In a crucial policy shift, India recently acknowledged that it had entered into backchannel communications with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In early June, the Indian media reported that New Delhi has started talking to certain factions and leaders of the armed group against the backdrop of the withdrawal of the United States forces from Afghanistan. A few days later, India’s Ministry of External Affairs all but confirmed these reports, stating that “we are in touch with various stakeholders … in pursuance of our long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction of Afghanistan”.
The Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership and Qatari officials have also confirmed these backchannel meetings. Until recently, India has been reluctant to openly communicate with the Taliban because it feared that such a move could damage its relations with the Afghan government and its powerful regional and global backers. While Indian intelligence officials have occasionally connected with Taliban fighters to protect India’s interests over the years, most notably in 2011 to secure the release of kidnapped Indian engineers and personnel working in Afghanistan, New Delhi always refrained from establishing a permanent communication channel with the group.
It viewed the Taliban as nothing but a proxy for its main regional rival, Pakistan, and believed that it had little to gain from directly engaging the group. Moreover, New Delhi did not want to compromise its official policy of not talking to any “militant groups” by entering into a dialogue with the Taliban, as it believed that doing so would put it under increased pressure to start talking to Kashmiri rebel groups as well.
But much has changed in the past few years. In 2015, Iran and Russia started to support the Taliban to stop another armed group, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), from expanding its influence over Afghanistan. Knowing the limitations of Afghan security forces and the Taliban’s operational strength, they opted to form a working relationship with the Taliban to contain the ISK. Since then, the Taliban further established itself as a legitimate stakeholder in Afghanistan by gradually strengthening its diplomatic relations with the international community, scoring significant territorial gains against the Afghan government, and clinching a historic peace deal with the US in February 2020. It is now widely accepted that the Taliban will continue to have a significant influence over Afghanistan after the US completes its withdrawal from the country in September 2021.
All this put India in a difficult position and forced it to rethink its approach to the armed group. In the end, it decided to form backchannel communications with relatively friendly factions of the Taliban to avoid losing strategic space to its regional rivals, especially Pakistan, after the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. In September 2020, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar signalled his country’s interest in entering into a dialogue with the Taliban for the first time by participating in the intra-Afghan peace talks taking place in Doha via video link. A senior Indian delegation also attended the talks. This was the first time that high-ranking Indian officials attended an event in their official capacity alongside the representatives of the Taliban. Since then, Indian security officials started opening channels of communication with several Taliban factions that are perceived as being “nationalist” or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran.
India has a lot to gain from these backchannel communications. New Delhi wants to protect its security interests and investments in Afghanistan after the US exit from the country. Particularly, it wants to make sure that Kashmir-focused armed groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) do not use Afghanistan as a staging ground to launch attacks in the Indian-administered Kashmir. Having a backchannel with the Taliban can help the Indian authorities ensure that Afghanistan does not transform into a big security threat for New Delhi in the years to come.
The Taliban can also gain a lot from a backchannel with India. The group will need significant outside help after the US’s exit from Afghanistan to reach its development and reconstruction goals. India can provide this help in exchange for security guarantees. India’s outreach to the Taliban can also positively affect the ongoing Afghan peace process by minimising the possibility of an India-Pakistan proxy war in post-US Afghanistan. If India succeeds in establishing an informal bilateral relationship with the Taliban, Afghanistan can stay out of any skirmishes between India and Pakistan in the future and instead focus on its own domestic problems and struggles.
But the success of India’s backchannel communications with the Taliban will depend, at least partially, on Pakistan’s response. At best, Islamabad will choose to stay neutral, neither encouraging nor discouraging such contacts. At worst, it will move to sideline elements within the Taliban known to be talking to India and discourage the armed group from communicating with New Delhi. While Pakistan’s opposition will undoubtedly hinder the dialogue between the Taliban and India, it will not necessarily end it.
The Taliban remained neutral in the face of India-Pakistan tensions over the revocation of Kashmir’s semiautonomous status in August 2019, demonstrating that it wants to forge a foreign policy independent of Pakistan. While it is undoubtedly still highly dependent on Pakistan, its recent territorial gains against the Afghan government, growing financial independence and newly formed diplomatic ties with other influential members of the international community, gave the Taliban a certain level of independence. It is now positioned to become a political power accepted by the international community and it is slowly escaping Pakistan’s grip.
All this signals that the Taliban will continue to talk to India despite Pakistan’s protestations. But only time will tell whether this dialogue will succeed in bringing much-needed security and stability to the region.