Why New Delhi should not fear the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul

Unlike Pakistan, India is an emerging regional power both from a political and economic point of view, and India, since the last two decades, has built a friendly image in the minds of many Afghans – many consider India as the second home for the Afghans, write Hamayun Khan & S. Nasrat for South Asia Monitor

Hamayun Khan & S. Nasrat Mar 06, 2021
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Despite being a pro-Pakistan group ever since its emergence in 1994, the Taliban’s dominance in Afghanistan can no longer be a big threat for India. After 20 years, the Taliban finally signed a controversial peace agreement with the United States for a ceasefire.

The US-Taliban peace deal was meant for addressing two key issues such as intra-Afghan peace talks and the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan - leaving the Afghan troops solely responsible for ensuring security. The Taliban otherwise expects the US-Taliban deal to help them take over the establishment in Kabul.

Some political and security analysts in New Delhi see the US-Taliban peace deal as both Pakistan and the Taliban’s combined victory. This means the Taliban’s return to power raises concerns for New Delhi over its political influence and protection of its huge investment poured in Afghanistan.

Taliban looking for political leverage

Although, with its regional recognition, the Taliban are trying to further leverage the ongoing peace process to hold onto momentous power share in the future leadership in Kabul. Islamabad, therefore, waits for the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul to achieve its impending political objectives – stranded and thwarted since the ouster of the Taliban’s regime in 2001.

New Delhi, on the other hand, is making similar attempts to reach the Taliban through direct talks. Unlike the 1990s, in the current Afghan scenario, the Taliban demands an inclusive political and economic cooperation with regional countries, including India, for sustainability in Afghanistan.

The accelerated withdrawal of the US troops followed by the Taliban’s hold on power will result in Pakistan’s political prominence in Afghanistan. Pakistan will most likely benefit from its influence over the Taliban as a tactic of using them to undermine India’s political eminence in Afghanistan.  India will try its best to maintain its political influence in Afghanistan – more likely through a soft-power approach – as they have been doing since 2001 through its reconstruction and humanitarian programs.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with the Wilson Center in Washington, argues that “the Taliban will emerge stronger. This would make India more likely, through covert means, to try to protect its interests there. And since India and Pakistan are bitter rivals, anything that New Delhi seeks to do in Afghanistan will be seen by Islamabad as a net negative.” 

The Indian government also said that “peace settlement should not leave any ungoverned spaces where the terrorists (referring to Pakistan) and their proxies can operate and where they can create bases to target India.”

Pakistan’s influence over Taliban

Despite Pakistan benefitting from the Taliban coming to power, India welcomed the Afghan-led peace process. For India, this could be, among other reasons, is that the deal guarantees no threats struck out outside the Afghan soil post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan or to establish good relations with the Taliban for protecting its own national interests and security.

Linking the Afghan peace issue with the anti-Pakistan groups operating both inside and outside Pakistan, Islamabad has downplayed its rivalry against New Delhi and has strived to protect its national security. Therefore, Islamabad has exaggerated New Delhi’s role in backing the Baloch Liberation Struggle (BLS) fighters and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement - a social movement in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan for Pashtun human rights.

Since Pakistan has placed a substantial influence over the Taliban over the last two decades, Islamabad expects that the future government in Kabul will thwart New Delhi’s 'interference' in Pakistan through Afghan soil.  This will be a win-win game for Islamabad to avert the Indian influence in Afghanistan from every angle – possibly forcing New Delhi to extend its reach to the leadership in Kabul - even if it is led by the Taliban. On the other hand, there are already strong hints that India has expressed its intention to have direct talks with the Taliban.

China’s growing influence

This is due to the growing fears of a possible Chinese intervention - that is yet another hurdle to supplant India’s influence in Afghanistan, simply through its Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, the Taliban’s unprecedented regional recognition as a political force, and its share in power in the future, could play a major role in the regional and Afghan politics. Hence, New Delhi has supported the ongoing peace process to restore its interests and to enlarge its role in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the willingness of New Delhi to build a friendly approach with the Taliban could be measured by the change in the Taliban’s ideological perspective as it has transformed from a religious group to a political force, thus increasing the likelihood of its future ties with New Delhi. The recent fatwas issued by a number of prominent clerics across the Muslim world, particularly India, that considered the war in Afghanistan antipathetic to the Islamic norms eases India’s approach to the Taliban. Under Pakistan’s influence in the 1990s, the Taliban considered India as an enemy - given the dominant Hindu philosophy - in the country and the Taliban’s identical ideology to the militant groups operating in Kashmir against India.

Now that the Taliban’s war no longer holds religious legitimacy, this will allow the Taliban to consider establishing a political relationship with India.

With the regional diplomatic support and protocols that the Taliban have gained, particularly through the Afghan peace process, especially its ties with Tehran, and Moscow increases the likelihood that the group could any time choose New Delhi - if need be.

India’s soft power

Unlike Pakistan, India is an emerging regional power both from a political and economic point of view, and India, since the last two decades has built a friendly image in the minds of many Afghans – many consider India as the second home for the Afghans. Thus, the Taliban, to uphold its tenure in power for a long period and to gain enough public support in Afghanistan, should build good political and economic relations with all the regional nations, including India.

Relying merely on Tehran is also not enough for the Taliban for a long duration due to several reasons - the ideological Shia-Sunni differences, the influence of  Saudi Arabia over the Taliban, and the US economic sanctions on Tehran over the nuclear deal that have woefully affected Iran’s economy.

India wants to safeguard its interests and investments in billions, and which calls for a good relation with the upcoming leadership in Kabul, irrespective of who rules, and also to avert any future threats from its economic and political foes, both Islamabad and Beijing.

India will have to give credence to its soft power for having some influence over the Afghan government – most probably dominated by the Taliban. Since the intra-Afghan peace deal is thought to dictate the future fortunes of Afghanistan, the Taliban, if it comes to power, may ponder on considering a positive political approach to New Delhi as they may deem India a lucrative ally in the development of Afghanistan. 

(Hamayun Khan, a researcher and commentator on South Asia, is based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at hamayun.salarzai@gmail.com. S. Nasrat is a researcher and commentator on Afghanistan. The views are personal)

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