As Blinken heads to New Delhi, he could find some surprising common ground on Afghanistan

by C Raja Mohan

India, traditionally reluctant to engage with the Taliban, recently hedged its bets by initiating contact—with Qatar’s support. But unlike many in the West, India’s leadership is not buying into the narrative of Kabul’s impending fall and the Taliban’s immediate and inevitable return to power. Instead, New Delhi insists how the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan is important. India has made it clear it will not accept the Taliban’s violent overthrow of the Kabul government and has engaged in a flurry of diplomacy to prepare for the region’s post-U.S. order.

India’s position on the transition’s legitimacy to a new order in Afghanistan—that it must necessarily involve a peaceful political reconciliation—is based, in turn, on New Delhi’s assessment of the ground situation in the country. Although the Taliban have gained considerable territory amid the accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Indian government is betting Afghanistan’s endgame is not at hand—at least, not yet. At the very least, there is still time for outside powers to influence the outcome.

The Taliban’s claims of already controlling 85 percent of Afghan territory are widely disputed, not just in India. Although momentum has certainly been with the Islamist rebels, Kabul continues to control all provincial capitals. Government forces are regrouping and expected to put up a vigorous fight for the cities as the Taliban surround them. India thinks there is considerable room for concerted diplomatic and political action to compel the Taliban to temper their unilateralism and come to a reasonable accommodation with the Kabul government. India is urging the world not to rush into “normalizing” a Taliban takeover. India has supplied helicopters to Afghan forces in the past but has been cautious about a major military footprint in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s future is therefore likely to figure prominently in talks in New Delhi next week between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar. Blinken is also expected to call on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Biden administration has much to gain from cooperation: Its efforts to salvage a reasonable outcome in Afghanistan from the political wreckage of its sudden decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops could get a very helpful boost from India’s vigorous regional diplomacy in favour of a peaceful transition.

The idea of the United States and India coordinating on Afghanistan would certainly be new. For more than four decades, New Delhi and Washington have been at odds on the Afghan question. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when Washington supported Islamist fighters and their jihad against Moscow, New Delhi and Washington were on opposite sides of the divide.

The 2001 U.S. intervention to oust the Taliban from power was very welcome in New Delhi. But Washington’s reliance on Pakistan for accessing Afghanistan imposed many constraints on India’s role there. Washington encouraged Indian support for economic reconstruction in Afghanistan but discouraged any serious military cooperation between New Delhi and Kabul in deference to Pakistan’s sensitivities.

New Delhi has also been uncomfortable with the fact that Washington has negotiated with the Taliban in recent years. But once the Biden administration chose to pull out even without the Taliban’s credible commitment to a peaceful transition, India—like other countries in the region—focused on adapting to the post-U.S. dynamic.

New Delhi knows Washington will continue to engage Islamabad on the Afghan question. But India is open to exploring the prospect for greater India-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan given the United States’ reduced reliance on Pakistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Some in Washington say India should step into the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who also worked on South Asian issues at the White House, suggested India consider “providing technical support for the Afghan Air Force, which is heavily reliant on contractors who are leaving with the Americans.”

India has supplied helicopters to Afghan forces in the past but has been cautious about a major military footprint in Afghanistan. New Delhi is conscious of the challenges with supporting any serious Indian military presence in Afghanistan, not least because the two countries do not share a border. But as it happens, the chief of the Afghan Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, will be in New Delhi at the same time as Blinken.

Riedel also suggested India could “cooperate with Iran to help Kabul” since Tehran can’t work with Washington directly. India, lacking direct physical access to Afghanistan, has long seen Iran as its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Like India, Shiite-majority Iran has its concerns about the Taliban’s Sunni extremism. New Delhi has indeed intensified consultations with Tehran amid deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan. An independent approach toward Tehran has been an important element of India’s foreign policy. It refused to abandon its engagement with Iran despite deepening U.S.-Iranian tensions.

Any easing of tensions between the United States and Iran under the Biden administration would create more space for India’s strategic cooperation with Iran. On a visit to Tehran earlier this month, Jaishankar became the first foreign leader to meet Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi.

If Jaishankar and Blinken can find common ground on Afghanistan this week, they would upturn conventional wisdom on India-U.S. relations. The importance of Iran for India has increased even further amid recent Russian enthusiasm for the Taliban. In the past, Moscow and New Delhi shared a mutual scepticism about the Taliban and their ideology. From Iran, Jaishankar travelled to Moscow to exchange notes on the Afghan situation and try to reduce differences. India is also aware of the Taliban’s potential threat to Central Asian republics that rely on Russia for help securing their frontiers.

As India steps up its regional diplomacy in Afghanistan, it also knows Washington is crucial in legitimizing future Taliban rule. The United States and its allies have much leverage to exercise on Afghanistan in the coming months—especially concerning the normalization of the Taliban and the mobilization of international economic support for any new regime in Kabul.

If Jaishankar and Blinken can find common ground on Afghanistan, including the question of the Taliban’s legitimacy, they would upturn conventional wisdom on India-U.S. relations. Right now, most pundits and policymakers seem to be convinced the growing convergence between New Delhi and Washington on China and regions to the East is matched by an enduring divergence regarding regions in the West. Next week could prove them wrong.