June 2023

Walking a political tight rope

As neighbour to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, India finds itself in a quandary. Should it try to recover its strategic influence or continue a policy of caution? Sudha Ramachandran reports

India’s relations with the Taliban regimeare getting trickier by the day.

On April 25, the Taliban regime issued an order recalling the current Afghan Ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay, who was appointed by the previous government. The same day, the regime’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi sent a letter appointing the trade counsellorin the New Delhi mission, Mohammed Qadir Shah,as the chargé d’affaires (acting ambassador).

Shah too was appointed by the Ashraf Ghani government but is reported to have moved close to the Taliban of late, an allegation he has rejected.

The power tussle over who heads the Afghan mission in New Delhi has put the Indian government in a difficult position.

Like the rest of the world, India has not extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime. However, after shutting down its embassy in Kabul when the Taliban stormed to power in August 2021, India reopened a ‘technical mission’ in the Afghan capital in June last year.

Some 14 countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia have allowed the Taliban diplomatic representation in their capitals. India is not among them.

Since July last year, the Taliban has been pushing India for diplomatic representation in Delhi. According to reports in the Indian media, it has written to the Indian government 15 times on the matter.

Afghan Ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay
PART OF THE OLD ORDER: Afghan Ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay

Its recent attempt to replace Mamundzay with its own appointee became public, with Mamundzay and Shah making allegations against each other via letters to the Indian government and interviews with the media.

Afghan diplomatic officials in the New Delhi mission have meanwhile rallied behind Mamundzay. Shah has been evicted from its premises.

India has not issued any statements so far on the spat over control of the New Delhi mission.

However, in mid-March, in response to another controversy, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi stated that India has not recognized the Taliban regime. ‘Our position on how we see developments in Afghanistan has not changed,’ he said.

The clarification came in response to the furore that erupted in India and Afghanistan when a leaked internal memorandum of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Institute of Diplomacy made its way to the Indian media in early March.

The power tussle over who heads the Afghan mission in New Delhi has put the Indian government in a difficult position

The memorandum informed Afghan officials of a training course provided by the Indian government. It referred to a note verbale issued by the Indian embassy in Kabul. A note verbale is a diplomatic communication between two governments.

It raised questions in India over whether New Delhi had recognised the Taliban regime. There was discussion too over India hosting officials of the Taliban regime for the training in Delhi. Students in Afghanistan who had secured places and won scholarships to study in Indian universities were furious that the Indian government was hosting Taliban officials for the course, when they had been denied visas.

It was in these circumstances that the MEA spokesperson stepped in to clarify that India’s position on the Taliban regime had not changed. ‘We certainly would not be issuing notes verbale, which are inter governmental notes to, you know, entities that are not recognized,’ he said.

He also clarified that the training course was open to officials from several countries and was run online. Officials of the Taliban regime did not, therefore, visit India.

Nonetheless, India’s relations with the Taliban have come a long way. During the Taliban’s first regime (1996-2000) New Delhi neither recognised nor engaged with it in any way. In fact, India along with Russia and Iran supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

In the following two decades, India has been a strong supporter of the Republic. It has provided billions of dollars for infrastructure development, civil society initiatives and livelihood programmes. It has trained Afghan soldiers at its military academies.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

When the Taliban captured power in Kabul, India’s strategic influence in Afghanistan disappeared

As the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan drew near, several governments hedged their bets by engaging with the Taliban. India did not until perhaps a few months or weeks before Kabul fell to the insurgent group.

Thus, on August 15, 2021, when the Taliban captured power in Kabul, India’s strategic influence in Afghanistan disappeared.

However, India has since re-established a toehold in Afghanistan. It is providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The Taliban regime would like India to play a larger role. It has been calling on New Delhi to resume work on 20 unfinished projects and to invest in the crisis-ridden country.

While the Taliban regime’s relations with Pakistan have soured significantly over the past year— opening up an opportunity for India to build bonds with Kabul, India remains cautious.

India’s MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi: ‘Our position on how we see developments in Afghanistan has not changed’

Despite Taliban assurances, the security situation in Afghanistan is grave, neither conducive for Indian investment nor the presence of Indian nationals.An issue of concern for New Delhi is that the Taliban hasn’t severed ties with global jihadist and anti-India terror groups, which continue to enjoy sanctuary on Afghan soil. A 2022 UN report stated that groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which have carried out numerous attacks in India, have training camps in Afghanistan.

Besides, India’s biggest asset in Afghanistan is the public goodwill it has enjoyed thanks to its people-centred projects there and its extension of scholarships to over 60,000 Afghan students over the past two decades. That goodwill has evaporated with its reluctance to issue visas to students post-August 2021. Afghan youth are hurt by India’s callous approach to their future. Deepening engagement with the Taliban or extending them any recognition would only serve to add salt to their wounds.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in