together Pakistan and India in preventing the country’s slide toward anarchy and State breakdown,” he wrote.

Foreign Policy has learned from a senior Afghan diplomat that the idea of a U.N. peacekeeping mission was first brought up a few months ago by Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American diplomat and the architect of America’s agreement in Doha, Qatar, with the Taliban. Reports suggest that China might consider sending a contingent of peacekeepers to Afghanistan. Its ally Pakistan, the Taliban’s patron, however, has no need of it. Indians are skeptical of the idea.

“The notion of a large U.N. peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan in the current situation doesn’t fly,” Akbaruddin, the former ambassador, said. “U.N. peacekeeping functions in an environment where there is peace to keep. Not one in which there is no peace at all. … Pakistan has a proxy in a party to the conflict and hence unacceptable as neutral peacekeepers. Obviously they will not want India there either. That ends any thinking about Indian or Pakistani peacekeepers in Afghanistan.”

Indian analysts are fiercely debating whether India, too, should have reached out to the Taliban earlier when the group needed New Delhi’s recognition. Amar Sinha, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, said he had argued in favor of talks with the Taliban in September last year. “Once the two sides, that is the Afghan government and the Taliban, sat together, then of course we should have reached out to them,” Sinha said. “Why not when everyone else is speaking to them? We should engage with them, like we do with any other faction.”

During a visit to Kabul in 2016, Syed Akbar Agha, a cousin of Mullah Syed Tayyab Agha who was the former chief of the Taliban’s Doha office, told me that the Taliban were happy to reconcile with India. “We have no problems with Hindustan,” Agha had said. “In fact we want to send them a message of peace and friendship.” The group was relaying its message through various informal channels at a time when a relationship with India would have given the Taliban legitimacy in the international community. In 2018, two former Indian ambassadors visited Russia as observers of Russia’s regional forum on Afghanistan with the Taliban in attendance. According to a source present at the talks, the Taliban had then reached out to the Indian diplomats directly and expressed a will to mend fences. Now, as they score victories in the battlefield, their tone has changed drastically and lost that placating touch.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the group, spoke to Foreign Policy from Doha soon after he returned from Moscow, where he and his colleagues assuaged Russia’s concerns on sliding security in areas bordering former Soviet states. Shaheen demanded that India must first prove its neutrality in the conflict if it wants to talk to the Taliban. “We have political relations with Russia, Iran, and China not for one or two but many years. We have visited them many times and assured them that we won’t let Afghan territory be used against them,” he said. “India was siding with the government installed by foreigners. They are not with us. If they stick to their policy of supporting a government imposed on Afghans, then maybe they should be worried. That is a wrong policy which will not serve them.”

Shaheen alleged that India was arming the Afghan government, which upset the group. “We have reports from our commanders that India is providing weapons to the other side,” he said. “How is it possible that they want to talk to the Taliban but practically they are providing weapons, drones, everything to Kabul? This is contradictory.” Indian analysts said that the Indian government has been extremely circumspect in its military contributions to the Afghan government and that it was too early for India to have helped any volunteers or militias supporting it.

India’s foreign ministry was unreachable for comment, and it is unclear whether the Indian delegation met with the Taliban representatives, as reported in the Indian press. India’s external affairs ministry denied the reports but said the Indian government was in touch with “various stakeholders.” India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar was in Russia and Iran at the same time the Taliban delegation was visiting for talks with the representatives of the Afghan government. He discussed India’s concerns with his Iranian and Russian counterparts.

As the world fears Kabul’s fall, the Afghan government and its Indian friends are the only two confident it will stand. But beyond a point, the Indians are not ready to intervene in a war that the mighty armies of NATO and the United States lost. India might have to strengthen security in Kashmir on the Line of Control with Pakistan and hope that the United States will keep the Afghan government afloat. “Taliban is acting like they have already won. They have not,” Sinha, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, said. “Their legitimacy depends on how they act with their people.”

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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