India-Taliban ease on Afghanistan: Recent Developments

From dire forebodings in 2021 when the Taliban came to power to 2024, New Delhi has come a long way in Kabul.

In August 2021, India pulled out all its diplomats and officials from the country after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. By June 2022, New Delhi had re-established diplomatic presence in the country by deploying a `technical’ team at the Indian mission in capital Kabul.

By January 2024, this week, India was among 10 countries that participated in a Regional Cooperation Initiative meeting of diplomatic representatives convened by the Taliban administration in Kabul, reflecting the growing engagement between the two sides – a bit surprising given the fact that the regime isn’t officially recognised by New Delhi.

The Stanikzai factor

So, what could this diplomatic pirouette be attributed to? Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs since 7 September 2021?

“Stanikzai is certainly an important factor. He is an important member of the Taliban and like many, who have had connections with India, is aware of the Indian ethos and culture. He would know that India has no territorial ambitions, and that New Delhi is a contributor to the development of Afghanistan,’’ says Ashok Sajjanhar, former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Latvia.

The Afghanistan Deputy Minister for Foreign affairs has old India connections. He trained as a soldier at the Army Cadet College of the Indian Army at Nowgaon in India for three years from 1979 to 1982 under an Indo-Afghan cooperation programme. Stanikzai, an ethnic Pashtun of the Stanikzai sub-tribe, also spent time as an officer cadet for a year-and-a-half with the Keren Company of the Bhagat Battalion at the IMA, Dehradun, one of 45 foreign cadets in the Keren Company.

According to Sajjanhar, “India has a half-way house in Kabul. Unlike China and some other countries that have recognized the Taliban government, India does not have diplomatic ties with the government in Kabul. However, unlike, as earlier thought, the threat of terror attacks on India at the behest of Pakistan from Afghan soil have receded. In fact, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have soured. ”

The meeting this week, which was addressed by Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, was also attended by diplomats from Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Indonesia.

New Delhi’s tacit backing

While India has not offered an official reaction on the meeting, which came days after the Indian embassy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) invited the acting Afghan envoy, Badruddin Haqqani, to the Republic Day celebrations in Abu Dhabi, Hafiz Zia Ahmad, Deputy Spokesman of the Taliban Foreign Ministry, quoted the Indian representative who attended the meeting, as saying that New Delhi backs all initiatives focused on the stability of Afghanistan.

“India actively takes part in international and regional initiatives regarding Afghanistan, and supports every effort leading to the stability and the development of Afghanistan,” Ahmad quoted the Indian representative as saying in a post on X.

Another statement from the Taliban foreign ministry said Muttaqi considers relations with countries of the region to be significant and that he emphasised that these nations “should hold regional dialogues to increase and continue the positive interaction with Afghanistan”.

Muttaqi asked the participants to take advantage of emerging opportunities in Afghanistan for the development of the region and to also “coordinate the management of potential threats”. He asked the diplomats to convey the Taliban’s message of a `region-oriented initiative’ to their countries so that Afghanistan and the region can jointly take advantage of new opportunities for the benefit of all.

India remains the largest regional donor for Afghanistan with pledges amounting to $3-4 billion. In December 2022, Taliban’s Minister for Urban Development, Hamdullah Nomani, held talks with members of the Indian technical team in Kabul where he called for renewal of Indian projects, invited investment in New Kabul Town, raised visa issues and urged more scholarships for Afghan students.

Since then, senior Indian diplomats have interacted with Taliban officials in West Asian countries and on the margins of multilateral meetings on Afghanistan such as the Moscow Format talks hosted by Russia.

In 2021 when the Taliban had come to power, naysayers had written off India with dire forebodings about the Islamic crescent at India’s frontiers and the threat of ISI-backed Taliban terrorists to wage a full-scale battle in Kashmir.

A diplomatic source, however, cautioned that India could scarcely afford to let its guard down because of the presence of terror groups in Afghanistan, “even though the situation in bilateral ties is much improved.”

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