Source: The Wire

Rupert Stone

In June 2022, the Indian government announced the reopening of its embassy in Kabul. To many, this came as a surprise. Weren’t the Taliban supposed to be puppets of Pakistan? Didn’t Islamabad support the militants precisely because they opposed India? Things are a little more complicated. The Taliban have never blindly followed Pakistan’s lead, and a rapprochement between New Delhi and the new rulers of Afghanistan makes sense for both sides.

Years of mistaken analysis by assorted pundits, including self-serving former Afghan government partisans, have distorted our understanding of the Taliban. The militants were portrayed throughout the war as a Pakistani, not an Afghan, group: educated in Pakistan as refugees in the 1980s, inculcated with the Wahhabi ideology that pervaded Pakistani society at that time, and then trained and armed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and pumped into Afghanistan to topple the pro-Indian government there and thus undermine India’s influence in Kabul, the Talibs were essentially seen as pawns of Pakistan.

This view of the relationship served various purposes for the Afghan republicans. First, it helped deflect blame for the failures of the war effort. Fingering Islamabad as the Taliban’s puppet-master also seemed to provide a simple formula for victory: pull the Pakistani rug out from under the militants, and their insurgency would crumble. Added to that, progressive Afghans could console themselves that the radical fundamentalist Taliban were a foreign import, not an ineradicable part of Afghan society that had to be accommodated within any stable political order.

But they were wrong. The Taliban were, and are, an Afghan movement. Research shows that some of the group’s most important leaders received their education in Afghanistan, not Pakistan, and that the Taliban’s ideology owes more to Afghan Sufism than it does to Arab Wahhabism. When the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, they did not always do what the Pakistani government wanted. They never recognised the Durand Line; nor did they hand over Osama Bin Laden, as General Musharraf requested; and they did not preserve the Bamiyan Buddhas at Pakistan’s behest, either.

After the US invasion in 2001, it was always assumed that Mullah Omar had fled across the border, but a recent report reveals that he stayed in Afghanistan right up until his death and “refused to go to Pakistan because of his deep-seated mistrust of that country”.

Indeed, the Taliban had tense relations with Pakistan throughout the war. After all, Islamabad had supported the western intervention that removed them from power. Pakistan tried to pressure the Taliban into negotiating a settlement, detaining Mullah Baradar and other leaders in 2010 apparently because they talked on the sly to the Afghan government, or pressuring former emir Mullah Mansour into attending peace talks at Murree in 2015. This all left an impression of Pakistan as the US’ hirelings, bullying the Taliban at Uncle Sam’s behest.

And, while Islamabad had undoubtedly used the insurgents to further its interests in Afghanistan, it wasn’t blind to their shortcomings. Yes, Pakistan believed the Taliban should be included in the post-2001 Afghan government and opposed the US’ decision to ostracize them, but they never subscribed to a Taliban theocracy. It was clearly Pakistan’s wish that the militants share power with other Afghan political factions, not that they rule alone. This was the Pakistani position right up until the end of the war, as shown by the government’s reported attempts to broker talks with Afghan Tajiks.

There were good reasons for Pakistan to be suspicious of the Taliban. Years before the end of the conflict, it was clear that the militants had a close relationship with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and would not or could not restrain it from conducting cross-border attacks against Pakistan. Moreover, the Taliban were never happy with the border fence Islamabad was building and even tried to obstruct its development. Anyone who now claims to be surprised by the Taliban’s harbouring of TTP and opposition to the fence simply wasn’t paying attention.

The Taliban’s relations with Pakistan had been souring ever since the start of the war, and it was therefore no surprise that the militants tried to cultivate ties with other countries so as to diversify their sources of support and reduce their dependency on Islamabad. To that end, they opened their political office in Doha, and also developed links with former adversaries, Iran and Russia, who had teamed up with India to support the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. As peace talks got underway, Taliban delegations would jet around the region visiting Beijing, Moscow, and other capitals. But one place they never visited was New Delhi.

India strongly opposed the Doha talks because they excluded the Afghan government and thus undermined the republic. Of all the regional powers, New Delhi had the weakest links to the Taliban, although a backchannel had long been rumoured. Critics, including this author, warned that India was jeopardising its interests in Afghanistan by refusing to engage. But India stood its ground and, when the militants seized power last year, quickly upped sticks and pulled out of Kabul. However, a meeting in Doha with Taliban official Stanekzai (who himself attended military training in India) suggested ties had the potential to improve.

India’s role in Afghanistan has often been determined by Pakistan. New Delhi backed the Soviets against the Pakistani-trained mujahideen in the 1980s. It supported the Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-allied Taliban in the following decade. And now Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban regime are so fraught that it provides an opening for India to strengthen its involvement at Islamabad’s expense. Since the takeover last year, longstanding tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan have intensified, especially their border dispute, which has sparked violent clashes in recent months.

Furthermore, the Taliban allegedly continue to shelter TTP, prompting Islamabad to conduct very unusual cross-border airstrikes inside Afghan territory in April. While the Taliban have mediated peace talks between Pakistan and its adversaries, it is unlikely that these will lead to a sustainable long-term settlement. To make matters worse, the TTP is now led by a politically-clever emir who has managed to reunify the group and build bridges with the Baloch insurgents in Pakistan, while extending an olive branch to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). This, combined with the menacing presence of Daesh’s local franchise, bodes ill for Pakistan’s security.

Islamabad has long maintained that New Delhi supports TTP and India’s return to Kabul while the Taliban give sanctuary to those very same militants must have raised eyebrows in Pakistan (and maybe in China, too, whose interests have also been targeted by TTP). India certainly has a chance to salvage some of the influence it cultivated in Afghanistan after the US-led war, when it embarked on numerous development projects such as dams, hospitals, roads, power lines, and schools. It avoided deploying troops and thus associating itself with the western invaders, instead training military personnel and providing equipment.

But after the takeover, India risked squandering its soft power in Afghanistan. It failed to evacuate Afghans and even left some Indians behind. Added to that, New  Delhi did not make good on a promise to provide visas to incoming Afghan students. Things started to change earlier this year, when India dispatched some aid via Pakistan. Then, after the earthquake in June, New Delhi sent a plane laden with emergency supplies. Plans are reportedly afoot to press ahead with a dam project and there are also efforts to revive an Afghanistan-India trade corridor through Iran’s Chabahar port that was launched under former president Ghani.

The Taliban, for their part, need friends. Their regime has still not been recognised by a single foreign government, and the Afghan economy is reeling from sanctions. If New Delhi is willing to restart its aid and development efforts in Afghanistan, so much the better. Furthermore, if the Taliban form a political relationship with India, that might prevent them from supporting the Afghan resistance, as they did in the 1990s. The prospect of a bigger Indian footprint in Afghanistan could also be used as leverage with Pakistan in discussions over the border, TTP, and so on.

The Taliban have a political incentive to distance themselves from Pakistan, which is viewed with suspicion by many Afghans. India, by contrast, has a glowing reputation in the country owing to its aid and development efforts. Pro-Indian sentiments are even shared by members of the Taliban, according to Indian author Ajai Shukla, who “display the same disdain for Pakistan and affection for India as the average Afghan”. Defence minister and son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqub, pointedly told Indian media that his father had allowed a hijacked Indian airliner to land in Kandahar after Pakistan refused to help.

Closer ties with the Taliban would not only enable India to compete with Pakistan in Afghanistan, but also with another rival, China. Beijing is busy expanding its own soft power there, sending food and medical supplies. While the aid is relatively small compared to that provided by the US, it is amplified by Chinese propaganda. China, like India, did not deploy troops during the US-led war and is thus untarnished by the invasion. Beijing kept its embassy open throughout the turmoil of the withdrawal last year, meaning it has had a head start over India. All the more reason for New Delhi to get cracking.

There is clearly a security rationale for India’s engagement. It will want action from the Taliban against terrorist groups like Jaish-e Mohammed and Lashkar-e Taiba, which – if a recent UN sanctions monitoring report is to be believed – have been operating in Afghanistan since the takeover. The Taliban are apparently receptive to these requests and have agreed to act on intelligence, although their track-record of reining in militant outfits does not inspire confidence. New Delhi will presumably ask the Taliban to stem reported flows of weapons left behind by NATO forces, too.

So, India has good reasons to re-enter the Afghan arena. But there will be challenges ahead. Relations with the Taliban will inevitably be tense. The Indian government recently issued a statement that, for the first time, seemed to criticize plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. While New  Delhi has long opposed CPEC, it never commented on a possible Afghan component, presumably out of deference to its friends in Kabul. The fact that it is starting to protest now, with the Taliban in power, speaks volumes about their relationship. India’s return to Kabul will not be an easy ride.

Rupert Stone is an independent journalist.