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EXPLAINED: How Invested India Is In Afghanistan. What Taliban In Kabul Means For New Delhi

A Taliban fighter runs towards the crowd outside Kabul airport, on August 16, 2021, in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS TV/via REUTERS

A Taliban fighter runs towards the crowd outside Kabul airport, on August 16, 2021, in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS TV/via REUTERS

The Taliban have said they are open to engaging with the international community as they again seize control in Afghanistan. But what will be India's concerns?

For the second time in recent history, Indian embassy staff have cleared out of Afghanistan. The circumstances have been the same on both occasions: the Taliban entering Kabul. In the roughly 20 years since the US invasion, India has enthusiastically chipped in with aid and support for the Afghan government and people, devoting billions of dollars for creating infrastructure and backing the socio-economic development of the war-torn country as it took fledgling steps to peace and stability. But Taliban was always there in the background, as were their Pakistani backers. As the militants seize control again, what can India expect?

What Are India’s Investments In And Economic Ties With Afghanistan?

Since 2001, the year that saw US troops land in Afghanistan to flush out al-Qaeda terrorists following the September 11 terror attacks, New Delhi has committed over $3 billion in development assistance to the country. That money has gone towards funding more than 500 infrastructure and development projects. India undertook the construction of the Afghan Parliament building, which was inaugurated in 2015 and cost $90 million to complete.

Among the key infrastructure projects taken up by India are the 218-km-long highway from Zaranj to Delaram in Afghanistan’s south-western Nimroz province and the laying of a 220kV transmission line to Kabul along with power sub-stations. New Delhi also supported the completion of the Salma Dam, christened as the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam.

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On the education front, India helped set up the Afghanistan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANASTU) in Kandahar while annual scholarships are granted for Afghan students to pursue undergraduate and higher studies in India.

India also provided “training, equipment and capacity building programmes to Afghanistan National Security Forces

(ANSF) based on requests received from Afghan authorities from time to time" in line with the Strategic Partnership

Agreement signed with Kabul in 2011.

What Has Been India’s Stance On The Afghan Peace Process?

As the US ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, India was quick to step in with help for the beleaguered country. The presence of US troops provided a guarantee for Indian investments in Afghanistan and US efforts to instil a democratic system got New Delhi’s whole-hearted support.

In its reply to a question in Parliament last year, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said that “India’s consistent policy is to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan". Among the important goals New Delhi had backed for Afghanistan was an end to the violence and cutting of ties with international terrorism.

While India said it wanted Afghanistan to “preserve the gains of the last 19 years", that is, the fostering of democracy and a rights-based system following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, it also stressed it backs a “lasting political settlement through an inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process". While the Taliban have also been opposed to external meddling in Afghan affairs, it all too well-known that the group has close ties with Pakistan and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

What Would Be The Worries For India As Taliban Retakes Power?

As India threw its weight behind a democratic order in Afghanistan, it fell behind on engaging with the Taliban. It would have taken its cue in the matter from the US itself, which refused to directly talk with the militants for most of its time in the country, changing its approach only in 2018. Thereafter, the speed with which US first signed the peace accord with the Taliban, in 2020, and then went ahead with pulling back its troops from the country meant India had little time to make a policy pivot to face the new ground realities.

The biggest concern for New Delhi, as indeed for most countries internationally, would be centred around an Afghanistan under the Taliban again emerging as a haven for terror actors. “India believes that ending terror sanctuaries and safe havens operating across Durand line is necessary for enduring peace in Afghanistan," the MEA has said.

Following its entry into Kabul, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told CNN-News18 that the Taliban in 2021 would be much different from how the world expects it to be. “I hope they (India) will also change their policies because earlier they were siding with the regime government, which was imposed. It would be good for both sides, for the people of India and Afghanistan," Shaheen said.

But given the group’s ties with the likes of ISI and the fact that the US-designated terror group Haqqani Network provides the fighting backbone of Taliban, New Delhi would have reason to be anxious. A paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2020 noted that the “Haqqani group… has engineered and carried out attacks against Indian assets, including the Indian embassy in Kabul".

The same paper also pointed to the “security vacuum" created by the US troop pullout and how it “has resulted in the rise of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), a branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State operating in South Asia and Central Asia". “This group’s ability to attract radicalised individuals, including from India, and recruit well-trained defectors from Taliban and Pakistani militant groups is a very real threat to India’s future in Afghanistan and the region more broadly," the paper said.

However, the Taliban have spoken about moving on from the isolationist regime it had earlier run in Afghanistan and seeking international support for rebuilding the country, goals that would make it more amenable to addressing the concerns of international stakeholders, especially when one of the terms of its peace deals with the US was that it would not harbour terror actors on Afghan soil.

“About international relationship, it is our policy to have co-operation with all countries of the world. Now a new chapter has opened, that is the construction of the country, economic development of the people, a chapter of peace among all countries, especially our nearby countries. We need cooperation from other countries. Our intention is to rebuild the country and that cannot be done without the cooperation of other countries," Shaheen told CNN-News18.

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first published:August 17, 2021, 17:48 IST