India Opens Security, Trade and Investment Discussions with the Taliban

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Indian national spice shortages, security, and iron ore opportunities lead India and the Taliban to hold diplomatic talks in Qatar. 

Up until the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan, India had been a primary investor in the country, with which up until partition in 1947 it used to share a border, and held strong trade ties. India has a 3 million strong population of ethnic Pashtuns – the tribal group that makes up the contemporary Taliban – but are more assimilated to Indian culture. That could be tested under a Modi government pushing a Hindu agenda. Discrimination against India’s Muslims has already increased.

Overall, New Delhi has an eye on Afghanistan, for security, infrastructure development, and trade. While India anticipated a Taliban takeover, the speed of it has been faster than expected, triggering contingency planning. There are however different levels to this, and what is happening between India and Afghanistan may well play out elsewhere. 

The initial stage of contingency planning meant a steady reduction of diplomatic staff, contact with the Ashraf Ghani government, and clandestine channels set up with the Taliban. However, when Ghani fled, India closed its embassy and flew out remaining diplomatic staff. 

India has spent nearly US$3 billion in the past two decades in building dams, roads, electricity transmission lines, infrastructure projects, schools, hospital, education, and capacity building in Afghanistan. As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in November 2020 while speaking at the Afghanistan Conference in Geneva, “No part of Afghanistan today is untouched by the 400-plus projects that India has undertaken in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces”.

Afghanistan possesses strategic commodity reserves that India is interested in. Among these are the huge Hajgak iron ore deposits, whose primary commercial feature is that the ore lies very close to the surface. This allows it to be mined openly with simple excavators. Hajgak contains as estimated 32 kilometers of solid deposits and a gigantic two billion tons of very high-quality iron ore. Geologists have stated that the deposits could even be double the estimated size. Also, the neighboring areas of Shabashak and Dar-l-Suf have industrial sized deposits of coking coal – ideal conditions for metallurgy development. 

That combination is perfectly aligned with India’s intentions, with New Delhi previously approving a state program to conquer the world steel market. In 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan concluded a trilateral agreement, according to which Delhi invested in the modernization of the Iranian port of Chabahar, while Tehran built a railway line spur from the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) that reached Herat in Afghanistan on its northwestern border. 

India planned to invest US$10 billion in the construction of the Hajgak mine and a direct railway to Chabahar. The mining project was stopped due to Afghanistan’s instability, and is now on hold, while the Port is now operational. But the mining opportunity remains with the assets still in the ground. 

India also signed a Preferential Free Trade Agreement with Afghanistan in 2003, which mainly deals with agricultural products but has still resulted in bilateral trade worth US$1.5 billion. That may not seem much in global terms, but it buys a huge amount of dried fruit. Afghan exports of dried fruits and spices to India – a vitally important part of many national dishes – account for 85 percent of India’s total annual consumption. 

The current situation has seen that trade cease, leading to spice shortages in the land of curries. India needs to get that duty-free trade back on track, and fast. Shortages of basic commodities do not go down well among the Indian public. 

Spice supply chains apart, New Delhi’s biggest concern is preventing Afghanistan from turning into a nursery for terrorist groups antithetical to India. The Taliban’s victory will embolden terrorist groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, shooting dead 168 Indians at the railway station, restaurants, and the Taj Hotel that they later attempted to burn down. 

A lack of an Indian presence in Afghanistan erodes its regional strategic influence, diminishes its national security, and impacts Indian consumers. 

Yet shortly before India flew out its diplomats, senior Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai reportedly requested New Delhi to retain its diplomatic presence. Stanikzai is considered to be third in the pecking order among Taliban’s senior leadership. According to him, the Taliban are interested in developing “friendly” relations with India and infrastructure projects built by India are considered Afghanistan’s “national assets”. He has requested India to “come and finish the incomplete projects”.

Stanikzai has continued with his outreach to India. On 28 August, in a 46-minute video posted on the Taliban’s social media platform, Stanikzai spoke on the Taliban’s relations with regional powers and on India, he said: “India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic, and trade ties with India like in the past”, adding that “trade with India through Pakistan is very important for us.”

In terms of understanding the India-Pakistan conflict, he also said that “There is no doubt that there is a long political and geographical dispute between India and Pakistan. We hope they do not use Afghanistan in their internal fight, they have a long border, they can fight amongst themselves on the border. They should not use Afghanistan for this, and we will not let any country use our land for this.”

While many analysts will suggest that the Taliban is seeking to balance its ties with Pakistan by using India as leverage, this remains speculation. But what is apparent is that the Taliban is showing specific interest in opening official channels of communication with India.

That occurred yesterday (Tuesday) when India announced that its ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, a former joint secretary at the Indian Foreign Ministry responsible for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, has held formal talks with Stanekzai, the head of Taliban’s political office in Doha, at the Embassy of India, Doha, on the request of the Taliban side.

A statement subsequently stated that “Discussions focused on safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan. The travel of Afghan nationals, especially minorities, who wish to visit to India also came up. Ambassador Mittal raised India’s concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner. The Taliban Representative assured the Ambassador that these issues would be positively addressed.”

There are several positive points are worth noting from this. First, the meeting occurred at Taliban’s request. Second, it was conducted inside the premises of Indian embassy in Doha and third, a top Taliban leader was formally involved. It cannot be a coincidence that the first official diplomatic overture between the two sides took place just two days after India took the Taliban off a list of proclaimed terrorist organizations. 

This points to Taliban efforts in normalizing ties with neighbors with an aim of gaining international recognition. It is equally an opportunity for India to look forward in cautious optimism. The next steps – a reopening of India’s Kabul Embassy, the resumption of trade, and infrastructure projects – may well follow.

This article has been adapted and edited from the article “India, Taliban hold first talks: What lies ahead for New Delhi, China, Pakistan in Afghanistan” by Sreemoy Talukdar which originally appeared on Firstpost and which may be viewed here.

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