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The Taliban were in active cooperation with al-Qaeda in the 1990s, and India was cooperating both with the Taliban government and opposition groups in Afghanistan as well. But after the US government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, after two decades of war, another round of peace talks is set to begin, aimed at reconciling the Taliban with the Afghan government.
Meanwhile, the question is whether India’s approach to the Taliban will change or will be the same as in the past.
There seem to be two general points of view in India toward the Taliban.
The first view favors the continuation of the past policy toward the Taliban. India has always pursued a policy of non-negotiation with the Taliban in Afghanistan and was a strategic ally of the Afghan government.
India also refused to make contact with the Taliban because of the sensitivity of the Afghan government.
There are still concerns among New Delhi officials about decreasing India’s influence in Afghanistan, fears of an increasing role of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in that country, of a strengthening of the Haqqani Network’s role, and of increasing Taliban ties with al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Another view inside India favors looking for direct interaction with the Taliban. According to this point of view, the Taliban have become a legitimate and important force in Afghan politics, so New Delhi must negotiate directly with them without any preconditions, and consider the possibility of a political agreement between the Taliban and Kabul.
Since 2010, New Delhi has tightened its ties with Kabul, and a Joint Strategic Partnership Agreement has been under consideration by the two countries.
Meanwhile, India fears that with the withdrawal of the United States, China will supersede India’s influence in Afghanistan by way of its Belt and Road Initiative.
The Taliban’s possible presence in the power structure could also reduce the possibility of success for India’s policies in Afghanistan and Central Asia in favor of Pakistan.
New Delhi is worried about the danger of the Taliban using Afghan territory to train terrorists against India.
In addition, any Taliban approach to Kashmiri and Pakistani militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as links with al-Qaeda, ISIS or other transnational groups, is important to India as it could put the country at the risk of religious extremism and terrorism.
This could have negative security implications for India’s more than 200 million Muslims and Kashmir, and increase the risk of growing Islamic fundamentalism in India.
In the last two decades, India has been the largest donor to Afghanistan. So India is worried about the fate of its US$3 billion investment, hundreds of large-scale small projects, the construction of the port of Chabahar, and humanitarian and economic assistance under a Taliban agreement with Kabul.
In sum, India does not want the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan’s power structure to hinder its economic ties and investment in the country.
Soft power reduction, minority attacks
Part of India’s strategy for Afghanistan is cultural influence and soft power. Negotiating with the Taliban and a possible presence of the Taliban in the power structure could have an impact on India’s position in Afghan public opinion or reduce its soft power.
At the same time, India wants to prevent the Taliban and other groups from attacking the interests of ethnic-Indian minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan.
Role of the United States
Under the presidency of Donald Trump in the US, relations between New Delhi and Washington have been expanding. Meanwhile, the two countries have been considering their cooperation in Afghanistan and the US support for India’s role in Afghanistan in recent years.
Meanwhile, after the agreement between Washington and the Taliban, it seems that the United States wants a dialogue between India and the Taliban and more active participation of New Delhi in the peace process in Afghanistan and its future.
At the same time, the Indians seem to have their own considerations, and in pursuing the policy of negotiating with the Taliban, they want Washington’s reassurance that their strategic interests in Afghanistan will not be harmed.
But what is clear is that India’s and the United States’ views of the US-Taliban agreement, the role of Islamabad in it, and India’s concerns about Pakistan’s role are not the same.
Changing Taliban view of India
Of course, the Taliban’s view of India has been negative over the past few decades, but now, they have some contradictory stances on the subject. On the one hand, some positions are as negative as in the past.
But on the other hand, there are some positive positions taken by the Taliban: that the group is not against India, that Afghanistan needs India’s help for rebuilding, and that Kashmir is an internal Indian issue in which the Taliban will not interfere.
In fact, the Taliban are now experiencing some disagreements within their own leadership, the removal of some members of Doha’s political bureau, the possible infection of senior Taliban leaders with Covid-19, and the rise of Mullah Yaqoob, the late Mullah Omar’s son.
But in response to India’s concerns, the Taliban seem to be thinking about easing tensions with New Delhi. That is, a change in the Taliban’s tactical or strategic view of India seems to be slowly taking place. They may also be looking to end their ties with anti-Indian extremist groups.
India’s final choice
What is clear is that New Delhi has so far been cautious on negotiating with the Taliban. The country has previously been only indirectly linked to the Taliban and is now more concerned about their rise to power, participation in the future government of Afghanistan, and jeopardization of its interests in Afghanistan.
For now, India will seek a balance between idealism and realism on its approach to the Taliban, so as to maintain its interests in Afghanistan. In this situation, it seems likely that in the short term, it will enter direct talks with the Afghan Taliban and demand that they separate themselves from the Pakistani Taliban.
It seems that New Delhi must reconsider its past approach to the Afghan Taliban by persuading Indian public opinion and supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Meanwhile, environmental variables and regional conditions will help reduce tensions so that India can start talks with the Taliban.