In February, the Indian budget for 2023 allocated Rs 200 crore in aid to Afghanistan. It was an indication of how far India’s engagement with the Taliban has progressed, even as New Delhi has yet to officially recognise the regime in Kabul.

This is in stark contrast to the position India took during the Taliban’s previous stint in power from 1996 to 2001, when the regime was overthrown by an American-led military coalition.

After the withdrawal of the American military in August last year and the fall of the Afghanistan government, the Taliban returned to power, throwing India’s diplomatic position into uncertainty. Since then, however, India has made small steps towards establishing a working relationship with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan administration. A combination of geo-political and strategic concerns may have led to this development.

India and the Taliban

India has had a sizable diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and long maintained a close relationship with the country on the basis of historical and cultural ties. This relationship has also been aimed at circumventing Pakistan.

India never recognised Afghanistan’s first Taliban government, which came to power in 1996, and did not maintain a diplomatic mission in the country from 1996 to 2001. Instead of interacting with Taliban leaders, New Delhi supported the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan.

After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 following the US invasion of the country, India lent its support to successive governments in Kabul and provided aid for growth and development. With the resurgence of the Taliban from 2003, however, India and its projects in Afghanistan came under increasing attack, according to details available on the South Asian Terrorism Portal.

The Indian consulate was attacked several times while Indian employees and workers on various projects were abducted or killed.

The Taliban and Pakistan

In 2002, after the Taliban regime was overthrown, Hamid Karzai took over as president of Afghanistan. Kabul maintained a pro-India position and Afghanistan and Pakistan largely had poor relations up until 2014, when Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani took over as President.

The power-sharing arrangement of the new Taliban-led regime that took over in August 2021 was seen as beneficial to Pakistan, without whose active support it was unlikely that Taliban leaders could have negotiated the Doha Agreement. The Doha Agreement, signed between the United States and the Taliban, laid out the terms and conditions of the withdrawal of the American military from the country.

But the Taliban has changed tack since, as Pakistan grapples with a political crisis, after Imran Khan was removed from the prime minister’s office in April, and hostilities between the countries have increased.

The Taliban has rejected the legitimacy of the Durand line, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has also targeted Pakistanis working on the construction of a border fence. The Taliban’s protection of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistan Taliban, is adding to tensions.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is an umbrella organisation of armed militant groups. On November 28, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan ended its five-month ceasefire with the Pakistan government – brokered by the Afghanistan Taliban – and announced that its fighters would resume attacks.

Where India stands

It is amid these geo-political developments that India has to deal with a Taliban-led regime in Afghanistan. The internal upheaval in Pakistan and the diminished impact of the United States and Russia in the region might account for the change in India’s position.

India’s outreach to Taliban leaders had previously consisted of relatively covert encounters. According to the Union Ministry of External Affairs, Taliban’s chief of political office Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai had requested a meeting with the Indian ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, in Doha in August 2021. In May last year, National Security Adivsor Ajit Doval said India’s Afghanistan strategy would be determined by its unique history of cooperation with the Afghan people.

On June 2, Indian diplomats met Taliban commanders in Kabul. A few weeks later, India on June 23 reopened its embassy in Kabul to coordinate humanitarian relief. Months earlier, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen had in March said that its administration in Kabul was ready to provide a “secure environment” for the Indian embassy.

In August, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesman, wrote on Twitter: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan welcomes India’s step to upgrade its diplomatic representation in Kabul. Besides ensuring security, we will pay close attention to the immunity of the diplomats and cooperate well in endeavors.”

Geopolitical stakes

At a time of political and economic strife in several South Asian countries, India has had a stable, functioning government, making it of significant importance to the Taliban.

Through investments in Afghanistan, India also has some support among segments of the Afghan population, which could be of advantage to the Taliban as well.

India also greatly benefits from Afghanistan’s strategic location, which grants access to land routes with Central Asia. Further, there are Pakistan-backed terrorist organisations operating in Afghanistan that have targeted India – the Haqqani network, for instance.

New Delhi’s engagement with the Taliban could be aimed at stopping Pakistan from installing a pro-Pakistan administration in Afghanistan, and preventing extremist and other terrorist organisations from mobilising against India.

With the growing risk that is China, India must be wary of being caught between two hostile neighbours. China’s inaction and relative silence over the Taliban suggests that Pakistan will have a role to play in formulating China’s policies in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are a reality in today’s Afghanistan. New Delhi must consider actively engaging in any meaningful peace process. Otherwise, it runs the risk of weakening its position in this vital region.

Ashraf Nehal is a postgraduate student of South Asian Studies at SOAS University of London.