Viewed realistically, New Delhi’s failure to engage the Taliban has placed its Afghan strategy in a quandary considering the resilience of the group, which has raised the possibility of its prominence in a future political scenario in Afghanistan and India’s lack of a coherent strategy to deal with it. On the contrary, India has been counting on an uncertain American presence in Afghanistan.
While other powers with stakes in Afghanistan such as Russia and Iran have established contacts with the Taliban, India has chosen to maintain a safe distance from the idea of engaging the group. It was reported in the late 1990s that India was poised to discuss the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Taliban. The perception that New Delhi’s change of approach toward the group might have occurred evolved primarily because of two factors.
First, the overwhelming success of the Taliban in capturing power in Afghanistan might have pushed India to rethink and revise its anti-Taliban stance. Second, the landing of the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 in Kandahar in December 1999 precipitated an unanticipated situation for the Indian authorities with no other options but establish direct contacts with the Taliban.
To that effect, there were media reports that India’s minister of external affairs at the time, Jaswant Singh, who was to accompany the detained terrorists to be released by New Delhi for the safe return of the hijacked passengers, was willing to discuss the future of diplomatic ties with the Taliban. However, contrary to the predictions, India believed that successful diplomatic ties could only be established if the militant group could distance itself from Pakistan.
In New Delhi’s perception, the Taliban never severed their links with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment and therefore India stopped short of establishing diplomatic ties with the group.
The recurring fact that the Taliban remain powerful enough to decide the future political landscape within Afghanistan along with their shades of indigenous appeal drives a caveat that New Delhi needs to open up some possibilities to engage the group
Nevertheless, the recurring fact that the Taliban remain powerful enough to decide the future political landscape within Afghanistan along with their shades of indigenous appeal drives a caveat that New Delhi needs to open up some possibilities to engage the group.
Some scholars point to the overwhelming indigenous character of the Afghan Taliban and tend to argue that New Delhi must not view the group only from a Pakistani perspective. For instance, it has been argued that the Afghan Taliban under the late Mullah Omar were an indigenous movement unlike many other jihadi groups that undertook anti-Indian activities.
The Taliban not only enjoyed autonomy from the Pakistani state, their modus operandi was directed more toward Afghanistan and the Central Asian region. It was maintained that the Quetta Shura and Haqqani group were marked by significant differences.
The Quetta Shura, headed by Mullah Omar, included most of the Taliban’s senior leadership from the period between 1994 and 2001. Omar’s personal philosophy stemmed from a powerful combination of Islamic fundamentalism and nationalism. His overriding aim had always remained the eviction of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the establishment of an Islamic emirate with a full implementation of Islamic lifestyle and law.
With a similar thrust, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an interview in 2010 that the Lashkar-e-Toiba “has no presence in Afghanistan and we have no links with it. Unlike the Lashkar, which is focused on Jammu and Kashmir, the Afghan Taliban concentrate on Afghanistan. We have never taken part in any attack in India, nor do we attack anyone at Pakistan’s behest.”
He further said, “Whenever we attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul or its consulates, we claimed responsibility. Last month’s attack was also carried out by the Taliban fighters after we got intelligence information that RAW [Indian Research and Intelligence Wing] agents were holding a meeting there. The Taliban are not in any direct conflict with India. Indian troops are not part of NATO forces, they have not occupied Afghanistan. India and Afghanistan have had historic ties.”
In a similar vein, former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar argued that India by taking an anti-Taliban stance had hindered its interests in Afghanistan and instead pandered to Western interests. He argued: “The Indian strategic thinkers should not have been such incorrigible fundamentalists to fail to appreciate the shades of political Islam or discern the western propaganda about the Taliban. Mixing up the Taliban completely with the adversarial mindset of the Pakistani security agencies was equally wrong. Overlooking the indigenous roots of a home-grown movement was always injudicious.”
Some experts underline the extent and limits of the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan and argue that the group enjoyed sufficient autonomy from the latter and could stake its own claims. For instance, while Pakistan wanted connectivity with Central Asia through Afghanistan and sought to utilize the Taliban to bring stability to southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban also had the vested interests in securing the trade routes from Afghan warlords. Important sources of support for the Taliban movement were the private commercial truckers and transporters who developed a thriving business moving food and other commodities to needy Afghans on a regular basis.
Similarly, the Afghan Taliban, while they received much material support from Pakistan during their rise to power, also had sources of support in Pakistan that lay outside the official structures of the government and the military. The Taliban developed access to influential lobbies and vested interests that made them less amenable to the official Pakistani pressures. The Taliban during their rule not only refused to accept the Durand Line like all the previous regimes, Pakistan’s powerlessness was also demonstrated by its incapacity to prevent the group from destroying the Bamiyan Buddha statues.
However, the Taliban do not form a monolithic structure that could be approached from a unified perspective, and it has been argued by some scholars that Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour, who was killed by a US drone attack in May 2016, had been working for Pakistan and received the mastermind of the 1999 Kandahar hijack after his release from jail.
Similarly, deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani – the founder of the Haqqani network – reserved strong connections with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and was reportedly involved in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008 that resulted in deaths of 58 people including an Indian diplomat. It has further been argued that the Haqqani group had been cultivated, equipped and financed by the ISI as a counterbalance to the Quetta Shura.
Of late, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen reportedly has remarked that India’s fears as well as reservations over the Taliban’s intentions are not grounded in reality. He said: “It is not a genuine fear, it is not a reality. Why [should we] turn our fighters towards India when we need to reconstruct our country after its liberation? We need to have [relations] with other countries to help us in reconstructing and developing our country. We do not have any policy of interference in any other countries; rather, we want to have good relations with every global partner. That’s our policy.”
Notwithstanding the umbrella character of the group and different factions within it, the evolving circumstances demand that India devise ways and means to engage it.