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Is Modi’s India cosying up to the Taliban? | Taliban

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On November 24, more than two years after Taliban fighters drove into Kabul to reclaim control over Afghanistan, a key, lasting outpost of the government they had overthrown shut down 1,000km (600 miles) away, in the Indian capital of New Delhi.

Afghanistan’s diplomatic mission in India, led by former ambassador Farid Mamundzay, announced the permanent closure of its embassy in New Delhi, citing “pressure from both the Taliban and the Indian government to relinquish control”.

The shutdown had been in the works. Nearly two months earlier, Mamundzay had said the embassy would have to stop diplomatic services because of a “lack of support” from India, a reduction in personnel and resources, and the mission’s inability to meet the expectations of an estimated 32,000 Afghan nationals in the country.

The suggestions of Indian antipathy – which New Delhi has denied – towards the embassy underscore a shift in the image that the world’s largest democracy has held among large sections of Afghans, say analysts.

“It is disheartening to acknowledge that this development is not conducive to the strength and vitality of our ties, which have stood the test of time,” Mamundzay told Al Jazeera.

When the Taliban first took power in Kabul in 1996, India swiftly shut down its embassy there and shunned all diplomatic ties with the ultra-conservative group, with its hardline interpretations of Afghan customs and Islamic rules. When the Taliban were removed following the United States-led invasion in 2001, India was among the first countries to reopen its mission and recognise the new state that emerged.

Over the two decades that followed, India was one of the largest suppliers of aid and assistance to democratic Afghan governments. When the US was negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, India was publicly opposed to the arrangement – worried about the return of a group whose allies had repeatedly targeted the Indian embassy in Kabul and the country’s consulates elsewhere in Afghanistan. The worst of those attacks, the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, killed 58 people.

Yet, in June 2022, less than a year after the Taliban returned to power, India reopened its embassy in Kabul, sending a team of “technical experts” to run the mission. New Delhi has engaged in conversations with the Taliban, even though it does not formally recognise the movement as the government of Afghanistan.

So, is India cosying up to the Taliban? What does it hope to gain from a softer equation with the group? How does India’s tense relationship with Pakistan fit into the picture? And what are the implications of this shift in New Delhi’s approach?

The short answer: While India has not formally launched diplomatic ties with the Taliban, it has also avoided alienating the group since its return to power, in a bid to retain its presence in Afghanistan, analysts have said. A deterioration in ties between the Taliban and Pakistan has helped India’s gambit. But New Delhi risks losing goodwill among a generation of Afghans that had viewed it as a supporter of education, democracy and human rights.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai pose before a meeting in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. Karzai is on a two-day official visit to India.(AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)
Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, and Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai before a meeting in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, October 4, 2011 [Gurinder Osan/AP Photo]

The soft power years

As Afghanistan suffered under war and turmoil from the 1980s, India became a home away from home for many Afghans. Former President Hamid Karzai went to university in India. The family of Abdullah Abdullah, who effectively shared power with Ghani since 2014, has lived in India for years.

From 1996, India backed the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban resistance force led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, which counted Abdullah as a leading member.

After the collapse of the first Taliban regime, India contributed close to $3bn in aid between 2001 and 2021 for projects in Afghanistan. It constructed Afghanistan’s new parliament building, highways, power stations and dams — but a significant fraction of its aid was also spent on education and skills development, all of which helped amplify India’s soft power in the country.

Yet as the Taliban’s challenges to the Afghan government grew in the period before August 2021, India’s attitude started to change, said Raghav Sharma, director of the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, an hour outside New Delhi.

“In the last years of the republic, there was a lot of uncertainty in which way the political will would sway. What was certain though was that the Taliban were going to be rehabilitated; in what form or what positions was unclear,” he said, adding that India started reducing its engagement with Ghani’s government. “It also seemed that the Americans cranked up pressure on India to make its presence less visible to assuage concerns of Pakistan.”

India and archrival Pakistan have long jostled for greater influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s traditionally close ties with the Taliban meant the group’s re-emergence as a leading player in the country would have spooked India, said Afghan political ethnographer Orzala Nemat.

“It is likely the Taliban takeover may have raised concerns that it would lead to higher Pakistani influence in the country that could potentially jeopardise the Indian presence and interest,” she said.

“The assumptions were valid to an extent because there is evidence that the Pakistani establishment influence strong control over the Taliban.”

Yet even as India tried to distance itself from the Ghani government, what no one had foreseen, Sharma pointed out, was just how dominant the Taliban’s return would be. The group, he said, effectively carried out a “total eclipse of the landscape”.

It was an eclipse that would fundamentally change India’s approach to Afghans as well as to Afghanistan, say experts.

Afghan students attend class in a school built by an Indian project in the Achin district of Jalalabad province December 2, 2013. India's most important message for Afghanistan is that it is not leaving, and it is backing that message with the biggest aid package it has ever given another country. Indian diplomats insist the message is meant as reassurance for allies in Afghanistan nervous about waning international support as NATO withdraws its troops. Yet it could equally have been chosen to send a warning to India's arch-rival, Pakistan. The nuclear-armed neighbours both want to secure influence in Kabul after foreign combat forces leave this year, and both are using aid as part of their strategy.
Afghan students attend class in a school built by an Indian project in the Achin district of Jalalabad province on December 2, 2013 [File: Parwiz/Reuters]

‘What is the message?’

For close to 30 years, the warren-like lanes of the southeast Delhi neighbourhood of Bhogal have embraced a snapshot of the future many Afghans in the Indian capital have dreamed of.

With 300 students from grades 1 to 12, the Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan School was the only school in the city offering education in Pashto, Dari and Arabic, in addition to English. Girls and boys mingled in mixed-gender classrooms, learning maths, physics and geography, imagining careers for themselves and hoping for a better tomorrow for Afghanistan.

It was funded by the Afghan embassy in New Delhi, which in turn received financial support from the government of India.

But earlier this year, the school’s funding dried up – the embassy claims the Indian government stopped its support.

The school initially relocated to a cramped eight-room apartment, also in Bhogal, to reduce rental expenses. It wasn’t enough. In October, the school shut down.

“It is the only Afghan school that Afghan girls had access to. This is going to create barriers for Afghans to access education in India,” Sharma said. Because India doesn’t have an official refugee policy, many schools don’t accept refugee students. “So what is the message the government is sending out to these communities?” Sharma questioned.

Thousands of Afghan students have traditionally studied in Indian universities, many receiving Indian government scholarships. But after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, India cancelled all existing Afghan visas, including for students who have since struggled to return to India to continue their education.

“The Indian government has not been the most cooperative, refusing to issue visas, not even for medical cases,” Sharma said.

The shadow of religious discrimination has also crept into India’s handling of Afghan visa requests. While Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan have received some support in moving to India, the door has largely been closed for Muslim Afghans, at a time when India is ruled by the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic battle has been brewing. While the Taliban has been able to gain access and control of some of the Afghan missions globally, the embassy in India was among the many that continued to operate under the leadership of diplomats appointed by the previous government, which — unlike the Taliban — was recognised internationally.

In the absence of a functioning government, some of these embassies ran independently, often supported through fees collected from consular services.

After the Afghan embassy in New Delhi announced its closure, Zakia Wardak and Sayed Mohammad Ibrahimkhil, the Afghan counsel generals in Mumbai and Hyderabad, pushed back against the ambassador, insisting that they were still in “constant touch with the [Indian] Ministry of External Affairs … and trying to address the current difficult situation”.

But Mamundzay’s embassy was equally biting in its statement: “There are no diplomats from the Afghan Republic remaining in India … The only individuals present in India are diplomats affiliated with the Taliban.”

Afghans living in Delhi participate in a protest outside the UNHCR office (United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees) in New Delhi, India, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Hundreds of Afghans living in India gathered to protest against the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and also demanded to be given refugee status in India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Afghans living in Delhi protest outside the UNHCR office in New Delhi, India, on Monday, August 23, 2021, against the Taliban takeover of their country, demanding that they be given refugee status in India [Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

Behind the change

The charge that India is now colluding with the Taliban is in many ways an inversion of what New Delhi accused Pakistan of, for close to three decades.

The Haqqani faction of the Taliban, in particular, was viewed by Indian agencies as a proxy for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and blamed for deadly attacks on Indian diplomatic missions and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

Yet relations between Pakistan and the Taliban have nosedived since the group returned to power, and especially in recent months. Islamabad has blamed Kabul for not doing enough to stop armed fighters from crossing over and carrying out devastating attacks in Pakistan that have killed dozens.

Ties hit a further low after Pakistan decided to expel nearly 1.7 million Afghan refugees recently, again citing the attacks. The Taliban government has described the Pakistani move as an “injustice” and “humiliating”.

In parallel, however, India has been quietly reaching out to the Taliban. For years, India would refuse to send diplomats formally even to multilateral meetings on Afghanistan that had Taliban representatives. That changed first. Then, days after the Taliban took over in Kabul, India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met the Taliban’s Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai in Doha.

In June 2022, Indian diplomats met Taliban officials in Kabul. And India has been sending large volumes of wheat to Afghanistan in coordination with the Taliban government, to help ease the hunger crisis in that country.

The closure of the Afghan mission in Delhi points to the broader changes in India’s policy on Afghanistan, said Mamundzay.

“It represents more than just the end of a diplomatic mission. It signifies a challenging juncture in the relationship between our nations,” the diplomat told Al Jazeera.

Refugee and former Afghan policewoman Khatera Hashmi sits inside a rented accommodation in New Delhi, India on Aug. 13, 2021. When the Taliban shot policewoman Khatira Hashmi and gouged out her eyes, she knew Afghanistan was no longer safe. Along with her husband, she fled to India last year. She was shot multiple times on her way home from work last October in the capital of Ghazni province, south of Kabul. As she slumped over, one of the attackers grabbed her by the hair, pulled a knife and gouged out her eyes. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Refugee and former Afghan policewoman Khatira Hashmi sits inside a rented accommodation in New Delhi, India on August 13, 2021. When the Taliban shot her and gouged out her eyes, she knew Afghanistan was no longer safe. Along with her husband, she fled to India in 2020 [Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

‘Lost goodwill’

The absence of a working embassy in New Delhi has consequences beyond the symbolism, said Nemat.

“The resulting damage is quite massive on the Afghan population in general,” she said. “If diplomatic relationships collapse, it affects commercial activity, people seeking medical treatments, students, particularly women, seeking higher education opportunities – there are thousands of youth who would want to travel to India to get safe access to education.

“This is no longer possible.”

At the heart of India’s stance, said Sharma, is a desire to not offend the Taliban’s sensibilities.

“[India has] not issued a single statement on women being denied education in Afghanistan, or in support of Matiullah Wesa, who studied in India, and regarded it as his home,” he said, referring to the Afghan girls’ education activist who was jailed by the Taliban for seven months before he was released in October.

“And that is largely because they want to protect their diplomatic mission in Kabul, have eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan. But they also want to make sure that groups that are inimical to India’s interest do not have a free run in Afghanistan,” Sharma explained.

Yet, India has not fully embraced the Taliban either, refusing, so far, to recognise the group’s rule in Kabul, and steering clear of sending an ambassador to Afghanistan.

The Taliban, Nemat said, “don’t even represent the entire population, having deprived women of basic rights”.

“It is understandable if these factors play a part in India’s hesitance to build relations with them,” she said.

Nevertheless, “India has already lost a lot of goodwill in the way it handled the aftermath of the collapse of the republic,” Sharma said.

Mamundzay agrees, adding that the Indian government has been reluctant to entertain any critical feedback on its policies.

“While there has been a lot of rhetoric on solidarity with the Afghan people, it doesn’t quite square off with the reality on the ground,” he said, adding that he was observing a widespread and increasing disappointment among Afghans towards India.

That could come back to bite India, Mamundzay cautioned.

“Tomorrow if the groups India has shunned get back into positions of influence [in Afghanistan], it wouldn’t do anything for Indian interests,” he said. “India has sent the message that political expediency and realpolitik trump everything else.”

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