Ahe Taliban announced last week that the government would now rule Afghanistan, 600 miles from Delhi, the mood was grim. Of the 33 men who received key positions, almost all have been with the Taliban since the group’s emergence in the 1990s, and – aside from five who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay until last year – all had spent the last 20 years in hiding. In Pakistan.
The Haqqanis, a Taliban faction known for their close ties to Pakistan and their uncompromising belief in global jihad, were particularly well represented in the cabinet.
For many in India, this both diminished any hope that it might be a different, more progressive and less dogmatic Taliban than the one who ruled in the 1990s, and seemed to guarantee Pakistan’s influence. , India’s nemesis, on the future of Afghanistan.
“It is a massive strategic victory for Pakistan to have a Taliban administration over which they have virtual control,” said Kabir Taneja, member of the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. “It is now a platform for Pakistan to build whatever it wants to build. This represents a very significant challenge for India over the next two years. “
The fall of the government of Ashraf Ghani, supported by the United States, which was considered an ally of New Delhi, and the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban pose multiple problems for India. First and foremost, India has long viewed the Taliban as nothing more than a proxy for its rival, Pakistan. The Taliban were fed and seized power in the 1990s with the help of the powerful Pakistani agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Pakistan has remained crucial for the group ever since; this is where they lived, trained and regrouped, allowing them last month to retake Afghanistan by force and topple the government.
Pakistan has denied direct ties to the Taliban. However, ahead of the cabinet’s announcement last Tuesday, ISI chief executive Faiz Hameed landed in Kabul, amid suggestions he was there to iron out cracks within the group and ensure that they could form a government.
“Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan and its interference in the new Taliban regime has been very visible – for once they are not trying to hide it,” said Rajiv Dogra, a former Indian ambassador who served as consul general in Pakistan. “Of course, if the whole process becomes ISI driven and ISI controlled, then that is a huge concern for India. “
India’s second and closely related concern is the risk to regional and internal security posed by a Taliban regime. For decades, the Muslim-majority Indian region of Kashmir has been embroiled in a separatist insurgency with allegiance to Pakistan. Two of the main Islamic militant groups operating in Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, have historical ties to the Taliban, and according to a recent UN report, between 6,000 and 6,500 members of Lashkar- e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad were active on the Afghan battlefield.
In the past, very few Afghan militants traveled to Kashmir for the jihad, and most consider it unlikely that they will start flowing in now in large numbers, in part because of the draconian military counterinsurgency. of India in the region.
For India, however, the palpable fear is that the Taliban’s victory will embolden similar Islamist groups and individuals across the region, thereby bolstering the insurgency. There are fears that Afghanistan provides a regional hub for militants who could lead jihad on Indian soil and provide a flow of weapons and explosives across the border.
“All of this geography, from the Afghan-Iranian border to the Kashmir border, is now sensitive to jihadist groups,” Taneja said. “This result in Afghanistan is very damaging to India’s security. “
Since taking power, the Taliban’s messages on this have been mixed. They vehemently pledged that they would not allow the use of Afghan soil by foreign terrorist groups, saying they wanted “strong and healthy relations with our neighbors” and describing Kashmir as a “bilateral issue” between India and Pakistan. But Taliban leaders then said they would “raise their voices” for Muslims in Kashmir, and a recent statement by the Supreme Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, referred to all the Muslims and Mujahedin who helped them win the day. victory, which many took to include the Kashmiris. liberation groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.
Douglas London, CIA counterterrorism chief in South and Southwest Asia until 2019, said he had little faith in the Taliban’s promises to prevent militant Kashmiri separatist groups from d ‘operate on Afghan soil.
“I would expect the Taliban to allow these groups to maintain their sanctuary in Afghanistan and I would expect them to facilitate their activities,” London said. “Unfortunately, the Taliban are in a much better position today than before 9/11 to lend their support to any regional jihadist groups they want. “
London said India’s security position has become particularly precarious due to the Hindu nationalist policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under which Muslims across the country have been victims of attacks and discrimination.
“Modi is basically helping recruiting these jihadist groups by taking such a tough and repressive line against the Islamic community in India, which is now being forced into repression,” he said. “This narrative will extend the jihadist threat against India beyond Kashmir. “
Yet, like many analysts, London pointed out that the Taliban’s relations with Pakistan had never been linear and that Pakistan was far from the puppeteer as it has often been portrayed. The expectation among many is that now the Taliban have their own state, there will be a concerted effort to distance themselves from its ISI bosses.
Granted, when the Taliban was last in power, they didn’t do the one thing Pakistan insisted on, recognizing the so-called Durand Line as the official border between the two countries. Today, among the Afghan people, there is enormous distrust and resistance towards Pakistan, which is often seen as imperialist and interfering with Afghan sovereignty, as evidenced by anti-Pakistani placards during protests in Afghan cities around the world. last week. Animosity is also present within the Taliban: many leaders now members of the cabinet have spent years in Pakistani prisons, arrested on instructions from the United States.
“There is no real love lost between Afghans and Pakistan and I don’t think Pakistan has the level of control over the Taliban allotted to them,” London said. “I still believe there is a codependent relationship, but I think the Taliban will seek to exercise more independence and not do what the ISI tells them to do. “
In London’s view, this poses an even greater threat to India. He sees Pakistan keeping a minimum of restraint on the Taliban, preventing them from taking action that could destabilize a region where Pakistan and India are armed with nuclear weapons. But Avinash Paliwal, deputy director of the South Asia Institute at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, said it presented an opportunity for India.
Paliwal agreed that India’s biggest concern about the Taliban’s resurgence was the “Islamist right’s biggest regional geopolitical swerve.”
However, Paliwal pointed out that the Taliban had wanted a relationship with India since 1996, when they first seized power in Afghanistan, and that return channels had existed on and off since 2005, although this did not happen. was made public because of the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan.
Now there has been a visible shift to make sure the world knows India and the Taliban are talking. A few months ago, the Indian government leaked information that it had spoken to the Taliban through the back door, and last week an Indian diplomat met publicly with a representative of the Taliban in Qatar.
“I think a powerful engine for the Taliban is to have India as a counterweight to Pakistan itself,” Paliwal said. “Overall, Afghan popular opinion is very critical of Pakistan and what it has done over the past two decades, and the Taliban are not immune to this public pressure. Having India on board would be helpful for them to use public opinion and send a clear message to ISI. “
He added: “The relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is more of a coercive relationship than a consensual one. And so there is a lot of space there for India to function as well. “
Indeed, India has much more to offer economically than Pakistan. He amassed two decades of goodwill as one of the biggest investors in development, spending over $ 3 billion (£ 2.2 billion) to build schools, colleges, hospitals, power grids, dams and a parliament, which Pakistan never had the resources to do. The Taliban have made it clear that they want India’s plans to continue.
While Modi is seen as repressive towards Muslims nationally, India now has strong international relations with the Islamic Gulf states, ensuring that it is not seen as a pariah state in the Islamic world. It is also likely that the Taliban would prefer economic ties with regional powers such as India and China rather than the West, as they are less likely to sanction the regime for human rights violations.
The Taliban are also pushing for the thaw of Afghan assets held in the United States, for the lifting of sanctions on the displacement of Taliban leaders, and for development aid and funding to continue to flow into the country at the level that Afghanistan has experienced over the past 20 years. years – all conditioned by solid guarantees in the fight against terrorism.
“I think a simple personal interest will temper their feeling of staying in the global jihad business,” said Ashley Tellis, senior member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Taliban have recognized that they cannot go back to the old model of simply exporting jihad if they want their regime in Kabul to be successful. The face of moderation is the only thing that will get them what they want, at least for now.