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Why has India decided to engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

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From the Taliban’s perspective a rapprochement with India is also important as it can enhance its legitimacy in the country. The Taliban knows that India remains popular with the Afghan people

India and the Taliban have finally “established” contacts. Though falling short of a full-fledged engagement, Indian security officials and a few Taliban factions perceived as being “nationalist” or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran, are in “contact”, the Hindustan Times reported on Tuesday. 

Citing its sources, the report says that “India has for the first-time opened channels of communication with Afghan Taliban factions and leaders, including Mullah Baradar, against the backdrop of the rapid drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan.”

Since the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban in February 29 last year, India has been under “pressure” to talk to the Taliban though it was not the party of the regional discussions on Afghanistan peace process till September last year, when India was invited to Doha in September last year to attend intra-Afghan talks on power-sharing — a programme which the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar joined in virtually. It was followed by the visit to New Delhi of the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, which was followed by his statement that India should talk directly to the Taliban. Even the State department head for South Asia in the Trump administration for South Asia, Alice Wells said in her statement that India was a critical player in Afghanistan.

The strongest feelers that the Taliban itself was interested in engaging with India came though the Doha office of Taliban, where its spokesperson Suhail Shaheen acknowledged in a tweet that Kashmir was India’s “internal affair”.

“The statement published in the media about the Taliban joining Jihad in Kashmir is wrong…. The policy of the Islamic Emirate is clear that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.” Suhail Shaheen, the spokesperson for the Taliban, as the political wing of Taliban calls itself, had tweeted then.

Taliban tweet

Separately, the Russians also were pitching in to persuade India to open channels with the Taliban. In an interview with The Hindu, Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, pointed out that, “New Delhi’s policy of avoiding any engagement with the Taliban has had its day, especially in view of the upcoming launch of intra-Afghan talks and eventual transformation of the Taliban movement into an influential legal political force in Afghanistan.” He added:”There are multiple reasons for that. First and foremost, the Taliban has had enough time to learn from its mistakes. As we can see, it has abandoned some radical and Jihadist principles.”

So far, India had stayed away from dialogue with the Taliban on account of the Pakistan-factor. India had concluded that the grouping was wholly controlled by the Pakistanis, which was evident during the IC814 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in 1999. Nevertheless, New Delhi has also noted that the Taliban’s relationship with its mentor has seen its ups and downs, particularly after Islamabad went ahead to imprison or murder Taliban leaders who did not toe its line.

Unsurprisingly, an exploratory process of engaging with the Taliban began a few months ago. According to the HT report, India has opened its channel with a few leaders of the Taliban including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. And there is reason for that focused outreach.

Baradar, the present leader of the negotiating team is the co-founder of the Taliban. He is one of the group’s main negotiators. An Afghan to the core, Pakistan had kept him under arrest for nine long years for daring to open links to Kabul for peace. Later Pakistan was forced to free him in 2018, following which, he became the head of the Taliban office in Doha. 

Baradar now heads the Taliban’s Doha office, though his family appears to be still in Pakistan.

Afghan

Taliban’s shift to greater political assertion—a factor that is likely to influenced a change of heart in New Delhi, is endorsed by other Afghan watchers as well. According to Pakistani analyst, Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Taliban is no longer as “loyal” to Pakistan as it used to be. It is expanding its relationship with Russia, Iran, China and the Arab countries. “Pakistan and the Taliban no longer share the kind of relationship they used to do in the past. But Pakistan still enjoys a certain degree of influence,” Yusufzai told India Narrative.

The Afghan government also appeared to encourage India to engage with the Taliban.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, the former President Ashraf Ghani’s Special Envoy for Regional Consensus Building on Peace and as Head of the High Peace Council (HPC) said in an interview to the Week, last month, that he had been asking Indian policy makers to talk to the Taliban, “I told them to open a channel of dialogue with the Taliban. They said the Taliban had contacted them 24 times, but they did not reply. I suggested giving the group a positive reply when it contacts them for the 25th time,” he added, “India can play a key role such as providing financial and political support and help in creating a politically cohesive environment. India is the most popular country in Afghanistan. When you are in the most popular country, you can do a lot.”

Despite the shift in the Indian stance, the devil lies in the detail. India appears to be differentiating between “nationalist” Taliban, with which it would engage, and the hardliners such as the Haqqani Network (HQN), which is under the Pakistani ISI. New Delhi will continue to remain distanced from the radical Pak-centric factions within the Taliban.  Supported by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the HQN have done the bidding of the ISI for a very long time.

After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in September, New Delhi realises that the Taliban is expected to dominate the political landscape, which could hinder India’s economic interests in the region, unless New Delhi finds its niche within the group. Unless there is a lead into the Taliban, India’s assistance of more than $3 billion in projects, trade of about $1 billion, a $20 billion projected development expenditure of an alternate route through Chabahar, as well as its support to the Afghan National Army, bureaucrats, doctors and other professionals for training in India would fall into jeopardy.

From the Taliban’s perspective a rapprochement with India is also important as it can enhance its legitimacy in the country. The Taliban knows that India remains popular with the Afghan people. New Delhi soft power is evident after India went ahead with the Afghan Parliament, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, and the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (Salma dam), projects. If the Taliban considers itself serious contenders for power in Kabul, it wouldn’t want to alienate a development partner as valuable as India, and face internal resentment.

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