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The Four Things India Is Watching for from Afghanistan

The world’s largest democracy is warily eyeing the Taliban’s return to power.
September 8, 2021
The Four Things India Is Watching for from Afghanistan
NEW DELHI, INDIA - 2021/08/23: A female Afghan refugee raises the Afghanistan flag during a protest in front of UNHCR office at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Hundreds of Afghan refugees staged a demonstration in front of the United Nation High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) office at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. The Afghan community demanded access to basic facilities like education and jobs in India or other countries in the world. A large number of desperate Afghan citizens are coming to India following the takeover of the war-torn country by the Taliban. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After the fall of Kabul, India evacuated its embassy personnel, as well as the remaining Indian nationals in Afghanistan. India also opened its door to Afghan refugees, although there remains some question about whether Muslim refugees will receive treatment different from that accorded to Hindu and Sikh refugees. The last time the Taliban took over Afghanistan, back in the 1990s, thousands of refugees streamed into India—a small fraction of the overall Afghan diaspora, but enough to establish a distinct community in India, including a “Little Kabul” in Delhi.

As the United States reckons with the regional implications of the Taliban takeover, it will be useful to have in mind the four major considerations likely to guide Indian policymakers in the months ahead:

Pakistani involvement has been a perpetual issue in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch published interviews of observers who verified that “Pakistani aircraft assisted with troop rotations of Taliban forces during combat operations in late 2000.” Two decades later, little has changed. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government not only backed the Taliban with military and other support, Khan himself welcomed the new Taliban-led regime, claiming that they broke the shackles of “slavery”—implying that the United States and other Western countries had been enslaving the Afghans. India has been one of the most significant investors in Afghanistan over the last twenty years, and while it would be desirable to find a way to continue that relationship, there is little value in helping a government that was put in place by your foremost adversary.

The Kashmir question is also tangled up in the problem of Afghanistan. At the time of Indian independence and the partition that separated India and Pakistan, both countries wanted the Kashmir to accede. The leader of Kashmir chose India after Pakistan sent militants across the border. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought a handful of wars over the territory, and although India won them, Pakistan occupies part of the territory (as does China after it was gifted some from Pakistan in the 1960s). Since the 1980s, the Indian portion of the state has been rocked by violence and terrorism—most imported from Pakistan through Pakistani Kashmir’s porous borders. The Taliban complicate this tense situation. A leader of Imran Khan’s party already said on television that the “Taliban have said they are with us and they will help us in [liberating] Kashmir.” In a BBC interview, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen agreed with the premise, saying that the “Taliban intends to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir.”

The risk of new terrorism is a major concern for India, as it was during the last Taliban-led government. In 1999, Indian Airlines Flight 814 was hijacked and diverted to Kandahar Airport in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban, backed by Pakistani security forces, forced the Indian government to negotiate and the two sides came to an agreement: The militants would allow the flight to depart and in exchange India would release three terrorists—Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Masood Azhar—into Taliban custody. Following this, the Taliban took the hijackers and their newly released comrades to the Pakistan border. The Indian government paid dearly for this response. The three released terrorists subsequently led or participated in several major terrorist operations, including the murder of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and many terrorist operations in Kashmir.

What America does will be a major factor in for India. For most of the Cold War, the United States was a strong ally of Pakistan—as when the United States backed Pakistan in 1971 during the war for Bangladeshi independence, despite knowledge of a genocide being committed in what became Bangladesh, or when the United States used Pakistan as an intermediary to deliver weapons to the anti-Soviet mujahideen. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan since 9/11, however, has been messy: Pakistan took billions of dollars of U.S. aid, but has been far from a reliable partner in fighting terrorism—as witness the fact that Osama bin Laden was found hiding out in Pakistan despite numerous assurances to the contrary. And while the United States signed military and diplomatic deals with India, Pakistan strengthened its ties with China, becoming dependent on Beijing for military and economic support. This has left Pakistan unable to criticize China—or worse, acting the lickspittle. The Taliban in Afghanistan will ensure that this continues—that India becomes closer to the United States and Pakistan becomes closer to China.

It is too early to tell how disruptive the Taliban takeover will be for regional stability, but it will be useful to keep in mind these four considerations that will shape how Indian policymakers decide to engage with the new Taliban regime. Taliban spokesmen have claimed that their new regime is not interested in reprisals, and Indian diplomats have said their interactions with the new Taliban leadership have been “reasonable.” We’ll see if it lasts.

Anik Joshi

Anik Joshi is a writer in California. Twitter: @AnikVJoshi.