The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Can India Engage With the Taliban?

While domestic politics and moral compulsions pull India away from the Taliban, its strategic interests will push it to engage with the new government in Kabul.

Can India Engage With the Taliban?

Afghans studying in India hold placards and stand outside the U.S. Embassy asking for help, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, August 28, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
for an unusually well-publicized visit. Reports have suggested that the Taliban have also to Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar, Russia, China, and Iran to witness the formation of their government.

In their early statements and dialogue with Indian officials, the Taliban had India of a policy of non-interference in Kashmir. But shortly after their ascendancy, the Taliban watered that down and lent some credence to New Delhi’s biggest fear: that an Afghanistan run by the Islamist group could end up as a safe haven for terrorist organizations targeting Kashmir. In a recent with the BBC, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that his group intends to “raise [its] voice for Muslims in Kashmir.”

Yet, despite India’s unbridgeable differences with the Taliban, New Delhi still has an opportunity to engage with the group in a manner that might take care of its own strategic interests.

Analysts everywhere are rightly skeptical that the Taliban have not changed their uncompromising ideology; women’s rights are already being trampled upon by Taliban fighters in different parts of the country. But the world around the Taliban has changed since their brutal reign during the 1990s.

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During their five-year rule from 1996 to 2001 – and the many years of their rise prior to that – the Taliban were primarily by the oil-rich Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. But as the years wore on, those ties , starting in 2009. That year, the then Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz expelled the Taliban’s political envoy Tayyib Agha, after the latter refused to publicly denounce al-Qaida.

Now in power, the Taliban has found itself cut off by its erstwhile sponsors. Last month, a Taliban leader Saudi Arabia’s dominant Wahhabi ideology, which had inspired the group back in the 1990s, when it massacred close to 15,000 Shia Muslims. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia among the earliest countries to evacuate its embassy in Kabul, even as the Taliban were capturing the country.

The loss of patronage from the Gulf does not bode well for the Taliban, as they take over a country that is in the grip of a . During their early bid to forge ties with the outside world, the Taliban have become increasingly dependent on Iran, Pakistan, and China. Yet, for the sake of greater strategic autonomy, the Taliban are likely to search for new development partners. Just this week, Shaheen to Germany to “encourage its entrepreneurs to come and invest” in Afghanistan.

, India’s total investment in the country amounts to more than $3 billion, including critical infrastructure such as roads, dams, electricity lines, and other projects. The Taliban have already that they are hoping for more.

The challenge for India, however, will be political. In a bid to secure these interests, New Delhi has in recent times to engage with the Taliban. Yet, these are already being undercut by domestic politics back home.

As many important Indian states head to the polls in a few months, leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been seeking to leverage the fears sparked off by the rise of the Taliban. But that means rhetoric targeting the Taliban. Late last month, a BJP leader rivals in the state of West Bengal of having a “Talibani mindset.” Elsewhere, another BJP lawmaker inflation on the Taliban. The Taliban’s own comments on Kashmir have only added fuel to the fire.

As it tries to evaluate its limited options in Afghanistan, New Delhi is caught in a delicate balancing act. There is good reason for India to shun the Taliban, driven both by domestic politics as well as moral compulsions. Yet, to manage its own strategic interests, India must find a way to engage the Taliban. It already has plenty of leverage to make use of.