In the latest issue of India’s Caravan magazine, I explained why Indian officials and analysts were particularly wary of this summer’s opening of a Taliban office in Doha as part of efforts to find a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.
I argued that India was missing an opportunity to take a more central role in this diplomacy, especially as its regional partners and adversaries alike — including China, Russia, and Iran — had their own contacts with the Taliban.
It was therefore fascinating to see reports last week that officials from India’s domestic intelligence service, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), leaned on the home ministry to issue a visa to former Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef for a conference in Goa. Their intention was 'to understand the situation in Afghanistan and … speak to Zaeef to explore the role India could play once the US troops pullout is completed next year'.
A picture later circulated showing Zaeef sitting near India’s finance minister, prompting some criticism from the opposition BJP. The hawkish Indian analyst Brahma Chellaney complained that the visit “exposed the lack of consistency and direction in its foreign policy”, and Afghanistan’s ambassador to India expressed a little concern.
But it shouldn’t entirely surprise us that Delhi sees Zaeef as a useful interlocutor.
In his 2010 biography, My Life with the Taliban, Zaeef lamented that 'the ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence service] extended its roots deep into Afghanistan like a cancer puts down roots in the human body' — a judgement that one could also find in most Indian writing on Afghanistan. Combine this with India’s recently upgraded training efforts for Afghan forces, and a more complex, pragmatic Indian policy may be emerging.