Will US-Taliban deal limit India’s leverage in Afghanistan?

A week after a US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in November 2001, a plane carrying a small delegation of Indian diplomats landed in Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, the born-again capital of the newly-liberated country.

It marked New Delhi’s re-entry in Afghanistan – five years after it was forced to escape the country – after Taliban assumed power in Kabul on September 26, 1996.

The Taliban was defeated by Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance forces helped by the US-led NATO forces in the wake of the deadly attacks on US soil in September 2001.

“When we returned to Afghanistan, the perception of India was mixed,” recalled former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Gautam Mukhopadhya, who was part of the first delegation that arrived in Kabul in 2001.

The daylong visit was among the first diplomatic missions to have arrived in the Afghan capital to reopen their embassy, signifying the strategic importance of Afghanistan for India.

Cultivated a strong relationship

Since then, India has cultivated a strong relationship with successive Afghan governments, investing heavily in the development and infrastructure of the war-ravaged country, with the total aid of nearly $2bn since 2001, the largest that New Delhi has contributed to any nation.

“For the victorious Northern Alliance and their constituents and supporters, we were allies. But for a lot of ordinary Afghans who opposed the PDPA [People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan], we had to overcome a trust-deficit going back to our support for the latter,” Mukhopadhya, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, told Al Jazeera.

The PDPA was a pro-USSR party under whose government Afghanistan was invaded by Soviet forces in December 1979. The United States intervened in the Afghan civil war, supplying arms and ammunition to fighters or mujahideen against Soviet occupation.

Much of mistrust was overcome with a combination of support for anti-Taliban forces, humanitarian initiatives, scholarships and, of course, the popularity of Indian popular culture, especially Bollywood, he added.

Return of Taliban?

Nearly 20 years later, India has a mounting diplomatic challenge as the Taliban, which New Delhi has despised, appears to be making a comeback to Kabul’s power corridor.

Despite significant investments and interests in Afghanistan, India has largely stayed out of the Afghan peace negotiation between the US and the Taliban armed group, that started nearly two years ago and culminated in a deal on February 29.

And now with the US withdrawal under way, and a potential start of the intra-Afghan talks, India has to find its place in the post-peace geopolitics of the region.

For those watching the developments closely remain deeply concerned over the future of India’s stakes in the extremely fragile and dynamic situation.

“New Delhi has backed Afghanistan’s democratic system, and put its weight behind the presidency of Ashraf Ghani,” said Kabir Taneja, a security analyst and a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

“However, even as an expected actor in an event such as talks with the Taliban, New Delhi unfortunately built limited capacities over the years for its opinion to be strong enough to be a by definition regional player in helping Afghanistan politically,” he said.

With much to lose, India has kept a watchful eye on the negotiations, participated in the talks in Moscow and was even invited to the signing of the deal between the US and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha.

“It can be argued whether India has been able to convert this political capital into strategic assets and value, but to my mind, we have deliberately not played our strategic cards in Afghanistan. We are capable of doing so,” Mukhopadhya said, adding that if the Taliban and Afghan leadership sit down and talk, India will definitely support such talks.

Hekmatullah Azamy, deputy director at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, said India will have to undoubtedly start a dialogue with the Taliban. “It also needs to be seen if the Taliban will be open to talking to them,” he said.

“Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan and militant groups in the region will have a huge impact on the future of India in Afghanistan,” Azamy said, adding that while Taliban in the 1990s was far more independent of foreign influence, they still leaned towards Pakistan on policies related to India.

Both Kabul and New Delhi have accused Islamabad of backing armed groups – charges Pakistan has denied.

“And in turn, Pakistan would use the Afghan territory against India, such as during the [Indian] plane highjack [in 1999]. In contrast, the Taliban is far less independent and under Pakistan influence giving them far more say in dictating policies towards India such as those related to [disputed] Kashmir et al. So the situation could be worse than it was in 1990s,” Azamy speculated.

India’s cautious approach

Indeed, New Delhi’s caution is tied to the role that Pakistan played in its backing of the US-Taliban talks, raising concerns that it could potentially be sidelined in a post-peace Afghanistan.

“Indian investments in Afghanistan are for the people of Afghanistan. Pakistan will of course try its best to sideline or harm these investments but popular support for them and India will remain,” Mukhopadhya, the former Indian diplomat, said.

However, considering these dynamics, the eventual peace deal is likely to limit not just India’s leverage in post-peace Afghanistan, but also the work they do in the country.

“Even in the best of scenarios, it is unlikely that Taliban would be open to working with India. For instance, the Taliban may not want the army cadets to be trained in India,” Azamy said.

Already, as the US begins withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, Indian-led projects are bound to face the heat.

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