India’s Strategic Diplomacy: Navigating India’s Engagement with the Taliban Regime in Afghanistan
Dr Angana Kotokey, Research Associate, VIF

Following the visit of an Indian delegation to Afghanistan in March 2024, there was much speculation across academia as well as policy circles on India’s relations with the present government in Afghanistan, as India embarked on expanding its engagements with the Taliban’s interim government. Historically, India’s relationship with Afghanistan has been primarily driven by the age-old people-to-people connections, regardless of whosoever comes to power in Kabul. Apart from the humane connection, bilateral relations with Afghanistan have also been dominated by India’s strategic concerns and security dimensions as well. With the Taliban coming back to power in 2021, it has become important to understand the rationale behind India’s engagement with the new Afghan administration, despite India not recognizing the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

The following article shall in brief highlight the reasons that determine India’s engagement with the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Bridging Cultures: an Overview of People-to-people Contacts between India and Afghanistan

Although modern India’s diplomatic ties with Afghanistan were officially instituted in 1950, relations between the people of these countries are civilizational, and based on extensive cultural exchanges. [1] The emotional connection between Indians and the Afghans was built times ago after Indian poets and righters dwelled in creating an imagination of Afghanistan and its people through several of their plays, stories, and poems. [2] However, many of these recreations have been criticized for carrying a Western narrative for the depiction of Afghans and the country, Afghanistan. [3] India’s long association with the Pashtun community since the pre-partition days makes the bond between India and Afghanistan stronger in the present times. [4] However, India’s relationship with the other ethnic communities from Afghanistan especially with the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras expanded with the formation of the ‘Northern Alliance’—an anti-Taliban resistance front in Afghanistan that fought the Taliban’s first regime in Kabul (1996-2001). [5] India’s support to the resistance front became one of the primary reasons for the post-2001 narrative that placed the country “as friends of the non-Pashtuns alone.” However, India during the reign of President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani made several attempts to change this narrative and succeeded well in this endeavour. [6] Despite strategic preferences, the presence of Pashtuns along with other Afghans belonging to the Hazara, Tajiks, and Uzbek ethnic communities, who are living in different parts of India has further strengthened India’s relations with Afghanistan based on mutual respect, tolerance, and religious harmony. [7] In addition to this, India also reinforced its collaboration with Afghanistan after many Afghan students moved to India to pursue their education at different Indian universities.

Meanwhile, India which is not a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 (1951 Convention) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees 1967, [8] has remained a destination for many Afghans who sought refuge in the country, including India also providing asylum to several political leaders and their families. The political unpredictability and the consequent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that started with the onset of the Afghan War, which continues until recent times, developed sympathy in the minds of the Indians towards the people from Afghanistan. Considering all these factors, India has always maintained friendly relations with Afghanistan by opening its door to assist the country in times of crisis. Despite having ideological differences with the Taliban regime, India [9] continues to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan, including assisting in food security, and medical supplies, helping Afghan students with visas, continuing their scholarships, and providing support for drug addicts. [10] However, India needs to take into consideration that while dealing with the Taliban, New Delhi in the long run should not lose goodwill among a generation of Afghans who perceive India as a supporter of education, democracy, and human rights in the region.

Strategic Concerns

For India, Afghanistan has been an important neighbour because of the country’s geo-strategic significance. [11] A self-sufficient and independent government in Afghanistan is the need of the hour considering that Afghanistan needs to be prevented from descending into chaos, protection of human rights, and coordination of counterterrorism strategies. [12] The Afghan Taliban’s past association with several radical organizations and its history of harbouring militant groups that caused harm to India’s security have raised concerns for the latter with the Taliban coming to power in 2021. [13] There remains enough evidence from the past that shows how a weak government in Afghanistan was prone to regional geopolitics since the 1970s, and further with the beginning of the Afghan War when the country became a proxy battleground for regional countries. [14] Since then with every new regime in Afghanistan (including the Taliban’s first Emirate in 1996), regional and global powers have played their geopolitical rivalries inside Afghanistan, leading to the rise of several non-state actors (like the Al-Qaeda) in the region. [15] Moreover, the transnational mobility of foreign fighters after the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 to different regions also impacted India’s security situation after the 1990s. [16] In addition, worries related to the selling and buying of arms left behind by the US (if any) in Afghanistan have been of concern across all media platforms—after comparisons being made of a similar situation from the past when a post-Soviet withdrawal phase witnessed arms trading in the region. [17] The rise of foreign fighters and the arms race proved detrimental to the region in light of increased terror attacks since the 1990s. [18] Therefore, considering the past experiences it has become important for India to extend communication with the new Taliban-led administration in Afghanistan after the U.S. troops withdrew in August 2021.

However, for India’s future engagements with the Taliban on matters related to security in the region and in ensuring that the country is not drawn into becoming a haven for different non-state actors; it has become extremely important for the Taliban administration to become self-sufficient and a sovereign regime, with an independent foreign policy. Therefore, at such a crucial stage when the new regime in Afghanistan is in a phase of transition, India’s options in Afghanistan are limited to providing assistance to the Taliban-led administration in becoming a politically and economically self-supporting regime by increasing bilateral engagements. From an Indian perspective, diplomatic disengagement by India will leave Afghanistan to choose other regional countries including Pakistan, Iran, and China over India to fulfill its requirements. [19] Moreover, fear of losing strategic space in Afghanistan appears to be one of the reasons for India’s present engagements with the new Taliban, [20] which has gone beyond looking out on earlier experiences with the Taliban when it was in power from 1996-2001. The hijacking of an Indian Airline which was diverted to Kandahar (that was under the Taliban control) in Afghanistan in 1999 remains a significant event in the history of India-Afghanistan relations under the first government of the Taliban. [21] Despite such events recorded from the past, India appears to be experimenting with different options with the Afghan Taliban at present.

Moreover, it needs to be taken into consideration that the Taliban after coming to power in 2021 has not been found proclaiming statements that irk the Indian state and hence do not appear to be under the direct control of Pakistan’s deep state, unlike the Taliban's first Emirate of 1996. Further, it can also be observed that Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power have been dominated by areas of confrontation rather then cooperation. [22] The escalating rift between them on issues related to the Durand Line, the fencing of borders, the rise of TTP attacks inside Pakistan, the deportation of Afghan Refugees from Pakistan, and the issue of trade and transit, further complicates their relationship. [23] India has been closely observing this transformation in Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral relations since 2021, while expanding its interactions with the new Afghan administration. The Taliban 2 administration which is desperately awaiting international recognition seems to be careful in managing relations with its regional neighbours including Pakistan who have been its close ally for decades. Considering the changing dynamics in the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it can be analyzed that India’s efforts to deepen its engagements with the Taliban administration fulfill the former’s strategic as well as security objectives.

Fabricated Narratives: Misinformation Building in India-Afghanistan Relations

Since the Taliban came back to power in Kabul, the relationship between India and Afghanistan has been subjected to the influence of fabricated narratives, which are mostly a part of misinformation disseminated by different political groups to suit their own interests. Fabricated narratives in India-Afghanistan relations have taken various forms, ranging from misinformation campaigns to the deliberate spread of false or exaggerated claims aimed at shaping public opinion and influencing policymaking—all of which have the potential to distort perceptions and impact bilateral ties. Post the Taliban takeover, the role of media (including platform X) in misrepresenting facts, and events created confusion for both India and Afghanistan, especially concerning the closure of the Afghan Embassy in India, and the relocation of the diplomats. [24] The real facts were not shared with the public and distorted/half-truths were circulated which created some difficulties for the Indian government. Further, India’s role in continuing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan is being misrepresented by people on social media as ‘India recognizing the Taliban regime’—further creating confusion on the international platforms. In addition to this, the role of the Afghan diaspora has become significant in misrepresenting facts regarding Afghanistan’s ex-Republican official’s engagement with the Indian government. These ex-officials who either served within Afghanistan or through different diplomatic capacities abroad as a part of the new regime are being called as Taliban administrators[25]—only to support the diaspora’s narrative on India’s engagement with the Taliban on the international platform.

Such misinformation should be of grave concern for India because fabricated narratives can also influence public opinion and perceptions about India-Afghanistan relations, potentially exacerbating tensions and hindering efforts to build trust and cooperation. In such a situation, India’s options can be to foster people-to-people exchanges, cultural diplomacy, and educational initiatives that can help build mutual understanding and resilience against false narratives. By promoting dialogue, empathy, and critical thinking India and Afghanistan can mitigate the influence of fabricated narratives and strengthen their bilateral relationship based on trust, cooperation, and shared interests.

To conclude, India appears to have extended collaboration with the new administration in Afghanistan, based on its strategic interests, as well as for of pursual of its old civilizational connection with the country. Bilateral engagements with Afghanistan or with the Taliban interim government are being undertaken given the people-to-people connection between both countries and in execution of its humanitarian assistance programmes. Moreover, safeguarding India’s billion-worth investments in Afghanistan is another reason for the country’s engagements with the new rulers of Kabul. Therefore, based on strategic calculations, India must work together with other like-minded states so that a regional framework for engaging with the Taliban regime can be worked out so that Afghanistan can be secured from falling into yet another phase of conflict and turmoil. [26]

References

[1] Avinash Paliwal My Enemy's Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal, Oxford University Press, 2015
[2] Ibid
[3] https://www.mei.edu/publications/intellectual-impact-colonialism-and-urgency-decolonizing-knowledge-afghanistan
[4] https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/indias-options-and-the-pashtun-factor/article25926719.ece
[5] https://carnegieendowment.org/files/6152017_Paliwal_IndiasRoleinAfghanistan_Web.pdf
[6] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
[7] https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1697086/pakistan
[8] https://www.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/legacy-pdf/4cd96e919.pdf
[9] https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/ideological-changes-in-kabul-mattered-little-to-india-till-the-taliban-came-to-power/872547/
[10] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
[11] https://www.financialexpress.com/business/defence-afghanistan-geo-strategically-important-for-india-could-be-tapped-for-defence-exports-1887297/
[12] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/india-us-partnership
[13] https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46955
[14] https://www.swp-berlin.org/publications/products/fachpublikationen/Steinberg_Woermer_SaudiArabia_Interest_April2013.pdf
[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10036157/
[16] https://www.ict.org.il/UserFiles/ICT-Foreign-Fighters-Post-Conflict-May-16.pdf
[17] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/us-weapons-afghanistan-taliban-kashmir-rcna67134
[18] https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/07/05/taliban-afghanistan-arms-dealers-weapons-sales-terrorism/
[19] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
[20] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-022-01489-7
[21] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/1999-kandahar-hijacking-only-one-behind-bars-real-perpetrators-still-untried/articleshow/85777240.cms?from=mdr
[22] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/17/talibans-ties-with-pakistan-fraying-amid-mounting-security-concerns
[23] https://thediplomat.com/2023/04/pakistan-and-the-afghan-taliban-friends-becoming-foes/
[24] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/new-delhi-verifying-purported-claims-of-afghan-embassy-closing-down-in-india-101695962148746.html. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
[25] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
[26] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-022-01489-7
(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://static.theprint.in/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Feature-Image-15-696x392.jpg?compress=true&quality=80&w=800&dpr=1.5

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
10 + 7 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us