Talking to Taliban

Talking to Taliban: New Delhi must be pragmatic, to reduce Pakistan’s options for playing mischief and protect its investments

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Reports that Indian officials quietly met Taliban representatives in Doha signal New Delhi taking a pragmatic approach to what is likely to be a very complicated situation in Afghanistan. With the US slated to completely pull out its troops from Afghanistan by September, India has a real challenge on its hands. So far, New Delhi has stuck to supporting the government in Kabul. But the ground reality is changing fast with Taliban ramping up fighting and capturing more than 50 districts since May.

India has two strategic objectives. First, it wants to prevent Pakistan from using Afghanistan as strategic depth against India once Americans leave. Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Network – which has close ties with Pakistan’s ISI – is No 2 in the Taliban leadership. A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is likely to embolden Pakistan to use its Afghan proxies against India, with possible ramifications for Kashmir. Second, India has made substantial investments in Afghanistan – around $3 billion – that need to be protected. Last November India announced it had concluded an agreement for the construction of the Shahtoot dam at the projected cost of $250 million, besides launching more than 100 community development projects in Afghanistan worth $80 million. Other large infrastructure projects undertaken by India include the strategic 218 km Delaram-Zaranj highway, the India-Afghanistan friendship dam, and the construction of the Afghan Parliament building.

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These are substantial investments that Pakistan can target using its Afghan proxies. And with current geopolitics not favouring India’s ties with Iran and Russia – important stakeholders in Afghanistan – New Delhi can’t bank on a multilateral approach to protect its Afghan interests. In this scenario, talking to Taliban makes sense. Meanwhile, reports that the US may consider slowing its Afghan drawdown in light of Taliban’s onslaught are also welcome for India. Afghanistan’s fledgling democratic institutions can’t be allowed to totally collapse. India must be flexible and keep all its options open.