Indian interest in Afghanistan is the product of its opposition to Pakistan. New Delhi never missed any chance to manipulate the image of its self-claimed arch-enemy at any level or forum. Its foreign policy goals are set to counter Pakistan’s influence and interests. In Afghanistan, India had set carefully planned regional objectives. After 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, a pro-US government was established in Kabul, favouring India’s regional interests. Former Afghan governments under Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani maintained cordial relations with New Delhi.
The Indian government poured massive sums of money into the country under the banner of development assistance, trade promotion and private investments. However, it visibly showed that with increasing investments, New Delhi’s political clout and strategic leverage started enhancing. It has spent up to $3 billion in Afghanistan on projects such as the Salma Dam, construction of the Parliament building, hospitals, roads, power stations, etc.
The return of the Taliban has been a big concern for the Indian government. The takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban has forced India to shut down its development projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. India pulled its officials out of Afghanistan in August 2021 and closed its embassy. The change of leadership in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US forces have undermined India’s influence in the country.
The Taliban government’s favourable tilt towards Pakistan makes it an issue of grave concern for India. Recently there has been opposition by the Indian government against the extension of the CPEC and inclusion of Afghanistan under the BRI’s fold. If this proposal materializes, it will minimize Indian influence in Afghanistan and strengthen the political clout of both Pakistan and China in the country. In addition, many of the Indian military’s strategies, including launching multi-front wars, would also become inoperational.
New Delhi has held many objections against CPEC, mainly because the project is a considerable step toward strengthening relations between Kabul, Beijing and Islamabad, rejecting Indian regional influence. India has heavily criticized this project and launched several international campaigns to prevent further developments. The extension of CPEC has become another critical component for China and Pakistan which, if materialized, will enable them to integrate South Asia with Central Asia. However, in a competitive attempt, an Indian high-level delegation has paid a visit to Iran’s Chahbahar Port to expand the North-South Trade Corridor – linking Central Asia with the South Asian region via Chabahar Corridor.
“The government has seen reports regarding the proposed extension of the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Any such actions by any party directly infringe on India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Minister of State for External Affairs M Muraleedharan said. “Such activities are inherently illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable, and will be treated accordingly by India,” he said. The official statement by the Ministry on July 26, 2022, terms any third country joining CPEC as “illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable” based on Indian opposition and broader regional claims.
Countries worldwide, including the US, China, Russia, the UK and other European countries, are exploring new options to foster better relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, a deadlock on whether to give them de-facto or de-jure recognition remains. On the one hand, despite its turbulent history, New Delhi is also trying to develop its diplomatic relations with the Taliban government. On the other hand, New Delhi is actively hedging against any initiative which decreases its political leverage over the statecraft.
Afghanistan’s strategic location in the region makes it a vital country to develop neutral relations with the state, and its government is a wise choice that the Indian government is considering. India has engaged with the Taliban government but has not officially maintained its diplomatic relations.
Recently Indian government has held its official talks with the Taliban government. A delegation from the Indian Foreign Office met Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, to discuss bilateral relations and issues such as humanitarian aid. In addition to the formally announced engagements, New Delhi has also set in place “unofficial/secret” visits to the country to conduct backdoor diplomacy with the Afghan Taliban and other power poles.
On various accounts, different sources confirmed that Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar transited through Qatar during international visits to Kenya and Kuwait. He had met with Qatari leadership and US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, in Doha. Indian media outlets have highlighted that the country is changing its policy towards Afghanistan, upon which the External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi refused to comment. Indian Ministry of External Affairs has downplayed the visit of its senior diplomats and ruled out recognizing the Taliban or reopening its embassy.
The current situation points out the backdoor diplomacy that New Delhi is exercising in Afghanistan. It is trying hard to maintain its influence in the country and save its investments. The Indian government mistrusts the Taliban government because of the problematic past and is reluctant to recognize the government. However, the proposal of extending CPEC in Afghanistan has alarmed the country to carry out aggressive but calculated diplomacy to fill the vacuum as required. New Delhi is showing objection to the CPEC extension into Afghanistan because of the fear that the China-Pakistan bloc would gain influence in the region and India would lose its major stakeholders and investments. This would create many hindrances for India on its way to becoming the regional power.
Islamabad and Beijing’s active diplomacy and efforts to revive the Afghan economy and stabilize the country are driving the Afghan Taliban to their side. The international community also believes that Washington’s policies toward the country were flawed. Frank McKenzie, Former Commander USCENTCOM, also recognized that Pakistan’s strategies toward Afghanistan were better than the western model governing the war-torn country. The question to ask here is whether or not New Delhi would regain its political clout.