India’s cautious return to Afghanistan – Analysis – Eurasia Review

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By Manoj Joshi*

Although overthrown by the collapse of the Ghani government of Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, New Delhi has quickly re-established its presence in the new Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In early June 2022, a crew led by JP Singh, joint secretary at the head of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran office at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, visited Kabul and met with senior Taliban ministers.

Although India has made it clear that none of this implies recognition of the Taliban government, the Taliban play the political significance of the visit.

New Delhi moved quickly to assert itself as an important player in Afghanistan after the fall of the Ghani government. While India appears to be playing alone, it is actually acting in close coordination with the United States on the basis of common interests. Both nations seek to stabilize the country, promote a inclusive government and deny space to militant groups. United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West spoke with Indian officials in May 2022, as well as with Abdullah Abdullah, the former director general for Afghanistan in New Delhi.

India has many reasons for fostering closer relations with Afghanistan. The press release accompanying Singh’s visit spoke of India’s “historical and civilizational ties” – but his policies are mainly driven by fears that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will bolster Pakistan’s geopolitical clout.

The Taliban themselves are not seen as a threat to India, but their links to Pakistan and jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are worrying. Afghanistan is important to India’s continental economic aspirations, including closer ties with Central Asia and Iran. These goals are currently hampered by Pakistan’s blocking of Indian access to the region.

The gist of it is summed up by the title of University of London SOAS academic Avinash Paliwal’s study of India’s Afghan policy, “The enemy of my enemy‘. The Taliban may have close ties to Islamabad, but historical relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have not been friendly, especially when contesting the Durand Line (the Afghan-Pakistani border) and the status of Pashtuns who live in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban provides sanctuary to the anti-Pakistani insurgent group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban).

The Pakistan-Taliban relationship remains complicated. The interim Taliban government had a strong pro-Pakistani faction based on the Haqqani Network, an Islamist militant organization founded in the 1970s that now operates as a significant part of the Taliban. Instead of helping Pakistan control the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Taliban work to reach a long-term peace deal to end their 14-year-old insurgency against Islamabad – a deal that would require significant concessions from Pakistan.

A stabilized tribal region on both sides of the Durand Line would reduce violence in both countries and block the resurgence of groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and Al-Qaeda. But that would not alleviate India’s concerns about the access Pakistani jihadist groups might have to Afghan territory. To achieve this, India will need leverage over the Taliban, while ties with New Delhi would provide the Kabul regime with a way to balance Pakistan.

In November 2021, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval hosted the Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan in New Delhi. India clarified that its objective was not to resurrect an alliance to overthrow the Taliban, but sought to prevent the revival of groups like ISIS-K and Al-Qaeda. This theme of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs was repeated during the June 2022 talks.

India announced in February 2022 that it to bring 50,000 tonnes of wheat bound for Afghanistan for humanitarian aid and that, in an unusual concession, Pakistan allowed these shipments to travel overland through its territory. India has been the region’s biggest development aid provider in Afghanistan since 2001, having invested US$3 billion in infrastructure projects covering schools, roads, dams and hospitals – all of which are increasing their influence on the Taliban.

Everything will depend on the evolution of the Taliban 2.0. Without a supreme leader like the 1994 founder of Afghanistan’s first Islamic emirate, Mullah Omar, the new Taliban face challenges along tribal, regional and personal lines.

New Delhi has signaled its willingness to strengthen its ties with Kabul in a calibrated way – it is considering allowing the Afghan national carrier to resume flights to India and has posted a “technical team” in its embassy in Kabul to provide services consular to Afghans. The big challenge for India and the United States is allaying Pakistanis’ fears that India’s presence in Afghanistan poses a threat to their security. Islamabad has in the past seen its proxies attack Indian targets, including the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

June 18, 2022 bombing over a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, which has been claimed by ISIS-K, has raised alarm bells in New Delhi. India once depended on a Kabul-friendly government and the US security presence in Afghanistan for its security until August 2021. Now it must carefully assess the lay of the land.

The best way to do this would be to deal directly with Islamabad. But as this is a bridge too far at present, the alternative is to go hand in hand with other stakeholders – especially the United States, China, Russia and the countries of ‘Central Asia.

*About the author: Manoj Joshi is a Fellow Emeritus of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Source: This article was published by the East Asia Forum

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