New Delhi recently sent former diplomats to Afghanistan to “unofficially” participate in a Moscow-organized regional initiative to discuss Afghanistan’s future and address deteriorating security conditions.

This forum was significant from New Delhi’s perspective because it was attended by Taliban representatives. Although Indian representatives maintained silence, this diplomatic move can be considered a step in the right direction.

India shares strong historical and cultural ties with Afghanistan, and the latter is vital to serving New Delhi’s growing energy needs. For a rapidly developing country like India, energy is considered one of the most critical non-traditional security imperatives. According to an estimate by BP Energy Outlook, India’s energy consumption could outgrow that of all major economies of the world by 2035, with an annual growth rate of 4.2%.

Against the backdrop of the landlocked Central Asian region’s lack of direct access to sea routes, Afghanistan’s geopolitical significance as a bridge to the region is obvious. Apart from this, New Delhi’s Afghan role indicates that the rise of radical Islam was considered a significant threat to its influence in Afghanistan as well as Central Asia. It was also believed that the rise of radical Islam would have a negative impact on the insurgency in Kashmir due to the nexus between the groups endorsing such beliefs.

Friendly, democratic and stable

The Indian desire for a friendly, democratic and stable Afghan government has been driven by the imperative of preventing Pakistan from taking advantage of their common religion and extending its influence into Central Asia through the promotion of radical Islam in Afghanistan. New Delhi viewed Islamabad’s role in promoting radical teachings in madrasas in the Saudi Arabian Deobandi tradition (instead of adopting the peaceful Sufi tradition) and stressing its cultural links with the Central Asian region as the latter’s attempt at undermining India’s influence.

The American-led “war on terror” engendered Indian expectations that terrorist infrastructures and the spread of radical Islamist ideology would be undermined, undercutting Pakistan’s strategies in Afghanistan; geopolitical realities, however, ordained a different course, placing India in a disadvantaged position.

The US and international forces had to rely more on Pakistan to ensure that military and non-military supplies reached their Afghan operations because of the poor communication facilities between Central Asia and Afghanistan. Russian suspicions over US geopolitical moves led the former to restrict the use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN refers to all the routes laid down by the US in the Central Asian region for Afghan supplies) for supplies of non-lethal goods alone. Also, the US strategy of containment against Iran prevented the promotion of viable alternative routes bypassing Pakistan, which contributed to Washington’s greater dependence on Islamabad.

Apart from geopolitics, Pakistan was considered vital to US reconciliation efforts under the Obama administration. This was due to its allegedly well-established links and increasing support for the Afghan Taliban. The US was concerned that the nuclear weapons-armed state’s military wing was exercising too much sway over the civilian administration, fueling fears that the country’s nuclear and conventional weapons could fall into the insurgent group’s hands.

India became over-dependent on America-led war efforts and has also been excluded from the peace process in Afghanistan – it is not a member of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. New Delhi was diplomatically marginalized for many years as the regional powers with stakes in Afghanistan considered its influence not significant enough to warrant a role in the discussion of security issues pertaining to the country.

India failed to take forward its partnership with Iran and develop Chabahar port – in view of the Trump administration’s reversal of the nuclear deal with Tehran and imposition of fresh sanctions – even though it has been denied an overland route to Afghanistan through Pakistan.

While India played a major role in reconstruction activities to project soft power and earn the goodwill of Afghans and is now the largest regional donor, committing more than $3 billion in key areas of development such as healthcare, education, communications and the building of political institutions, its low-profile security role is limited to training the Afghan army and supplying military equipment. The Indian government has supplied four Russian-made MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan and has shown its willingness to train the Afghan police force. But this hard power is not enough to enable New Delhi to exercise meaningful political influence in Kabul.

The Indian government has supplied four Russian-made MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan and has shown its willingness to train the Afghan police force. But this hard power is not enough to enable New Delhi to exercise meaningful political influence in Kabul

It is worth recalling that New Delhi continued to provide humanitarian and military support to the Northern Alliance group even while the Taliban’s influence was increasing exponentially. The Indian government’s anti-Taliban position prohibited New Delhi from playing a meaningful role in Afghanistan in line with its energy-driven foreign policy.

The UN estimates that Afghanistan’s population in 2018 is 36.37 million. The Pashtun ethnic group comprises 43% while the Tajiks constitute around 27%, the Hazaras 9%, the Uzbeks 9%, the Aimaks 4%, the Turkmens 3%, the Balochs 2%, and an unspecified “other” group constitutes around 4%. The Northern Alliance is primarily comprised of three non-Pashtun ethnic groups – Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – while the Taliban is predominantly Pashtun, the majority ethnic community. However, India’s Afghan policy tended to ignore the significance of these statistics.

Looking at the historical developments in Indo-Afghan relations, despite strong cultural bonding, India could not render unambiguous support to Kabul over the demand of self-determination for the Pashtun population spreading across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area (the Durand Line) to form Pashtunistan. The Pashtunistan issue had enormous strategic importance for the Pashtun population in Afghanistan. Being influenced by other considerations and developments in the international arena at the time, New Delhi failed to grasp the geopolitical interest underlying the Pashtunistan movement, which was to find an egress to the sea. As all the trade routes to Afghanistan’s south run through Pakistani territory,  access to the sea was needed for Kabul to find an alternative route that would make it less dependent on Pakistan.

Similarly, following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, while India made its displeasure over Moscow’s muscular foreign policy threatening Afghan independence in the bilateral discussions clear, it either abstained or maintained silence in multilateral bodies such as the UN.  This distanced it from the dominant international anti-Soviet front that was more interested in pushing Moscow out than ensuring a stable and independent Afghanistan. Pakistan, the principal member of the anti-Soviet front, was observed being extremely active in keeping India out of any important negotiations involving Afghanistan. New Delhi’s ambiguous stance following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan only helped drive a wedge between India and the Pashtun population.

During the Afghan civil war, India was denied a major role in Afghanistan because of its perceived pro-Moscow role during the Soviet occupation. India was increasingly seen as a supporter of the Najibullah regime. Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, a leader of the Islamic Interim Council, warned India against any intervention when they were battling the government forces in Jalalabad, near Pakistan’s border, in March 1989. Najibullah’s visit to New Delhi in August 1990 and the signing of a drug trafficking prevention agreement corroborated this perception.

Invitation is significant

In view of India’s weakening influence in Afghanistan, New Delhi’s positive gesture toward Moscow’s invitation to pursue Afghan peace talks involving the Taliban as an important stakeholder assumes significance. India took an anti-Taliban stance primarily because of the group’s practice of radical Islam and its alleged links with Pakistan. On the contrary, there are relevant observations that the Taliban imbibed Afghan nationalism and concentrated more on their influence in Afghanistan than insurgency in Kashmir. It is noteworthy that the Taliban government, like all other previous governments, had not taken an anti-India stance on the Kashmir issue. Notwithstanding Indian suspicions of Pakistan’s overriding influence over the Taliban, the group has indigenous roots and has elicited support from many Pashtuns.

It is worthwhile to recall that the landing of the hijacked Indian plane (IC 814) in Kandahar in December 1999 forced the Indian authorities to establish direct contact with the Taliban. There were media reports as well that the erstwhile Indian minister of external affairs Jaswant Singh, who accompanied the alleged Pakistani-sponsored terrorists (who were to be released for the safe return of the hijacked passengers), was willing to discuss the future of diplomatic ties with the Taliban. However, New Delhi believed that successful diplomatic ties could only be established if the Taliban could distance itself from Pakistan.

In New Delhi’s view, the Taliban never severed its links with the Pakistani establishment and intelligence community and therefore India stopped short of establishing diplomatic ties with the insurgent group and took an anti-Taliban stance. This time around, in view of the continuing Afghan turmoil and ever-growing influence of the Taliban, India’s decision to participate in the peace talks along with other influential actors of the international community and the Taliban sharing the table is a well-conceived move. The significance of the meeting is further underlined by Moscow’s willingness to make it more inclusive by inviting non-government representatives.