Why is India embracing the Afghan Taliban?
Last week, an Indian delegation led by a senior diplomat, visited Kabul and held a formal meeting with the interim Afghan Taliban government.
The meeting between J P Singh, joint secretary Pakistan-Afghanistan at the Ministry of External Affairs, and Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Muttaqi was the culmination of behind-the-scenes contacts India established with the Taliban months before they returned to power in August last year.
Facilitated by Qatar and the United States, Indian officials met Taliban representatives in Doha, albeit quietly. But the visit of the Indian delegation, under the pretext of discussing humanitarian assistance, is a clear departure from New Delhi's previous stance towards the Taliban.
The return of the Taliban to power was seen as a setback to India, which had developed close ties with Ashraf Ghani’s administration. The Taliban takeover forced India to shut down its diplomatic mission and development projects in Afghanistan.
India was one of the few countries that opposed the process of reconciliation with the Taliban. In fact, New Delhi had always supported anti-Taliban forces for decades and had opposed the Taliban at all international forums, including the United Nations.
One of the reasons why India was reluctant to open channels of communication with the Afghan Taliban, despite US insistence, was that it viewed the group as Pakistan's proxy. New Delhi has in the past accused the Taliban of targeting its interests in Afghanistan.
"The change of heart on part of India clearly shows that they understand Taliban are now a reality," said a Pakistani official who deals with Afghanistan.
Requesting anonymity, the official said that Pakistan was closely following the contacts between India and the Taliban.
"If India agrees to reopen its embassy in Kabul it would further demoralise the anti-Taliban forces, including Northern Alliance," the official said while referring to the possible advantages of Indian outreach.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs has downplayed the visit of its senior diplomats and ruled out recognising the Taliban or reopening its embassy.
But official sources in Islamabad believe that the visit was much more than about humanitarian assistance as portrayed by India.
Another official told The Express Tribune that Pakistan has no problem with India establishing a relationship with the Taliban as long as it does not undermine the country's interest.
"Reopening the embassy is not an issue but there is no reason for Indian consulates along the border regions of Pakistan," the official explained while highlighting Pakistan’s concerns.
Pakistan has previously accused India of using Afghan soil to undermine its security. New Delhi has similar concerns that under the Taliban rule Pakistan may use Afghan soil against India.
In an interview with an Indian news channel, Afghan Defence Minister Mullah Yaqoob made it clear that the Afghan government would neither allow Pakistan to use its soil against India nor permit India to do the same against Pakistan.
On Indian outreach to Taliban, Foreign Office (FO) Spokesperson Asim Iftikhar told reporters on Thursday that Pakistan's views about Indian role in Afghanistan were "well-known."
"In the recent past, you have seen that, especially in the context of humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, Pakistan has allowed as a special gesture, the transportation of Indian wheat on the request of the Afghan interim authorities,” the spokesperson said. “I think what we desire and aspire for is a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.”
"And we would not like to see anyone playing a role that is negative in any sense, or the role of a spoiler, in this overall context," he added.