Afghan origin Indian residents hold Afghanistan's national flag and shout slogans in Kolkata on August 19, 2021, to mark the 102nd Independence Day of Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Dibyangshu Sarkar

In a surprise shift with major regional implications, India is reaching out to the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan in a symbolic offer of aid in an hour of humanitarian need.

On February 1, New Delhi quietly allocated the Indian rupee equivalent of about US$27 million for assistance to Afghanistan in its 2022-23 fiscal budget. According to the budgetary line item, the amount will be disbursed to pay for existing Indian projects in the country, scholarships for Afghan students and aid for the Afghan people.

Although the allocation is significantly less than the $47 million India gave to the now-ousted Ashraf Ghani government in 2021, it clearly marked India’s fast-shifting stance on the Taliban’s takeover of the war-torn country.

That shift is no doubt being informed by the Taliban government’s rocky relations with neighboring Pakistan, India’s traditional and chief adversary. It is widely believed, including among US lawmakers, that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency aided and abetted the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power last August.

True or false, the Taliban’s new Islamic Emirate government is keen not to appear beholden and obliged to Islamabad for its battlefield victory.

On the contrary, the neighbors are increasingly in conflict over a border fence Pakistan is building that has resurrected long-time territorial disputes and a surge in cross-border militant attacks that Islamabad wants Kabul to do more to stop.     

New Delhi served as a major development partner to revolving Afghan governments installed after US troops ousted a previous Taliban regime in 2001 as part of Washington’s “war on global terror.”

Over the past 20 years, India has invested over $3 billion in the country, including the construction of the Afghan parliament, education and health infrastructure, a major hydropower dam and the 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway in southwestern Afghanistan.

Completed in 2009, the highway connects India with Afghanistan via Iran’s Chabahar port, which allows New Delhi to bypass Pakistani territory for trade. India has invested heavily in Chabahar, which competes directly with Pakistan’s nearby, China-backed Gwadar port.

Under a 2011 strategic partnership agreement, India also provided assistance to Afghan national forces in tackling the Taliban, underlining at the time New Delhi’s alignment with US and NATO interests in the country.

Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar Photo: AFP / Kenzo Tribouill

Speaking at an Afghanistan Conference in Geneva in November 2020 when the country was still under Ghani’s rule, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said “no part of Afghanistan today is untouched by the 400-plus projects that India has undertaken in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces.”

The decision to sustain aid to the Taliban government thus marks a realpolitik-driven shift.

Soon after the Taliban’s takeover, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a jab at Kabul’s new rulers in an address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference held in September 2021, where he parroted Western lines that the new regime was neither inclusive nor achieved by a peaceful, negotiated settlement.

Modi said at the time: “It is necessary that the global community should think carefully and collectively while deciding on the legitimacy of the new political system in Afghanistan.”

The leader also called for an SCO framework to stop “cross-border terrorism,” an expression of concern that Afghan-based militants that were previously engaged with US and NATO forces could now change their target to India-controlled Kashmir, where India remains pitted in a long-time proxy battle with Pakistan.

India’s official rhetoric has since softened. As one Indian official quoted in local media said this month, New Delhi’s new aid allocation “is a signal that India is not switching off” its relations with Afghanistan – although like all other global countries it has not yet officially recognized the Taliban regime.

Indeed, the earmarked $27 million comes on top of other aid India has recently sent to Afghanistan, including airlifted tonnes of medicine and 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine. New Delhi is also currently working with Islamabad to transport via Pakistani territory some 50,000 tonnes of wheat to help avert a famine disaster in Afghanistan.

India’s moves have coincided with new US Department of Treasury guidance, issued on February 2, to allow exemptions on the transfer of money to Afghanistan for humanitarian purposes.

Afghanistan is teetering towards famine under Taliban rule. Image: Facebook

Those allowances came amid criticism that US sanctions, which have seen financial institutions freeze over $9 billion of Afghanistan’s reserves held in the US, are driving the country to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The United Nations has said more than half of the country’s 39 million people suffer from extreme hunger while the economy, education system and social services face near-term collapse without resumed external aid.

The Taliban has welcomed India’s aid, calling it a step in the right diplomatic direction. But India’s motivations for restoring aid are not solely altruistic. Rather, Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic crises are providing an opening to redefine ties and reconsolidate its interests in the post-US withdrawal era.  

Significantly, India’s overtures coincide with growing Taliban-Pakistan tensions, a development few foresaw in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s battlefield victory.

A recent United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report shows Taliban-Pakistan differences run much deeper than the border fence dispute and involve wider sovereignty, security, geopolitical and trade issues. Those underlying tensions could be accentuated if Islamabad senses the Taliban is now reaching to India in a diplomatic hedging strategy.

A Pakistani diplomatic source who spoke to Asia Times said the Taliban is publicly digging in against Pakistan to counterclaims and perceptions it is beholden to Islamabad, a potentially damaging perception that could aggravate splits that have already emerged among competing Taliban factions.

This “assertion means that the Taliban regime could be more willing to shake hands with New Delhi than they have been in the past. This could have major security implications for Pakistan,” the diplomatic source said.  

A Tehreek-e-Taliban fighter in a file photo. The terror group is ramping up its attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook

Islamabad has long believed, and New Delhi has long denied, that India provides tacit support to Afghanistan-based, anti-Pakistan militant groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), both of which have ramped up their cross-border assaults on Pakistan’s military and other state targets since the Taliban seized power.

If perceptions grow in Islamabad that India is leveraging the growing Taliban-Pakistan rift to provide support to these militant groups, thus distracting Pakistan from Kashmir with a more immediate domestic security threat, it could have wider regional security implications.

Either way, India now clearly has an incentive to start engaging and stop ostracizing the new-era Taliban regime in Kabul, as its first dollop of new aid to the regime suggests.