Analysis

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid makes his first-ever public appearance during a press conference in Kabul on Aug. 17. MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has significant ramifications for South Asia, beginning with the rush of refugees Pakistan may soon see at its western borders. But few countries in the region have as much at stake in Afghanistan’s future as India, its fifth-largest aid donor and one of the most effective. Nonetheless, the United States kept India at arm’s length from most political negotiations over Afghanistan, owing to Pakistan’s strenuous objections. During the Troika Plus talks this month among China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States, India remained noticeably absent.

Kept out of these forums, India now finds many of its critical investments in human and physical infrastructure in Afghanistan in jeopardy as the Taliban take control. Worse still, the crisis following the U.S. withdrawal leaves India’s foreign-policy and security interests at considerable risk on two fronts. First, a new Taliban government will likely foster safe havens for anti-Indian terrorist organizations and other groups that could sow chaos in Indian-administered Kashmir. Meanwhile, China’s willingness to work with the Taliban could expand its footprint in the region.

In the last two decades, India had become one of Afghanistan’s most significant donors, providing scholarships to Afghan students, offering food assistance, and helping restore the country’s war-ravaged power grid. But based on its past experience with a Taliban government, India’s security establishment now faces serious fears about its interests in the country.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has significant ramifications for South Asia, beginning with the rush of refugees Pakistan may soon see at its western borders. But few countries in the region have as much at stake in Afghanistan’s future as India, its fifth-largest aid donor and one of the most effective. Nonetheless, the United States kept India at arm’s length from most political negotiations over Afghanistan, owing to Pakistan’s strenuous objections. During the Troika Plus talks this month among China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States, India remained noticeably absent.

Kept out of these forums, India now finds many of its critical investments in human and physical infrastructure in Afghanistan in jeopardy as the Taliban take control. Worse still, the crisis following the U.S. withdrawal leaves India’s foreign-policy and security interests at considerable risk on two fronts. First, a new Taliban government will likely foster safe havens for anti-Indian terrorist organizations and other groups that could sow chaos in Indian-administered Kashmir. Meanwhile, China’s willingness to work with the Taliban could expand its footprint in the region.

In the last two decades, India had become one of Afghanistan’s most significant donors, providing scholarships to Afghan students, offering food assistance, and helping restore the country’s war-ravaged power grid. But based on its past experience with a Taliban government, India’s security establishment now faces serious fears about its interests in the country.

Despite the Taliban’s public assurances, Afghanistan could once again emerge as a regional terrorist haven. When they previously held power, the Taliban gave free rein to a host of anti-Indian terrorist organizations within Afghanistan, most notably Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Safe havens allowed these organizations to regroup, train, and then wreak havoc in Indian-administered Kashmir, the site of a long-running insurgency.

Afghanistan could once again emerge as a regional terrorist haven.

In the past, the Taliban actively assisted terrorists targeting Indian citizens and interests. In 1999, the Taliban government allowed the hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu, Nepal, to escape with impunity. To ensure the safety of the passengers, India caved to demands to release a jailed Pakistani terrorist, Masood Azhar. After his transfer to Afghanistan, the Taliban permitted Azhar to travel to Pakistan, where he founded JeM, an organization responsible for a spate of high-profile attacks across India, including one in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2019.

Relatedly, the availability of terrorist safe havens may significantly complicate Indian counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir. Indian security officials fear that the emergence of new sanctuaries could embolden indigenous terrorist groups currently operating in the disputed region. With the connivance of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has long been involved in the Kashmir insurgency, these groups may also gain access to safe havens in Afghanistan. Such staging grounds could lead to increased violence in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Finally, China’s apparent willingness to work with the Taliban could significantly add to the woes of Indian security planners. Beijing publicly criticized the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the bulk of its security forces, arguing it could lead to regional instability. But this public posture may be disingenuous. China has already hosted the Taliban leadership in Beijing, and there is evidence that it is already finding ways to work with the Taliban. It has plans to extend its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and even before the takeover was in the process of constructing a passage to link Afghanistan to Pakistan through the Wakhan Corridor.

China has compelling reasons to work with a Taliban regime. It wants to ensure that the Taliban do not offer any encouragement—either through safe havens or even propaganda support—to the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, which currently faces increasing repression from Beijing. In the long term, China also wants to ensure its own access to Afghanistan’s significant mineral resources, including its vast copper deposits. Without access to U.S. economic assistance, the Taliban will be urgently seeking foreign investment to meet dire financial needs.

What New Delhi fears most is Beijing’s ability to expand its political and diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan with the return of a Taliban regime. China remains intractably hostile toward India and is closely allied with its adversary Pakistan. With its deep pockets, China will actively work to limit any Indian influence in a Taliban-run Afghanistan; the Taliban’s own reservations about India will only help facilitate Beijing’s ability to keep New Delhi at bay.

Even as Washington and New Delhi forge closer security ties to counter China’s growing power, the U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan could ultimately leave India with a range of new security concerns.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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