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After decades of opposing the Taliban, India may be forming a relationship with them

Taliban fighters guard the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan. Last month, several explosions and gunfire ripped through a Sikh temple in Afghanistan's capital.
Ebrahim Noroozi
Taliban fighters guard the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan. Last month, several explosions and gunfire ripped through a Sikh temple in Afghanistan's capital.

A year ago, India was not happy about the state of affairs in Afghanistan. The U.S. was negotiating its exit, the Taliban was consolidating power, and decades of India supporting anti-Taliban forces was evaporating.

But just last month, Indian officials went to Kabul to meet with Taliban leaders. India has also partially reopened its embassy in Kabul to coordinate humanitarian aid.

So, why is India reopening dialogue with the Taliban now? Asfandyar Mir, an expert in international relations and counterterrorism at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says that the interests for all parties involved have a long and complicated history.

He joined All Things Considered to explain the dynamic between India, the Taliban, and Pakistan, as well as India's interests in providing aid to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On what the meeting between Indian and Taliban officials last month focused on

In recent weeks, the Taliban have been making a series of public moves to India, which was really an unlikely prospective partner country, given that the Taliban have been allied with Pakistan, which is an arch rival of India. So in many ways, this is a stunning development.

There are some real tensions between the Taliban and the Pakistani government. For one, the Taliban have taken a position which is contrary to Pakistan's expectation on the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Another reason is that the Taliban are protecting one of the most significant anti-Pakistan insurgent groups, by the name of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the TTP.

So, watching that, the Indian policymakers seem to have concluded that perhaps there is enough distance between their arch-rival Pakistan and the Taliban, that the Taliban after all are not a mere proxy of the Pakistanis, and that there might be some room for them to forge a working relationship with the Taliban.

On why the Taliban would turn to India for help now

For years, they [Taliban] bemoaned India's support for the former Afghan government republic. And then India's embassy was blown up by the Taliban in 2008. So there was a lot of bad blood between the two sides.

So the question is, why are the Taliban so interested now? And economics might be one big reason. The Taliban are really struggling to govern the country. The fact that they are not diplomatically recognized is making it difficult for them to just fund their government: it's short on resources, there's a humanitarian crisis in the country, there are issues of food security.

Policemen attend a ceremony to receive new uniforms from the Taliban authorities in Kandahar in July.
Javed Tanveer / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Policemen attend a ceremony to receive new uniforms from the Taliban authorities in Kandahar in July.

The Taliban are hoping that the Indians would increase their supplies of wheat to the country. And over the medium term, the Taliban seem to be interested in India reviving its development projects in Afghanistan.

India built a lot of hospitals, so the Taliban appear to be interested in India reviving some of those activities as well.

On why India might be interested in aiding Afghanistan again

It seems like the Indians and the Taliban have been talking about counterterrorism. So one concern the Indians had, in the lead up to the Taliban's rise to power, was that much like the 1990s, Afghanistan under the Taliban would become a safe haven for terrorists — and not just anti-U.S., anti-Western terrorists, but also anti-Indian terrorists.

It appears that now the Indian government has gone to the Taliban, and said, "Look, if you want a relationship with us, we have to talk about these terrorism concerns." So the Taliban for their part have reciprocated with some guarantees similar to what they have provided to the United States government, that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used against India, that the Taliban are telling the Indians they are even ready to take action on any intelligence that the Indians might provide.

On whether there is something for the United States to gain from this new potential alliance

If the Taliban are responding to India, if they are talking about terrorism, if they open up to a human rights conversation with the Indians, that might be good news. In addition, I would say that if the Indians can really figure out a counterterrorism pact with the Taliban, I think that would also be a significant positive step, and could provide a channel for the international community and the U.S. in particular.

It's a complicated situation, and my view is that the U.S. should really be coordinating with India to maximize the counterterrorism benefit and any other benefits that can be had from India's engagement.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.