Since the Afghan peace process began two years ago, India's role in it has been peripheral at best. But that may be about to change; Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar's presence at the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks on Sept. 12 could hint at a gradual shift in the country's approach. At the historic inaugural session held in Doha, Jaishankar addressed the gathering remotely and reiterated India's long-held support for an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled" peace process. His participation raised the possibility that India may agree to engage in direct talks with the Taliban at some point in the future, something it has not done thus far.
Although India has long chosen to refrain from putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan, the country has provided the Afghan security forces with critical operational training, limited military equipment, and capacity-building courses—assistance that was ramped up after the signing of the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement in October 2011. The agreement, in addition to emphasizing cooperation in the areas of security, law enforcement, and justice, also included a joint commitment to combating international terrorist and criminal networks in the region.
On the political front, India has been one of the oldest and strongest proponents of democratic governance in Kabul. From the 2001 Bonn conference, which facilitated the formation of an interim government to take over from the Taliban, to the present day, India has maintained a broad-based approach in engaging with successive Afghan governments. To that end, the country has provided billions of dollars in infrastructure development and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan since 2001. Although New Delhi cannot match the level of economic assistance provided by the West, India continues to be viewed as possibly the most reliable development partner in the region.
Even as India has held the line in advocating for a reconciliation process owned and negotiated by Afghans themselves, its approach toward the Taliban has subtly shifted over the years. In the 1990s, India was vocal in its opposition to the Taliban regime and backed the Northern Alliance against it, a strategy also employed by Russia and Iran at the time. By the late 2000s however, even as India continued to give more support to the elected Afghan government in its reconciliation efforts, it was no longer entirely averse to engaging more substantively with the Taliban. And although a direct channel of communication between India and the Taliban never materialized, New Delhi's assertion of its priorities in Afghanistan at the inaugural Doha session this month has indicated that its evolution on the Taliban continues.
The Taliban, for their part, are unlikely to emerge as a strong partner of India, but the group has been signaling that it is not fundamentally inimical to working with the country either. A few months ago, the Taliban refuted media reports that they had aligned with jihadi groups in Kashmir, declaring that they were not in favor of intervening in the internal matters of another country. That represented a subtle overture to New Delhi and gives the country an opportunity to secure a seat at the high table.
The shifting dynamics between India and the Taliban come as the United States, as mandated by its February agreement with the Taliban, is preparing to withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan by mid-2021. Surely, the absence of American troops will further embolden Taliban aspirations for a bigger slice of the political pie. The Taliban seem to have the upper hand on the battlefield, as well as in the negotiations, which they are arguably using as a legitimizing tool for when they come to power.
India's engagement with an ascendant Taliban, then, is important to watch for a number of reasons. The first is simply because the Taliban are expected to constitute an integral part of the government in Kabul soon enough. Second, establishing diplomatic contacts with a politically empowered Taliban will be crucial to safeguarding New Delhi's existing and future economic interests in the country, including those linked with Central Asian energy markets and broader connectivity projects. Third, an amicable relationship with the Taliban will provide India with some leverage over Afghanistan's future, which it will use to offset Pakistan's efforts aimed at sabotaging Indian stakes in the country.
To be sure, India has a long road ahead of it. Realistically, the only possible outcomes of the talks will likely be either a political apparatus dominated by the Taliban or continued lack of consensus and violence. In either case, the Taliban will continue to remain preponderant, a challenge not only for Afghans but for the region at large. For India, that challenge boils down mainly to Pakistan, which has weaved itself into the Afghan reconciliation process. In India's outreach to the various Afghan players, it cannot lose sight of the dangers that overwhelming Pakistani influence on Afghanistan could pose for India. The biggest challenge there remains the threat of terrorism and extremism, and a purported Taliban victory will give a boost to such forces in the region.
The militant arm of the Taliban—the Haqqani network—continues to be staunchly anti-India and maintains close ties with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, carrying out operations targeting Indian nationals in the region, according to the US Defense Department. Another security threat has been the growing presence of the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan and surrounding areas, which may absorb splinter groups that emerge from a locally fractious Taliban and other groups.
Another regional power that shares India's worry of instability in Afghanistan filtering into other countries in the neighborhood is China. Beijing is wary of the geographical proximity between Afghanistan and its Uighur Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region. China also has economic interests in Afghanistan, with several projects there tied to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. By stepping up its diplomatic outreach to Kabul while also cultivating closer ties to the Taliban, all with the promise of promoting greater trade and investment in the country, China is attempting to secure its place in an evolving Afghanistan. This is yet another point of friction with India, whose relations with China are in a downward spiral.
The competition between India and China may push New Delhi closer to Moscow and Tehran, which share some of India's goals in the region. Although the Afghan government remains skeptical of any Russian links with the Taliban, Moscow's involvement in the facilitation of past negotiations between various Afghan interlocutors is undeniable. As for Iran, even though it cannot reconcile with the Taliban's anti-Shiite beliefs, Tehran has shown that it understands the importance of tactical engagement with the group. Since New Delhi maintains its strategic ties with Moscow and seems determined to invest diplomatic capital in strengthening its relations with Tehran, a three-way joint effort in Afghanistan cannot be ruled out.
The fact that India is possibly the only country that can engage with the United States and Europe on the one hand, and Iran and Russia on the other, underscores its unique position to contribute to the Afghan peace process. While each country seeks to align its engagement policy to its respective strategic objectives, the overarching goal for all is peace in Afghanistan. A consensus among major international stakeholders about how to deal with the Taliban is of utmost importance—and India can help forge it and carry it out.
Harsh V Pant, is director of research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and professor of international relations at King's College London.
Shubhangi Pandey, is Junior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement