India’s Diplomatic Comeback in Afghanistan: A Strategic Overview

| Viswapramod C
  • Even before the fall of Kabul to Taliban last year, India was covertly engaging with several factions of Taliban in order to safeguard its critical assets in Afghanistan.
  • Taliban sees India as a major ally in achieving its intended objectives, as India has had historical, social and cultural ties with Afghanistan dating back to millennia.
  • The Pakistani establishment and its deep state would be affected by severe drought of resources and lack of financial influx without conflict extortion in Afghanistan.
  • Relying on Taliban’s assurances can be detrimental towards India’s national interests as terror outfits like Al-Qaeda, JeM and ISKP are actively flourishing on Afghan soil.
  • India’s presence on ground can become an efficient tool for first hand intelligence gathering in the pretext of humanitarian aid, while keeping a low profile diplomatic statues

Last month, India officially reopened its embassy in Afghanistan, by sending a technical team after a gap of ten months. In August last year India had to leave Kabul, owing to security concerns of its diplomats, journalists and other citizens who were staying in the embassy. India’s technical team headed by a senior diplomat Mr. J.P. Singh landed in Kabul on 24th June 2022, and received a warm reception from the Taliban top brass, which displayed clear signals of normalizing relationship with India. In fact, when the Indian diplomats reached the Kabul embassy, it was found to be Intact the way it was ten months ago, when they had vacated it. The Taliban guards were protecting and safeguarding the campus of the Indian Embassy. Although this cannot be presumed as a security guarantee from the Taliban, their gesture and intent of stabilizing the relationship with India is quite impressive.

The Taliban regime is expecting humanitarian aid and assistance from India, in order to stabilize the war torn and calamity hit Afghanistan, and India is providing sufficient humanitarian aid in the form of food grains, medicines and other relief measures, which is widely known. But India’s embassy being reopened for the provision of technical services goes beyond the notion of aid and assistance, with larger geopolitical objectives. Here are a few points which would help us decode the strategic scenario surrounding Afghanistan.

1) Engaging with Taliban without legitimizing its regime

Even before the fall of Kabul to Taliban last year, India was covertly engaging with several factions of Taliban in order to safeguard its critical assets in Afghanistan. Indian intelligence establishment has been in constant touch with the crucial stakeholders of the Taliban regime, not just due to the increased attacks on ethnic minorities including Afghan Sikhs, but also to gain a foothold over the Pakistani establishment’s terror motives against India, which is actively being plotted with the help of groups like ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) and Al Qaeda, which are known to be the frontal organizations of Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence ). Hence India is attempting not to give any legal status by officially legitimizing Taliban, but instead keep a low profile operational contact through its technical team. Though India is making an attempt to normalize relations with Taliban, it is most unlikely to recognize Taliban officially and channelize an official diplomatic relationship with them.

2) Taliban’s keenness to establish a strong and stable relationship with India

Afghanistan is undergoing one of its worst humanitarian crises of all times. With this kind of anarchy and multi-frontal vulnerability being faced by the country, the Taliban is in a state of jeopardized quandary. In international relations, even rogue regimes aim for establishing a relationship. Petulant dichotomies of being friends or enemies with a country will not fit into the strategic equations and national security paradigms of nations. Relations are mostly often transactional, without developing into deeper strategic ties. But the issue with the Taliban is, it faces lack of legitimacy and  “official” recognition from most of the countries in the world. It is desperately trying to seek international validation for channelizing monetary assistance and larger economic transactions through legitimate means. 

Though India is making an attempt to normalize relations with Taliban, it is most unlikely to recognize Taliban officially and channelize an official diplomatic relationship with them.

Taliban sees India as a major ally in achieving its intended objectives, as India has had historical, social and cultural ties with Afghanistan dating back to millennia. However India has to be cautious because its assistance must not politically and economically empower the Taliban government in raking up its atrocities against women and ethnic minorities. Offering support to rogue regimes in carrying its sinister agenda is not just morally corrupt, but also would be in clear violation of international law.

3) Examining the Taliban’s assurances to India

India opens channels with Afghan Taliban: what is the future of India- Taliban relations?

Taliban has categorically denied support for global Islamist outfits to operate on its soil, as the Taliban government is firm on primarily protecting its Afghan interests and identity. As per the top sources in the Indian government, it is being said that the Taliban regime has given India an assurance that Talibani jihadis and its subsidiary organizations will never intervene in the Kashmir conflict despite pressures being asserted on them by the Pakistani intelligence. This tacit pact seems to be established in a series of dialogues and negotiations which were held between the Indian intelligence and the top brass of the Taliban regime including the Haqqanis, who are quite evidently chosen to join Pakistan. This is one of the cardinal reasons why India has officially reopened its diplomatic channels with the Taliban. But this increased interest and commitment of India towards Afghanistan is leading to geopolitical anxiety in Pakistan. An unstable and fragile Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s Interest, as it relies heavily on conflict economics and export of terror especially aimed towards India’s destruction.

The Pakistani establishment and its deep state would be affected by severe drought of resources and lack of financial influx without conflict extortion in Afghanistan. Also, relying on Taliban’s assurances can be detrimental towards India’s national interests as terror outfits like Al-Queda, JeM( Jaish E Mohammad ) and ISKP are actively flourishing in Afghan soil committing horrific atrocities on the innocent people. Interestingly, Gen Faiz Hamid , the infamous former ISI chief is designated as the key negotiator from the Haqqani network to broker a peace pact between TeK (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and the Afghan Taliban, this move raises alarm bells about Taliban’s loyalties, and along with this the Taliban captured US military weapons last year( including arms and am-munitions) have made inroads into Kashmir, through Pakistani terrorists which further deepens India’s suspicion. It appears that despite India’s diplomatic re engagement in Afghanistan, it would not develop any trust with the Taliban government. India can never have a friendly relationship with the Taliban because of its deep ideological mismatch.

4) Policy priorities in India towards Afghanistan and its fall-outs

India’s outreach at the moment is restricted to official representation, in order to maintain people to people’s ties. India has to protect and safeguard its infrastructure projects, and intend to work on the already signed up projects at a faster pace as they have been stalled for more than a year now due to the fall of the official Afghan government. But two different viewpoints have emerged from within the Indian establishment on Afghan’s strategic policy. For convenience’s sake, I would name the first one as the policy of strategic outreach, and the second as the policy of restraint and caution . The people who support the policy of outreach argue that India must actively engage with Taliban and regain its foothold in the country, as there is a convergence of geopolitical and security Interests.

India’s presence on ground can become an efficient tool for first hand intelligence gathering in the pretext of humanitarian aid, while keeping a low profile diplomatic statues through this present technical team which is sent to Afghanistan, and further increase the level of engagements with the sub-factions of Taliban which are close to Pakistan to subvert any origin of terror activity which is oriented towards Kashmir or any other part of India. But those who are supporting the policy of restraint and caution are of the view that India must avoid any kind of engagement with Taliban as it is a rogue regime which is not worthy of any trust and they are not bound by any International laws or conventions. Basically in their view, Taliban must be viewed as a terror state which is run by internationally designated notorious terrorists, which is obviously a very valid point.

But those who are supporting the policy of restraint and caution are of the view that India must avoid any kind of engagement with Taliban as it is a rogue regime which is not worthy of any trust and they are not bound by any International laws or conventions.

Moreover they also believe that Taliban’s warm reception of India and its official paraphernalia is a trap of the Pakistani intelligence and in future, to subject Indian officials to gruesome terror attacks and abductions as a negotiating tool and continue its “state of war” against India. They also believe that the sudden embracement of India by the Haqqani network can be traced back to a sinister game being played by the ISI. Both these policy viewpoints have valid arguments backed up by sufficient intelligence inputs, but the Indian government seems to be walking on a tightrope, considering the merits and pitfalls of both these policy choices. 

However, it is important to understand that India is trying to asset its hard and soft power in the most strategically valuable neighbourhood, in order to be relevant and become a key player in the South Asian region. Whatever might be India’s ideological difference with the Taliban, India’s presence on ground is necessary to safeguard its national interests and national security priorities. But Indian mission in Afghanistan will always be entangled with the jugglery and interplay of  Inter-Afghan Rivalry, Pakistani Intelligence’s sinister terror plots, and the rise of highly radicalized and dangerous terror outfits which are overtly Anti-India in nature.

(The author has a MA in International Relations. Views expressed are author’s own)

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