Now that India is enrolled in the big league of nations – the Quad – it wants to feel big and grow bigger strategic nails. Talking to Taliban is certainly viewed as part of New Delhi’s formula to appear serious and strategic, and not remain tied to ideology. However, the engagement may not necessarily have an impact on India’s national security or its calculated gains in Afghanistan. The shift is more about India feeling that it has come of strategic age and less about immediate security benefits. All the argument about beefing up India’s security or allaying fears on the return of Taliban in Kashmir after the American withdrawal are justification of the move rather than anything real. Tactically, it also signals Pakistan that New Delhi is not willing to give up its geo-political stakes in Afghanistan and hence, explains the bid to engage a group of warriors, the Taliban, that have remained Pakistan’s forte for long.
New Delhi’s new approach may not translate into any tactical benefits for India in the short to medium term because despite all its problems, we are looking at an Afghanistan that doesn’t seem returning to the Taliban days of yore.
Pakistan’s worry is the TTP
Pakistan will not get rattled by the conversation between Delhi and the Taliban sitting in Doha. It may not like the engagement, but it is not worried about any possible dent in its links with the Afghan Taliban. Islamabad’s main concern remains the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whichthe country’s intelligence sources believe has links with India and Afghan intelligence. The massive bomb blast on 23 June in Lahore that targeted Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed’s residence and left three killed and 21 injured, including innocent bystanders, may only remind Pakistan’s intelligence officials of their worst fears. Though no individual or group took responsibility for the attack, it did indicate Pakistan’s intelligence lapse that, in turn, is likely to bring back the rhetoric regarding the discomfort the country’s intelligence community has vis-à-vis India’s presence in Kabul.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in an interview to Afghanistan’s Tolo News, has accused India of “carrying out terrorist activities” from Afghan soil. More than the Eastern frontier, it is the Northwestern border where Islamabad feels more vulnerable. The lack of consensus on conversion of the Durand Line into an international boundary and the support rendered to the protesting Pashtuns in Pakistan from the civil society and the government in Kabul makes Rawalpindi nervous.
Under these circumstances, Rawalpindi will strengthen ties with the Afghan Taliban. Given their inability to deal with the Pushtuns (or any other ethnic group), Pakistan’s Generals have put all their eggs in the Taliban basket. Despite the recent claims that Islamabad is diversifying its outreach to other groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban remain its bulwark against other stakeholders in the neighboring country. Islamabad has capitalised its Taliban links in negotiating with Washington. It delivered some Taliban elements to the table at Doha where an American withdrawal by September 2021 was negotiated. Notwithstanding some issues in the Taliban-Pakistan relationship or the argument that these militants are not entirely under Pakistan’s control, the arrangement is time-tested and won’t easily be shaken by an Indian outreach.
But the question worth asking is who among the Taliban is Delhi talking to?
Is the Taliban Delhi engaging worth it?
The Taliban do not represent a consolidated group and have factions that may be ideologically joined. And Delhi is only likely to access those that are sitting in Doha or some of the low or mid-tier fighters in Kabul. It definitely has little access to the more serious Quetta Shura or others sitting in Waziristan, or the notorious Haqqani network, which has serious military muscle.
US Sources that I spoke with told me that even the Americans admit that the Taliban group sitting in Doha, which the Afghan journalist Mushtaq Rahim called the “Taliban’s intellectuals”, do not necessarily have a good view of the ground. Hence, they are not likely to represent all Taliban groups fighting in Afghanistan. This means that those in Doha may not be in a position to secure Indian interests inside Afghanistan. The Qatar-based Taliban represent a relatively sophisticated crowd among the lot who appreciate the value of strategic signaling to the world — somethingthey seem to be doing by engaging with New Delhi. They would like the world to know that they can talk to an ideologically diverse group. But that in itself does not mean that they will be able to enforce such sophistication on the ground, back in Afghanistan.
Delhi’s Quad prism and China
New Delhi’s Taliban outreach appears serious, when seen from the Quad prism. India may be attempting to thwart China, which has the potential to make inroads in Afghanistan after America’s departure. The Narendra Modi government must have felt confident seeing the recent G-7 summit vociferously express the desire to “compete and counter” China. Though Beijing doesn’t look super excited about jumping into the Afghanistan fray, even the Afghans realise that China has greater financial resources to offset India’s $3 billion investment in Afghanistan spent since 2002, particularly in the post-pandemic period when the Indian economy is struggling?
China does not want to get embroiled in local conflicts, like the Americans, and get bogged down. Beijing has advantage of talking to both — the Afghan government, which is interested in investment, and the Taliban, either independently or through its trusted ally, Pakistan. China’s future calculation will factor in the reality that India may be less successful in buying back the Taliban from Pakistan. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that Islamabad itself will have to be careful in not stepping on Taliban’s toes, which is what may explain Qureshi’s recent comments accusing India of supporting militants in Afghanistan.
Where India should actually place its bet
India has definitely joined the race to get the attention of the Taliban that is currently busy regaining territorial control, which is not an easy task. The Taliban’s recent seize of Kunduz is much talked about in the media but the reporting tends to ignore that this and many other similar gains have come in areas where the insurgent group had pre-existing influence. Media reports are less generous in highlighting the fact that the Taliban are receiving a push back from tribal groups in many areas. Several sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan that I talked to mentioned a meeting of the Afghan tribal groups on 22 June in which they agreed to not allow the Taliban to take over their areas. This means that while war and conflict in Afghanistan may be a foregone conclusion, the Taliban takeover of the 1990s is not definitive. Even Pakistan understands that for the Taliban, it won’t be a repeat of the 1996 victory and the subsequent consolidation of power.
The Taliban adding to militancy in India appears unlikely. It will be an impossible feat for Pakistan to pull another IC-814-kind of hijacking with the help of Taliban. Geography being a greater reality, Afghanistan is not next door for India to make it natural for Taliban to intrude in Kashmir. As far as Pakistan is concerned, its ability to contribute to insurgency has already been curbed to a large extent by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Islamabad’s insistence on transforming into a geo-economic hub and improving its image globally limits Pakistan’s options of invoking the militants. Though it may want to park some militant manpower in Afghanistan that India may not be able to counter even by a limited Taliban engagement.
Nations tend to justify all sorts of policies in the name of national security and pragmatism. Like the Taliban’s desire to appear pragmatists, the Indian government is also inclined to be seen as capable of communicating with multiple actors across the ideological spectrum. However, immediate gains are unlikely.
New Delhi’s key strength remains in engaging with Kabul, especially if it can fill the strategic gaps left by the Americans. This is not about military deployment but helping Kabul fill the governance gap, which has led to trust deficit among people and created space for the likes of Taliban. Filling this gap will prove more long term than establishing links with the Taliban. Even if New Delhi is hooked to the idea of contacts with the Pushtun warriors, it is important not to miss the woods for the trees.
Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc; Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)