The United States and the Taliban recently completed their sixth round of talks in Doha, Qatar. While the protracted insurgency goes on in Afghanistan, the US has been keen to seek a comprehensive peace agreement with the Taliban to expedite its complete withdrawal from the country and, as suggested by some reports coming out of Doha, it seems that they have made some progress in the peace talks.

It is not only the US that is in talks with the Taliban; Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was recently “hosted” by China. China has been looking at expanding its role in maintaining strategic stability and peace in a post-US Afghanistan, which falls in its geographical periphery. As China is the all-weather ally of Pakistan, which has strong leverage with the Taliban, it is in a propitious position to influence the triangular relational dynamics among Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Whereas all major players in Afghanistan are deeply involved in shaping peace negotiations and postwar arrangements, there is one missing key player – India, which has been largely absent from any negotiations with the Taliban. Moreover, India’s absence from the recent meeting among the US, Russia, China and Pakistan, where the four countries agreed on a framework for “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” negotiations and urged the Taliban to engage in talks with the Afghan government, signaled that India, at least for the time being, has ceased to be a key player in the peace process.

Aversion to Taliban

It is not unprecedented for India to be missing from key negotiations relating to Afghanistan. Thirty years prior, with the Soviet withdrawal completed, India was unable to mold the political settlement in post-Soviet Afghanistan in any way. Even at the Bonn Conference in 2001 when the make-up of the transitional Afghan government in the post-Taliban period was decided upon, India was not invited and ultimately had to send a team as observers.

Despite its massive aid program and developmental assistance in Afghanistan, India has often been sidelined when it came to negotiations on Afghanistan’s political future and postwar reorganization. It is assumed that the imperative of getting continued cooperation from Pakistan, in accessing Afghanistan geographically and using its clout both in covert and overt matters, prodded the US to keep India at arm’s length from important Afghan matters relating to politics and security, thereby allaying Pakistan’s fears of getting geopolitically encircled by India.

Pakistan, with its geographical borders with Afghanistan cutting across the Pashtun homeland and its strong hold over the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, must be a key player for any successful negotiation of peace in Afghanistan. It is largely for this very reason that both Hamid Karzai and his successor President Ashraf Ghani had reached out to Pakistan to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. It was only when their outreach to Pakistan failed that they recalibrated the relationship with India in a positive manner – the high point of which was the signing of a strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India.

Apart from this distancing of India from any major Afghan peace talks at Pakistan’s bidding or the geo-ethnic importance to Afghanistan, India’s own insistence on not recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate party has had a negative bearing on New Delhi’s chances of influencing peace negotiations. India’s aversion to the Taliban’s ideology, which has scant regard for human – especially women’s – rights, is the reason behind its obstinate and moralistic stand on not talking to them. Can India continue its self-imposed normative approach in regard to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has always been a key state for India’s South Asian policy and its access to Central Asia?

Afghanistan as India’s ‘home turf’

Though India doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan, it does share deep historical and civilizational linkages with the landlocked country. Throughout centuries during the times of the Maurya, Kushanas, Indo-Scythians, Mughals and other empires and kingdoms, Afghanistan and large parts of India were under one polity. The Grand Trunk Road that links Bengal to Afghanistan through the important cities of Delhi and Lahore was completed by a Pashtun sultan of the Suri dynasty, Sher Shah Suri. The northwestern frontier of the subcontinent along with Afghanistan has been seen as a melting pot of various cultures, civilizations and religions.

The Afghan region was an important base of power during the Mughal period and its security often ensured peace and stability in northern India as Afghanistan was the geographical gateway to Indian subcontinent. During the British period, Afghanistan became a strategic buffer state between the British and Russian empires and their geopolitical competition over  the country is famously known as the “Great Game.”

Afghanistan was critical to the security of British India, and independent India’s strategic view of Afghanistan is deeply molded by its historical experiences, civilizational linkages and Britain’s strategic outlook of India’s extended neighborhood. Thus for Indian policymakers Afghanistan is considered “home turf” and influence in that country cannot be held hostage to moral constraints that limit India’s engagement with the Taliban.

Policy since Soviet withdrawal

After the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, India’s engagement with Afghanistan was deeply influenced by Cold War geopolitics and the need to counter Pakistan’s clout in the country. It vocally supported the Soviet actions and supported the pro-Soviet regime, though it acknowledged the need for the Soviets’ withdrawal in the long run. When Mikhail Gorbachev called the Soviet army back in 1989, India found itself without the security cover of the Soviets and deepened its relationship with the pro-Soviet government of Najibullah, which was critical of Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan.

Amid the mujahideen onslaught, India lacked the strategic capacity to prop up the Najibullah regime, and when his government fell to the collective force of the mujahideen, India was left without any allies in Afghanistan. Given the dire situation in Afghanistan, under prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, India took a more conciliatory position and engaged with all factions of the mujahideen and found them to be surprisingly forthcoming to India’s outreach.

But in another intelligence failure, India failed to measure accurately the prowess of the then-new student Islamist movement known as the Taliban. The lack of understanding of the Taliban’s widespread mass support among the Pashtun populace and its military power, which was augmented by direct Pakistani involvement, led India once again to lose the plot in Afghanistan when the Taliban captured Kabul and Afghanistan came under the sway of Pakistan.

India continued to counter Pakistan by supporting the united front that still clung on to the northern edges of Afghanistan. India, from its base in Tajikistan, along with Iran and Russia provided material support to the Northern Alliance. With the US invasion of Taliban-held Afghanistan in 2001, a new era dawned for India’s policy in Afghanistan. Under the US security cover it invested heavily in economic, infrastructural and developmental initiatives, especially in the Pashtun heartland.

This focus on Pashtun leaders and region was evident after the Bonn Conference when India had to pull support off the back of its erstwhile non-Pashtun allies in the Northern Alliance and accept a Pashtun candidate for the post of Afghan president.

Indian Afghan policy has been contended to have oscillated between partisan and conciliatory positions, but most often and particularly during key moments, India’s approach has largely been Pakistan-centric, with a view of countering Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan. Thus India mostly depended on factions that were averse to Pakistani interference in Afghanistan, such as the Najibullah regime, the Northern Alliance and now the Pashtun-led democratic government of Afghanistan.

In the past India risked losing its whole presence in the country because of its undue focus on few factions, and in the near future amid the possibility of a US withdrawal it could again risk losing its clout if the threat of a successful Taliban offensive and withering away of the Afghan national government truly materialize.

With the Taliban emerging as a key ethno-tribal force that holds the key to a successful peace settlement, it is of geopolitical wisdom for a power of India’s stature to open ties with the Taliban. Non-negotiation with the Taliban only blocks India out of any potentiality of engaging in peace talks.

Depend on US or take own initiatives?

India’s views are similar to the aims of the US in its negotiations with the Taliban, since the US seeks “counterterrorism assurances” with the “withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan” and “intra-Afghan talks to find a political settlement to the war and a permanent ceasefire.” India’s long-term position that it seeks an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process may become a reality, to some extent, even though the Taliban still consider the Afghan national government a mere puppet. But India has no real influence on the outcome of the negotiations, where the US emphasizes peace and the Taliban stress the withdrawal of US troops, and if a hasty and fragile peace is reached, one that is destined to fall apart with the US withdrawal, then India will find itself in a vulnerable position in the region, both geopolitically and diplomatically.

With the emergence of Islamic State in war-torn Afghanistan, the situation has become complex, with both the US and the Afghan Taliban blaming each other for supporting and lending help to ISIS.  Moreover, the threat of a possible surge in ISIS numbers has also caused Russia to cooperate with the Taliban. With Iran already in talks with the Taliban, both of India’s erstwhile allies during the days of the Northern Alliance have forged ties with the Taliban. Now with the US-Taliban peace talks going ahead with steady strides, Afghanistan is looking to reach out to Pakistan before any possibility of intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban emerges and, in fact, the Afghan president recently made a two-day visit to Pakistan.

It is of diplomatic prudence for Afghanistan to open talks with Pakistan, the chief benefactor of the Afghan Taliban. Shouldn’t the same logic prod India into some modicum of positive engagement with the Taliban, which has been the chief threat to India’s presence in Afghanistan up to now? The legitimacy of the Taliban as a political force, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, is no longer a contentious matter, as all the major international actors in the country, barring India, have involved themselves with the Taliban in some degree. It is not that India never had any covert engagement with any Taliban factions. It is high time India decides on its Taliban dilemma now, at this critical juncture of the Afghan peace process.

Opening talks with the Taliban, at least with the sub-factions that are not averse to cooperation with the Afghan government, can only strengthen India’s clout in the region and bring a truly conciliatory approach to its Afghan policy, which in turn can safeguard India’s presence in the country in most eventualities and political fallouts emerging out of a complete US withdrawal.