Is India rethinking its approach to the Taliban? It would certainly seem so. After years, nay decades, of refusal to talk to the Taliban, India sent its representatives to Moscow on November 9, 2018 to finally sit at the same table as the representatives of the militant organization at the “Moscow format.”
The official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, said: “India supports all efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that will preserve unity and plurality, and bring security, stability and prosperity to the country. India’s consistent policy has been that such efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled and with participation of the Government of Afghanistan.”
Etched in the minds of most Indians — especially as the year draws to a close — was the December 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar by Pakistani terrorists demanding the release of other terrorists lodged in Indian jails, which India had no choice but to accept. The Taliban had then held the reins of power in Kabul and helped facilitate the hijack.
Yet, two retired diplomats — India’s former envoy to Afghanistan Amar Sinha and former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan T. C. A. Raghavan — represented India in a “non-official” capacity in Moscow in November. What prompted this change?
Refusing to recognize the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban — Pakistan’s protégé — and the draconian rule it unleashed there, India, together with Russia and Iran continued to support the Northern Alliance, under then commander Ahmad Shah Masood, and whose representative continued to be stationed in New Delhi as the official envoy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. After the overthrow of the Taliban from power in Kabul, India continued to extend recognition and support to the government in Kabul, including the National Unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Believing that a stable Afghanistan was in its best interest, India’s stated and unwavering position had been in an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process.
As the first country to sign a bilateral strategic agreement with Afghanistan, and encouraged by the US, India entered into a developmental partnership with Afghanistan to the tune of more than USD 2 billion. Building infrastructure, dams, and the Parliament house; renovating national monuments; training Afghan students, diplomats, and police and military personnel; distributing humanitarian aid; flying in Afghan patients for treatment at its hospitals; and supplying non-lethal military equipment, India had invested tremendously in capacity building and in long-term development projects in sectors identified by the Afghan government. Most notably, India’s support had helped construct the Zaranj Delaram road which now connects Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar. This had won it tremendous goodwill amongst the Afghan people; something the Pentagon had also acknowledged.
But this is just what had been inimical to the Taliban — and by extension to Pakistan — which had refused to give up its claims on Kabul and wanted foreign troops out unconditionally. For Pakistan, which had never made a secret of the fact that its Afghanistan policy was India-centric, it was thus imperative to maintain the Taliban as its proxy in Afghanistan. Not only had it kept up its support for the Taliban, but also other insurgent groups, including — which some Afghan officials had confided on conditions of anonymity — the Islamic State of Khorasan, in order to undermine the government in Kabul, to the extent that even President Ashraf Ghani, who on his ascendency in 2014 had made numerous overtures to Pakistan, had to finally give up and send stern messages to Pakistan to not destabilize the region, and thereafter launch the Kabul Process, with one of its avowed intents being “to end support for cross-border terrorism.”
Besides the steady and regular attacks on Afghans, there had over the years been numerous attacks on Indian targets there. Earlier this year, Permanent Afghan Representative to the UN Mahmoud Saikal testified before the Counter Terrorism Committee that Pakistan-based terror groups were targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan, and were pursuing their objective of reviving the “Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan.”
But over the years, this support for the Taliban had coincided with increasing levels of corruption, poverty, fractious governance inside Afghanistan, helping to both strengthen and embolden the militant organization.
A report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR) claimed that since 2017, the Taliban had increased the area under their control — around 13.8 percent of Afghan territory — while the Afghan government had at the same time lost control of more territory and now control only 58.5 percent. The Taliban had also increased in popularity among rural population, though senior journalist Shershah Nawabi claimed that much of the popularity was because of the vicious attacks and the bloodshed that the group engaged in.
As a result, the militant group had grown stronger, its attacks more vicious, but unsurprisingly at a relatively low cost. Rather, geo-political tensions had actually won the Taliban new support from regional powers like Russia, Iran, and China.
The Taliban continued to function and maintain an office in Doha, reflecting that it had powerful backers in the Gulf, even though then President Hamid Karzai had been virulently against it. As their tensions with the US increased, Russia, Iran, and China had also thought it more prudent to back the Taliban while building relations with Pakistan, in order to hasten the departure of US troops from Afghanistan. While China launched the Quadrilateral and other processes, inviting the Taliban to talks in Beijing and elsewhere, Moscow launched the “Moscow process.” Initially it was even without the Afghan government, only a trilateral involving Russia, Pakistan, and the Taliban.
Retired Maj. General B.K. Sharma, who heads the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation of the United Services Institution of India, said that India has many channels of communication that could reach out to the Taliban. Whether India will do so would be contingent on what is in the best interest of the Afghan government and the people.
For Russia, which had to fight a vicious insurgency in its Chechnya province, and with many Chechens and jihadists from Central Asian states embroiled in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) war in Syria, religious radicalism in Afghanistan posed a direct threat. While here the perspectives of Russia converged with India, their perceptions on the threats differed. For Russia the Taliban posed the lesser evil, claiming only to establishing an Islamic State in Afghanistan, with no global pretensions as opposed to the ISIS. A senior retired Indian diplomat who had served time in Kabul told this author on conditions of anonymity that the Russian perspective was that only the Taliban could offer a formidable opposition to the ISIS challenge there. India, on the contrary, had always held that the Taliban was part of the problem.
With the rise of tensions between the Trump administration and Iran, and the reimposition of sanctions on Iran by the US despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran too viewed that the accommodation of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops from the region was more favorable for it. So regionally Taliban had become de facto acceptable.
With all these geopolitical moves and counter-moves, India alone stood out, together with the US, and increasingly risked being isolated in the region.
The US on its part had also been cutting deals with the Taliban over the years, mostly covertly, but now recently even overtly. For one, it was dependent on Pakistan for supply lines and, in spite of President Donald Trump’s stern approach to Pakistan because of its role in fostering terrorism in Afghanistan, had reached out to it again.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalman Khalilzade in his shuttle diplomacy in the region had travelled to numerous countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, the UAE, Uzbekistan, Belgium, Russia, and Turkmenistan — and had held talks with the Taliban but has skipped India.
This was not really a new approach. Following his secret visit to Afghanistan in 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had announced that there was a place for moderate elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan's government as long as they renounced violence and terrorism.
Successive Afghan governments had tried to reach out to the Afghan Taliban. In an interview with this author, soon after a bloodbath by the Taliban on the streets of Kabul in 2016, then Afghan Ambassador to India Dr. Shaida Abdali said: “We do not see the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Taliban. What we do see is the reconcilable and the irreconcilable Taliban.”
On his last visit to India in September 2018, President Ghani in a speech at an Indian think tank actually pitched for dialogue with the Taliban, which he described as indispensable stakeholders in the Afghan peace process. While India had always believed in the safe Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, even Afghan President Ghani was reaching out to Pakistan and the Taliban. The latest agreement brokered by China between Afghanistan and Pakistan was testimony to it. In such a scenario, it would seem that India had no option left but to recalibrate its hitherto held position on Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Retired Maj. General B.K. Sharma, who heads the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation of the United Services Institution of India, said that India has many channels of communication that could reach out to the Taliban. Whether India will do so would be contingent on what is in the best interest of the Afghan government and the people. This can be read as India will talk to the Taliban if the Afghan government deems it necessary too.
After all India had on occasion engaged in realpolitik, reaching out to those who had been some of its most formidable foes. In 2017 to the surprise of most Indians, the Indian ambassador in Kabul Manpreet Vohra held a meeting with returnee militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Chief of the Hizb-e-Islami party. Hekmatyar had held a rabidly anti-Indian position all the years during the anti-Soviet jihad but since he reached a peace deal with the Afghan government, India considered it acceptable to reach out to him.
In March 2018, India along with 20 other countries, the EU, and the UN endorsed the Declaration of the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan, which supported the Afghan unity government’s offer of “direct talks with the Taliban, without any precondition.” In September, India had agreed to participate in talks in Moscow which were cancelled because the Afghan government pulled out after the US government refused to participate in it.
In the November 9 conference however, India sent its “non-official” delegates to Moscow to sit at the same table with Taliban representatives. “After all, Afghanistan had also sent four representatives from its High Peace Council,” pointed out Sharma. And the US had sent its observers to Moscow talks too.
Hence, India seems to be carefully recalibrating its Afghan position. As they say in politics, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests. And India’s stakes for peace in Afghanistan remain extremely high.