As the Taliban last week announced the cabinet set to now govern Afghanistan, 600 miles away in Delhi, the mood was sombre. Of the 33 men who were given key posts, almost all have been with the Taliban since the group emerged in the 1990s, and – aside from five who had been held in Guantanamo Bay until last year – all had spent the past 20 years in hiding in Pakistan.
The Haqqanis, a faction of the Taliban known for their close ties to Pakistan and hardline belief in global jihad, were particularly well represented in the cabinet.
For many in India, it both diminished any hope that this could be a different, more progressive and less dogmatic Taliban than that which ruled in the 1990s, and seemed to secure the influence of Pakistan, India’s arch-nemesis, over Afghanistan’s future.
“It’s a massive strategic victory for Pakistan to have a Taliban administration over which they have quasi-control,” said Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. “It’s a platform now for Pakistan to build whatever it wants to build. This presents a very significant challenge for India in the next couple of years.”
The fall of the US-backed government of Ashraf Ghani, which was considered an ally to New Delhi, and the swift takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban present multiple problems for India. First and foremost, India has long viewed the Taliban as nothing more than a proxy for its rival, Pakistan. The Taliban was nurtured and gained power in the 1990s with the help of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and after the fall of the government in 2001, when the US invaded, Taliban leaders found sanctuary over the border.
Since then, Pakistan has remained crucial to the group; it was where they lived, trained and regrouped, enabling them last month to take back Afghanistan by force and bring down the government.
Pakistan has denied direct ties to the Taliban. However, before the announcement of the cabinet last Tuesday, the ISI’s director general, Faiz Hameed, landed in Kabul, amid suggestions he was there to smooth over cracks among the group and make sure they could form a government.
“Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan and its interference in the new Taliban regime has been very visible – for once they are not trying to hide it,” said Rajiv Dogra, an Indian former ambassador who served as consul general to Pakistan. “Naturally, if the whole process becomes ISI-driven and ISI-controlled, then this is a huge cause of concern for India.”
India’s second, closely related concern is over the regional and domestic security risk that a Taliban regime poses. For decades, India’s Muslim-majority region of Kashmir has been embroiled in a separatist insurgency with an allegiance to Pakistan. Two of the main Islamic militant groups operating in Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, have historical ties to the Taliban, and according to a recent UN report, between 6,000 to 6,500 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad have been active on the Afghan battlefield.
In the past, very few Afghan militants have travelled into Kashmir for jihad, and most consider it unlikely that they will start flooding in now in great numbers, partly because of India’s draconian military counter-insurgency in the region.
For India, however, the palpable fear is that the Taliban’s victory will embolden similar Islamist groups and individuals across the region, boosting the insurgency. There is concern that Afghanistan will provide a regional hub for militants who may carry out jihad on Indian soil and provide a flow of weapons and explosive materials over the border.
“That entire geography, from the Afghan-Iran border stretching up to the border of Kashmir, is now susceptible to jihadist groups,” said Taneja. “This outcome in Afghanistan is very detrimental to India’s security.”
Since they took power, the Taliban’s own messaging on this has been mixed. They have vehemently pledged that they will not allow Afghan soil to be used for any foreign terrorist groups, stating that they want “strong and healthy relations with our neighbours” and describing Kashmir as a “bilateral issue” between India and Pakistan. But Taliban leaders then said they would “raise their voice” for Kashmiri Muslims, and a recent statement by the Taliban supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, made a reference to all the Muslims and mujahideen who helped them win victory, which many took to include Kashmiri liberation groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.
Douglas London, the CIA counter-terrorism chief across south and south-west Asia until 2019, said he had little faith in the Taliban’s pledges to prevent militant Kashmiri separatist groups from operating on Afghan soil.
“I would expect the Taliban to allow those groups to maintain their sanctuary in Afghanistan and I would expect them to facilitate their activities,” said London. “In an unfortunate way, the Taliban is in a much better position today than it was before 9/11 to provide support to any of the regional jihadist groups it wishes to.”
London said that India’s security position has been made particularly precarious as a result of the Hindu nationalist politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, under which Muslims across the country have faced attacks and discrimination.
“Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of these jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” he said. “That narrative will extend the jihadist threat to India beyond just Kashmir.”
Yet, like many analysts, London emphasised that the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan has never been linear, and that Pakistan was far from the puppet master it has often been presented as. The expectation among many is that now the Taliban has its own state, there will be a concerted effort to distance itself from its ISI patrons.
Certainly, when the Taliban were last in power, they did not do the one thing that Pakistan pushed for most, recognising the so-called Durand Line as the official border between the two countries. Today, among the Afghan population, there is huge suspicion and resistance to Pakistan, who are often viewed as imperialist and interfering in Afghan sovereignty, as demonstrated by anti-Pakistan signs at protests in Afghan cities last week. The animosity is also present within the Taliban: many leaders now in the cabinet spent years in Pakistani jails, arrested on the instructions of the US.
“There’s no real love lost between Afghans and Pakistan and I don’t believe Pakistan has the level of control over the Taliban that is attributed to them,” said London. “I still believe there’s a codependent relationship, but I think the Taliban will seek to exercise greater independence, and will not do whatever ISI tells them to do.”
In London’s view, this poses an even greater threat to India. He sees Pakistan keeping some modicum of restraint over the Taliban, preventing them from taking actions that could destabilise a region where both Pakistan and India are armed with nuclear weapons. But Avinash Paliwal, deputy director of the the South Asia Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said it offered India an opportunity.
Paliwal agreed that India’s greatest concern over the resurgence of the Taliban was the “larger regional geopolitical lurch to the Islamist right”.
However, Paliwal emphasised that the Taliban had wanted a relationship with India since 1996, when they first took over in Afghanistan, and that back channels had existed on and off since 2005, though it was not made public because of the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan.
Now there has been a visible shift to ensure the world knows that India and the Taliban are talking. A few months ago the Indian government leaked information that it had been speaking to the Taliban through back channels, and last week an Indian diplomat publicly met with a Taliban representative in Qatar.
“I think a powerful driver for the Taliban is to have India as a counterbalance to Pakistan itself,” said Paliwal. “Across the board, Afghan popular opinion is very critical of Pakistan and what it has done over the past two decades, and the Taliban is not immune to that public pressure. Having India on board would be helpful for them to utilise public opinion and sends a clear message to ISI.”
He added: “The relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is more of a coercive one than a consensual one. And so there is a lot of space there for India to operate as well.”
Indeed, India has a lot more to offer economically than Pakistan. It built up two decades of goodwill as one of the biggest investors in development, spending over $3bn (£2.2bn) to build schools, colleges, hospitals, electricity grids, dams and a parliament building, something Pakistan has never had the resources to do. The Taliban have made it clear they want India’s projects to continue.
While Modi is considered repressive to Muslims domestically, India now enjoys a strong international relationship with the Islamic states of the Gulf, ensuring that it is not considered a pariah state in the Islamic world. It is also seen as likely that the Taliban would prefer economic ties with regional powers such as India and China than the west, as they are less likely to sanction the regime for human rights abuses.
The Taliban are also pushing for the unfreezing of Afghan assets held in the US, for sanctions on the travel of Taliban leaders to be removed, and development assistance and funding to continue coming into the country at the level that Afghanistan has had for the last 20 years – all of which is conditional on strong guarantees on counter-terrorism.
“I think simple self-interest is going to temper their feel for remaining in the global jihad business,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Taliban have recognised that they cannot go back to the old model of simply exporting jihad if they want their regime in Kabul to be successful. The face of moderation is the only thing that will get them what they want – at least for now.”