More than a month after Taliban forces stormed Afghanistan, the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan (IEA) has yet to gain international political recognition. All eyes are on the primary stakeholder countries behind the Doha Accord of February 29, 2020, which paved the way for the Taliban’s ultimate victory. Although clamor for the Taliban’s global recognition is gathering momentum under Pakistan’s stewardship, India, which has been a major player in rebuilding the war-ravaged Afghanistan in the last two decades, has maintained a studied silence, sitting on the fence with regards to this latest iteration of the fast-shifting “Great Game” in Afghanistan.
India had been calling for an inclusive government in Afghanistan that represents all sections of Afghan society well before the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021. New Delhi was willing to accept limited Taliban participation in a future governance structure following democratic principles as long as major concerns, such as cross-border terrorism and human rights of women, children, and minorities, were addressed. However, the Taliban leadership’s conflicting remarks on security and rights-related matters, such as Pakistan’s reported air surveillance support to the Taliban in the Panjshir battle against anti-Taliban resistance fighters or curtailing rights of women and minorities, have limited India’s willingness to formally recognize Afghanistan’s new Taliban government (News 18.com, September 5; HRW.Org, September 29; Times of India, September 7).
Immediately after the fall of Kabul, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, T.S. Tirumurti, who was also the UN Security Council president in August, reiterated that a “united, inclusive, and representative” political settlement remains a precondition for the legitimacy and international acceptability of the Taliban government (The Week, September 11). In all likelihood, adherence to these same conditions will play a key role in any future international recognition for the Taliban.
India’s Anxieties in Afghanistan
The present situation in Afghanistan reminds India of the experience in dealing with the previous Taliban regime from 1996-2001. During the height of Taliban dominance in Afghanistan, India was unsure about reaching out to the Taliban. At present, India is worried about the fragility of the Afghanistan situation under the Taliban and the possible threat emanating from the country.
As an immediate neighbor and long-running regional development partner, India’s security perception of Afghanistan is dominated by at least four factors. The first is the fear that Afghan territory under the Taliban will be used as a training ground and haven for anti-India terrorist groups, such as Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and local affiliates of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. New Delhi is additionally concerned that pro-Kashmir militants from neighboring Pakistan will receive a moral and logistical boost as the Taliban consolidates control of Afghanistan. Adding to this fear, several members of JeM and LeT reportedly were released from prison by the Taliban, and JeM militants met Taliban leaders in Kabul in August 2021 (The Hindu, August 22; Hindustan Times, August 28). In January, an Indian intelligence report further assessed that hundreds of militants from India and Bangladesh graduated after training in al-Qaeda’s military center located at Miranshah in North Waziristan, Pakistan, on October 30, 2020 (Sentinel Assam, January 6). During the first-ever formal meeting with Taliban representatives, the Indian Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, accordingly conveyed concerns about terrorism sanctuaries to senior Taliban leader Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai (NDTV, September 2, Hindustan Times, September 11).
India’s second concern is the contentious issue of Kashmir, which was raised by Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen during a media interview in early September when he stated that “being Muslims, [the Taliban] have every right to raise the voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India, and any other country.” Shaheen contradicted the Taliban’s earlier stance on Kashmir when Anas Haqqani underscored that Kashmir is a “bilateral and an internal matter” (Geo TV News, September 2). Anas Haqqani also paid tribute to 10th century Afghan sultan Mahmud Ghazni for his multiple invasions against India, and glorified his destruction of Somnath temple in Gujarat (Tribune India, October 6).
Terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, congratulated the Taliban on their victory, and announced that the “way of jihad is the only way that leads to victory and empowerment.” Al-Qaeda also urged the “liberation of Kashmir” along with the rest of the Islamic lands from the enemies of Islam (Hindustan Times, September 1). Kashmir-based Hizbul Mujahideen leader, Syed Salahuddin, also called the Taliban’s victory extraordinary and urged the Taliban to aid Kashmiri militants. He drew a parallel by stating that “in the near future, India too will be defeated by Kashmir’s holy warriors” (Pakistan Today, September 14).
Third, India is concerned about domestic radicalization challenges, which have increased as Taliban sympathizers in the country gloat over the victory of the Taliban “freedom fighters” against Western powers (India TV News, August 17). Within a week of the Taliban’s coming to power in Afghanistan, around 15 people were arrested in northeastern India’s Assam state for allegedly supporting the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan through social media channels, such as Facebook. These pro-Taliban statements have been outlawed under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Information Technology Act (IT Act) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) (Pratidin Times, August 21; Northeast Now, August 21). Any future outreach towards the Taliban government would encourage pro-Taliban elements to justify their sympathy and support towards the Islamist cause.
Lastly, India now has limited options to remain a major player in Afghanistan, while its rival China has gained a sharp advantage with aggressive pro-Taliban outreach. India’s decades-long engagement to rebuild a developed, democratic Afghanistan with infrastructure investments worth over $3 billion, including schools, hospitals, power infrastructure, roads and dams, were all lost in a stroke of governmental change in Kabul. By 2020, India had reportedly completed more than 400 development projects in Afghanistan. With the Taliban in power, the fate of these projects is in jeopardy. Ironically, China, with India’s other arch-rival Pakistan, agreed to extend financial and infrastructural support to the Taliban. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for example, announced $31 million worth of emergency aid and 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the Taliban on September 8, which coincided with the Taliban government’s official formation in Kabul (Al Jazeera, September 9).
With myriad concerns and limited leverage, India is largely unassertive in resuming direct bilateral talks with the Taliban and is following a wait-and-see policy. India desisted on many occasions from providing a formal statement on its position with the new Taliban government. While India maintains that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and was a transition by force, India still seeks to find a suitable way, perhaps through the UN Security Council, to engage the Taliban in the future.