US President Donald Trump’s plan to halve the number of American troops in Afghanistan has set off alarm bells in India. It is expected to embolden the Taliban to step up efforts to topple the Afghan government. This could result in an intensification of fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. Afghans can be expected to flee the country in search of safety in neighbouring countries. Such refugee flows in a region that is already unstable could ignite new conflicts and intensify existing ones. The big question is whether the Afghan government will be able to hold its own against the Taliban. That the Taliban has been taking control of territory at a rapid pace over the last couple of years does not bode well for the future of the Ashraf Ghani government. However, some analysts have supported the American troop reduction, pointing out that the US-led campaign in Afghanistan has fuelled the fighting. Since ending the US occupation of Afghanistan is a key condition of the Taliban for its participation in negotiations with the Afghan government, the American troop reduction, they argue, could jumpstart talks between Kabul and the Taliban and culminate in a negotiated settlement, with the Taliban entering into a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul.
India is seriously concerned over the latest developments in Afghanistan. Whether it results in heightened fighting in Afghanistan or a power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban, India’s interests in the region are under grave threat. Should fighting intensify, India’s sizeable investments in Afghanistan will be in jeopardy. Besides, any threat to the Ghani government will weaken Indian influence in Afghanistan. Given the Taliban’s strong ties with Pakistan, any strengthening of its position is seen in New Delhi as providing Islamabad an advantage in the India-Pakistan battle for influence in Afghanistan.
For over two decades, India has avoided engaging the Taliban. While its aversion to the Taliban is understandable given the latter’s role in the 1999 hijack of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi and its proximity to Pakistan’s ISI, its policy of refusing to engage the Taliban is not tenable any longer. Recently, Delhi participated, albeit in an ‘unofficial capacity’, in the Afghan peace conference hosted by Russia. This was the first time that Delhi was present at an event where the Taliban was a participant. It was a tentative first step on India’s part to reach out to the Taliban. Indeed, it was a pragmatic overture by Delhi in keeping with shifting ground realities. Delhi must accelerate and intensify its engagement of the Taliban. It cannot put this off any longer. Engaging the Taliban is not endorsing its views.