In the past when Afghanistan went through several regime changes – be it Daoud Khan’s coup, the communist seizure of power, the Soviet intervention or the Mujahideen regime – India had consistently taken the position that it would deal with the government of the day. These regimes represented different sets of ideologies and posed different sets of challenges to New Delhi. India had warm ties with Zahir Shah who presided over a feudal society and wanted to balance ties between New Delhi and Islamabad. Daoud Khan was a left-oriented modernizer who leaned towards India even as he ratcheted up tensions with Pakistan. The communists implemented radical social and economic reforms. The Soviet intervention posed moral questions to India’s foreign policy outlook and its commitment to non-alignment. And the Mujahideen were a completely different brand of politicians. They wanted to re-Islamize Afghanistan.
The ideological changes in Kabul had mattered little in India’s quest to stay engaged in Afghanistan. This position would change after the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. In the 1990s, India’s policy towards the Taliban had aligned with the overwhelming regional and international approaches. When they captured power, the Taliban enjoyed the direct support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but most of the regional powers had issues with them. Shia theocratic Iran saw the Sunni Deobandi Taliban, in control next door, as a sectarian, security and geopolitical threat. For Russia, which had been forced to withdraw from Afghanistan a few years earlier by Islamist militancy, the Taliban was a source of instability. The Taliban’s support for Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan posed a major security challenge to Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian republics.
Even China – which had backed the Mujahideen during the Soviet period and opened political contacts with the Taliban towards the end of their reign – looked at the Taliban’s hosting of militants from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (also called the Turkistan Islamic Party) as a major concern. The US was leading the international pressure campaign against the Taliban as it wanted Kabul to hand over Osama bin Laden and other top alQaeda operatives, especially after the 2008 embassy bombings in East Africa. So India did not find it challenging from an operational point of view to offer military and financial aid to the rebels in Panjshir. But the situation today, with the Taliban’s second coming, appears to be different.
Most countries that opposed the Taliban or supported their opponents in the past are willing to engage with the Taliban now. The US, which toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, started direct negotiations with them in 2018, entered into a formal agreement in 2020 and pulled back all troops from Afghanistan in 2021 as per that agreement. Iran, which had almost gone to war with the Taliban regime in 1998 after its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif was attacked and diplomats killed, established contact with the Taliban’s top leadership at least as early as 2016. Russia, which was at the forefront of the global campaign to isolate the Taliban regime in the past and one of the co-sponsors of the UNSC Resolution 1333, hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Peace Council, a non-governmental institution that had the backing of Kabul, in November 2018. Russia would continue to maintain official, direct contacts with the Taliban and hold more meetings with them in Moscow in the following months. China had moved faster. In 2015, when Pakistan hosted the first direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Murree, on the outskirts of Islamabad, China, along with the US, had sent its diplomats as observers. In 2019, when the US– Taliban talks were on, China held two meetings with the Taliban (one in June and the other in September). On the other hand, there was no attempt from India to open direct official channels of communication with the Taliban until the last moment.
One possible explanation for India’s late and reluctant outreach was that the ruling coalition, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was hesitant to openly deal with the Islamist extremists in Afghanistan because of domestic political concerns. When the Taliban were making military advances in Afghanistan, BJP leaders signalled that they would use it to drive their political agenda at home. Amid reports of threats to the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Modi said on 28 August 2021, ‘Keeping the [Sikh] gurus’ teachings of humanity at the forefront, the country has passed new laws for its own people who were troubled by such circumstances’; this was a veiled reference to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 that seeks to fast-track citizenship for minorities in the three Muslim-majority countries in India’s neighbourhood: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs in Modi’s cabinet, was more direct when he linked the CAA with the developments in Afghanistan. ‘Recent developments in our volatile neighbourhood & the way Sikhs & Hindus are going through a harrowing time are precisely why it was necessary to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act,’ Puri tweeted on 22 August. Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, said on 15 October that India should be militarily alert and be prepared for all possibilities in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. But while domestic politics remained a factor, this alone was unlikely to have dictated India’s policy towards the Taliban.
A closer analysis suggests there were structural factors as well that slowed down India’s outreach. For all the other regional countries that opposed the Taliban in the past, be it Russia, Iran or China, the fundamental issue was the Taliban’s support for militants. So when the Taliban were returning to power with increased strength, these countries decided to engage the Taliban directly and address their problems that existed between themselves and the Taliban. But in the case of India, there was a Pakistan factor, which it could not wish away even if it directly dealt with the Taliban. The Taliban are as much supported by Pakistan today as they were in the 1990s. And China was in the forefront of welcoming the Taliban regime, albeit with some concerns. With the US withdrawal and the return of the Taliban, giving an upper hand to two of its geopolitical rivals, India’s options were limited.
Despite the ideological differences and structural impediments, India articulated a policy of reluctant engagement. In June 2021, when the Taliban offensive in northern Afghanistan was in full swing, Indian officials made a ‘quiet visit’ to Doha to meet Taliban officials. While the Indian government kept mum on this meeting, a Qatari government official confirmed it at a public event. After the Taliban captured Kabul, India, like other countries, voiced concerns of human rights violations and extremism but sent signals that it was ready to accept the new reality: that the Taliban were in power in Kabul. In October, India sent a high-level MEA delegation to Moscow to attend a conference of ten countries, including Russia, China, Iran and Central Asian republics, with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi and other officials. India signed a communique issued by all the ten countries that called for ‘further practical engagement with Afghanistan’ and the need to take into account ‘the new reality, that is the Taliban coming to power in the country, irrespective of the official recognition of the new Afghan government by the international community’.
Immediately after the Moscow conference, Taliban spokesperson Zabuhulla Mujahid said, ‘Both sides considered it necessary to take into account each other’s concerns and improve diplomatic and economic relations.’ He also revealed that India had ‘finally expressed readiness to provide a wide range of humanitarian assistance to the Afghans’. This marked a clear difference from India’s policy towards the former Taliban regime, but stopped short of its decision to engage the Mujahideen in the early 1990s, as New Delhi weighed its reluctance to deal with a regime with which it had deep reservations, against an unfolding economic and humanitarian catastrophe in its neighbourhood.
This excerpt from ‘The Comrades and the Mullahs: China, Afghanistan and the New Asian Geopolitics’ by Ananth Krishnan and Stanly Johny has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.