India’s Hindustan Times reported on Wednesday the country has established formal communication with the Taliban terrorist organization, a sign that New Delhi expects the group to wield significant power in neighboring Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan prior to the onset of the two-decade-old Afghan War in 2001. Since the U.S. invasion, the group – which has long maintained ties with international jihadist outfits like al-Qaeda – has ceaselessly attempted to overthrow the current government in power. Supporters of an even more extended American presence in the country argue that the Afghan National Army and assorted armed forces cannot match the strength of Taliban terrorists and Kabul’s government may fall to a Taliban “emirate” shortly after the departure of U.S. troops.
After extensive negotiations with the Taliban last year, the administration of former President Donald Trump agreed to withdraw America’s military from the country by May 1, 2021. Current President Joe Biden broke that agreement, instead vowing to remove all troops by September 11, 2021 – the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks that prompted the Afghan War – giving the Taliban about four months to prepare for a takeover of Kabul. Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that America would remain heavily involved in Afghan affairs even after troops leave shortly after Biden announced the extension of the war.
The Taliban – which calls itself the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and considers itself the only legitimate government of Afghanistan – had agreed to halt all attacks on U.S. forces and cut ties with al-Qaeda in exchange for the May 1 deadline. Following Biden’s announcement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid announced the terrorist group would consider “every counteraction it deems appropriate against the occupying forces [the United States].”
The Taliban has also moved to expand its relations with other countries in anticipation of an apparent takeover, urging foreign diplomats in May not to leave the country along with U.S. troops and vowing the group would not attack them. If confirmed, direct negotiations with India would also indicate that the Taliban anticipates becoming the formal government of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.
The Hindustan Times cited “people with knowledge of the development” to claim that India has abandoned its policy of entirely disregarding the Taliban, which maintains close ties to India’s top geostrategic rival Pakistan, and has begun an “outreach” initiative to the group. The newspaper branded the talks “exploratory” and “limited.” At the top of the list of Taliban terrorists the Indians have allegedly reached out to is Mullah Baradar, responsible for the deal with the Trump administration. Baradar runs the Taliban’s “political” office based in Doha, Qatar.
“We have tried the earlier option of not engaging the Taliban and putting all our efforts into the Northern Alliance,” an unnamed second source told the Hindustan Times. “But there has been a huge shift since then and there are some who think it might be better to have a line of communication with some Taliban leader.”
The newspaper also quoted a third source who said that not only India’s diplomats appear to consider some communication between the two parties wise to maintain.
“It appears that some Taliban leaders realise that there will need to be some accommodation of India’s role in Afghanistan and such an understanding will also fit in with the Taliban’s efforts to project themselves as a group that the West can work with,” the anonymous person said.
No individual went on the record with the Hindustan Times on the matter and India’s government neither confirmed nor denied the report when the newspaper requested comment.
Both Indian government and Taliban-affiliated individuals have indicated a desire to pursue diplomacy for months.
“India has been supportive of all the efforts being made to accelerate the dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, including intra-Afghan negotiations,” Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in March. “If the peace process is to be successful, then it is necessary to ensure that the negotiating parties continue to engage in good faith, with a serious commitment towards reaching a political solution.”
Experts typically interpret the phrase “political solution” in the context of Afghanistan to mean the incorporation of the Taliban into the Afghan government as a peaceful political party rather than a jihadist terrorist organization. Taliban officials more often interpret it to mean the complete takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
In an interview published on Tuesday, top Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Foreign Policy of his terrorist organization, “we want to have a productive relationship with all countries, including regional countries.” While he notably failed to mention India, Mujahid repeatedly claimed the Taliban sought “peace” and blamed Kabul for any ongoing hostilities.
“[T]rust of both sides for one another is close to zero. Foreign forces committed to leaving Afghanistan by May 1, but they are still in the country,” Mujahid complained. “The talks and negotiations between Afghans should have begun 15 days after the signing of the Doha agreement on Feb. 29, 2020, which didn’t happen.”
“We have two main goals. The first is that all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan. The second, which is very important, is that we need to create an Islamic government which includes all Afghans,” the spokesman explained. He pointedly rejected the possibility of a Taliban government respecting the human rights of women and the universal right of free expression. While emphasizing the alleged importance of Islamic values to the Taliban, Mujahid did not address in the interview the Taliban’s lucrative drug trade, which violates sharia, or the Islamic law.
The Taliban claimed responsibility on Wednesday for yet another deadly attack on the Afghan military – an attack on a helicopter that killed at least three. The Afghan government claimed the incident was a crash caused by “a technical fault,” according to Khaama Press.