The Taliban’s lightning-fast nationwide offensive has caused serious concern in India, which fears that it’ll lose its influence in Afghanistan should the group – which is still designated as terrorists by most of the world despite some countries such as Russia pragmatically hosting it for peace talks – return to power. India is particularly worried about the future of its over 400 projects there that are worth an estimated $3 billion. These include dams, highways, and power plants that have helped improve the living standards of the population, or at the very least prevented them from worsening during the past twenty years of war.
The sum of all fears is that the Taliban will destroy these infrastructure projects as revenge for India’s consistent support of Kabul’s US-backed war against the group. Pakistan also alleges that India has infiltrated countless intelligence agents into the country under diplomatic cover and other methods over the years who then exploit Afghan territory to support a motley crew of militant groups across the border that Islamabad regards as terrorists. Some of these forces also reportedly spied on the Taliban and might have even been responsible for some of Kabul’s lethal attacks against the group during this time.
Against this context, some of which are admittedly contentious since India denies the accusations made against it in the aforementioned paragraph, it’s natural that New Delhi doesn’t want the Taliban to return to power. Nevertheless, India is largely powerless to turn the tide of the war. The speculation among some that it might launch a conventional military intervention in Kabul’s support is unrealistic since the costs and risks far outweigh the expected benefits. Not only would Iran’s incoming principalist (“conservative”) government be unlikely to approve of the Indian Air Force flying through its airspace, but even Russia is against this scenario.
Mr. Roman Babushkin, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Russian Embassy to India, recently said that “We have got some real experience in Afghanistan, but let us be very clear, the situation doesn’t require foreign military involvement.” This should be seen as a strong signal by India’s historic ally that Moscow doesn’t support New Delhi deepening its military involvement in Afghanistan, let alone to the point of a conventional intervention. Furthermore, it should be remembered that India recently evacuated some of its diplomats from the country as a security precaution in the face of the Taliban’s rapid advance.
The only realistic way forward is for India to reconceptualize its outreaches to Afghanistan through the prism of Geo-economics instead of the geopolitical one that’s guided its respective policy over the past two decades. As such, the argument can be made that it’s time for the South Asian state to seriously consider entering into some sort of dialogue with the Taliban’s political representatives. Although this might be difficult to do in terms of the political optics involved after India had hitherto refused to do such a thing out of principle, it would be the most pragmatic way for it to ensure the security of its $3 billion infrastructure investments in Afghanistan.
The Taliban and India are locked in a security dilemma that must be resolved as soon as possible in order to avoid any further collateral damage that would worsen the living standards for Afghanistan’s population. The group sees India as an enemy after it aided Kabul’s war against them over the past twenty years. India, for its part, also sees the Taliban as an enemy since it regards the group as a Pakistani proxy that it fears might train Kashmiri militants and other anti-Indian armed groups if it returns to power. Since neither side is likely to make the first move to approach the other, the only solution is for a mediator to get involved to facilitate this.
That role could best be played by Russia, which has recently cultivated excellent political relations with the Taliban throughout the course of the Moscow peace process despite still officially designating the group as terrorists. The privileged and comprehensive strategic partnership that Russia enjoys with India could see Moscow volunteering its diplomatic services to assist New Delhi in this respect should its historic ally request it. It’s in India’s best interests to do so. New Delhi must talk to the Taliban as soon as possible, even through Moscow’s mediation, in order to resolve their security dilemma.
That said the dilemma is due to India’s conceptualization of bilateral relations with Afghanistan through the prism of geopolitics. International Relations are rapidly changing, however, and the zero-sum outcomes that geopolitically inspired policies usually result in are gradually being replaced with mutually beneficial ones driven by Geo-economic interests. Connectivity is one of the top trends of the 21st century, and it should accordingly become the new priority in Indian-Afghan relations, even if the Taliban returns to power. It’s not in either of their interests, whether India’s or the Taliban’s, to perpetuate their security dilemma.
The Taliban wants assurances that India’s presence in Afghanistan won’t be exploited for proxy war purposes against it or any regional countries like Pakistan. India, meanwhile, wants similar assurances that the Taliban won’t do the same against it with respect to vindictively destroying New Delhi’s infrastructure projects there or training anti-Indian militant groups. The Taliban agreed not to host any foreign militant groups as part of last year’s deal with the US while India denies that its presence in Afghanistan is secretly directed against either the Taliban or Pakistan. The crux of the problem is that neither side believes the other.
This observation reinforces the need for a trusted mediator to facilitate discussions between them aimed at ending this mutually detrimental security dilemma. The longer that it persists, the more uncertain Indian-Afghan ties and especially the future of India’s investments there will be, not to mention the Taliban’s concerns that India might ramp up its reported clandestine operations against the group and/or provide more military support to Kabul to that end. Russia wants stability to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible so that it can utilize the country’s transit status to reach the Indian Ocean, hence its interest in mediating between them.
It can therefore be said that Russia has already begun to formulate its relevant policies through the prism of Geo-economics in order to capitalize on the planned Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway project that was agreed to in February for connecting Central and South Asia via Afghanistan. Moscow can thus help inspire its Taliban partners and Indian allies to follow suit by focusing more on the mutual benefits of continued economic cooperation instead of their security concerns about one another. This is admittedly a challenge even for Russia’s world-class diplomats, but it’s still feasible if the following multi-phase plan is followed.
The first step is that the Taliban and India must take meaningful action to reassure one another of their intentions. In practice, this could relate to the group agreeing not to attack any foreign infrastructure projects in the country in parallel with India withdrawing its suspected intelligence operatives if it hasn’t already done so under diplomatic cover during the recent emergency evacuation from the country. Only then can both sides see that the other is serious enough about entering into further talks. The second step would then be to informally agree to a so-called “non-aggression pact” for perpetuating their “cold peace”, perhaps mediated by Russia.
Once tangible progress is made on resolving their security dilemma, the third step of discussing the expansion of Indian investments in Afghanistan – including the Taliban-controlled areas – can commence. The group’s hard-earned rehabilitation of its international image in recent years through its many foreign travels as part of the ongoing peace process would be ruined if it vindictively attacked Indian infrastructure projects. Similarly, India’s reputation as a responsible regional actor would be tarnished if it was proven that New Delhi is continuing its proxy war against the Taliban and/or Pakistan and therefore dragging the conflict on even longer.