Opinion: As China Engages With Taliban, New Delhi Can't Sit Out

One thing that every US President since George W Bush has done is to promise to bring American soldiers home from what in September will be two decades of unending conflict in Afghanistan since 9/11.

President Joe Biden, determined to make good on that promise, wasted no time in setting a timeline for this as soon as he took office in January, even though it was amply evident by then that Afghanistan was descending rapidly into chaos. As violence flared up this past month, Biden was determined that the last US forces will be out of Afghanistan by August 31. 

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US military in Afghanistan. (File)

So clear-eyed is the US about this withdrawal that even though blood spills every day, it has barely reacted to its arch diplomatic rivals Russia and China playing a greater role in the war-torn republic. No wonder then, that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said such a role by Beijing could be a "positive thing", while in Delhi on a day-long visit that coincided with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's meeting with the Taliban's Mullah Baradar in Tianjin last week. 

The optics of that coincidence were not lost on anyone. Blinken's reaction to the meeting between Wang and Baradar raises an important question. Setting aside, for just a moment, Delhi's concerns over Pakistan's proximity to the Taliban and the suspicion around China's expansionist regional diplomacy, could Beijing - as an ally of Pakistan and a tough negotiator with the Taliban - become the moderating, stabilizing force that Afghanistan so desperately needs right now?

China's motivations in engaging with the Taliban are many. Quite apart from the economic interests that make Afghanistan and its rich mineral deposits an invaluable link in the Belt and Road initiative, Beijing's security interests in keeping Taliban influence away from its indigenous Uighur Muslims are a key priority.

In Dushanbe last month, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Foreign Ministers' meeting, Wang Yi asked the Taliban to make a 'clean break' with the Al Qaeda-backed separatist Uighur extremist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is active along the narrow Wakhan corridor bordering the Xinjiang province. China also wants the Taliban to ensure that Chinese business interests and workers in Pakistan are not targeted by their Pakistan faction - the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan or TTP. Though Chinese engagement with the Taliban is not new, the open arms with which Wang greeted Baradar gave the Tianjin meeting an illusion of high-level diplomacy among equals, as confounding as it seems. Perhaps that was intentional - a show of respect in order to extract a promise. 

Naturally, words are just that and actions have to speak. The Taliban's track record is hardly encouraging, and its commitment to the Chinese is contingent not only on the group having the stirrings of a diplomatic conscience, but also on its ability to negotiate a way out of the political impasse in Kabul to its own advantage.

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Afghan security forces. (File)

The Taliban's violent march across Afghanistan carries on as a beleaguered President Ashraf Ghani is increasingly isolated in the face of waning global support and worsening political factionalism at home. Those watching the developments in Afghanistan closely believe there is little time left to ensure that an interim administration takes over, or provincial warlords will resume fighting each other, and Taliban commanders on the ground could distance themselves from their leadership. In the interest of stability, therefore, China could be key.

In an interview to the Associated Press a week ago, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said his group wants an interim administration it can engage with and it wants to see international pressure mount on Ghani to step down in the interest of a peace deal, or else there is no question of disarming. With leverage on both sides, the Taliban are now looking towards Beijing to play that role.

In all of this, what of India? Delhi's fallback diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan, since the Doha process began in 2018, has been to wait and watch which way the chips fall. The truth today is that they are flying all over the place, and unlike either its friends or its rivals, India has waited and watched for so long that it seems now to have been left out. Delhi's hesitant approach towards the Taliban is not without reason; memories of its atrocities against women and minorities when it was last in power and its close equations with Pakistan make India fundamentally suspicious of the group.

But Afghanistan's unraveling is a source of mounting concern and necessitates firmer policy statements and action. 

There is little ambiguity in Delhi about Islamabad's intentions to try and influence Afghan relations with India as China's proxy and with its own associations and interests with the Taliban.

India, notwithstanding the goodwill generated by its past engagement on infrastructure projects, military and police training, medical support or development initiatives in Afghanistan, needs to be a prominent player at the negotiating table if it wants to ensure both a check on Pakistan's influence on the Taliban as well as a regime in Kabul it can rely on and engage with. 

As China steps in to fill a vacuum the US leaves behind, using Pakistan to deal with the Taliban when required, Delhi's hope that America will be willing and able to exert what little influence it has left to push a peace deal cannot be the guiding force of India's Afghanistan policy.

Having sat it out for so long, India is now left with limited options. The question before Delhi - unless it is willing to engage openly with the Taliban itself - is just how much leverage and influence it may still have with other Afghan actors, including the current government, in order to help create and support a viable alternative for the sake of peace in Afghanistan and the wider South Asian region.

(Maya Mirchandani is Head of Department, Media Studies at India's Ashoka University, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Delhi based Observer Research Foundation. Prior to this, Maya was Foreign Affairs editor at NDTV and has reported extensively on Indian diplomacy and security)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.