An agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on February 29, 2020, marks a milestone in America’s longest ever war. Accordingly, the majority of U.S. troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2021. In turn, and if this agreement is successfully implemented, sections of the Taliban could be expected to play a larger role in Afghan politics. This is hardly desirable for a country like India. Indian assets in Afghanistan have been targeted by the Haqqani group, a major Taliban faction. India has also been able to invest in Afghanistan’s future partially because of the presence of U.S.-led troops and the relative stability it brought. With this stability at risk, India needs to urgently reposition its priorities. In these fast-changing times, this paper identifies the risks to India’s continued presence in Afghanistan and recommends a set of strategies to mitigate them.

The first risk has to do with terrorism. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement states that the Taliban will prevent terrorist outfits from operating on Afghan soil, there is little clarity on how the agreement will be verified and enforced. The second risk has to do with the growing influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which shares an undeniable link with the Taliban, especially the Haqqani group. The third risk to India’s long-term interests in Afghanistan has to do with the increasing political instability in Kabul. Notwithstanding a power-sharing agreement signed between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, on May 17, 2020, it is clear that such alliances cannot be taken at face value.

An interlinked set of mitigation strategies could help India protect its interests:

  • Broader Diplomatic Engagement: India should consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to Afghan reconciliation. The envoy can ensure that Indian views are expressed at every meeting, broaden engagement with the Afghan government and other political actors, and reach out to certain Taliban representatives.
  • Continued Training and Investments: India should provide more military training to Afghan security forces and invest in longer-term capacity-building programs. It should actively support and invest in the National Directorate of Security (for example, by providing training and sharing intelligence). Finally, given the continued levels of violence and the impact of the coronavirus on the Afghan economy, India should expand its development assistance.
  • Working With and Through Others: India should look to broaden its engagements with Iran and Russia, explore opportunities for cooperation (as limited as they might be) with China, and find common ground with the United States on Afghanistan’s future. This does not mean forcing competing interests to align; it means investing in a wider diplomatic initiative with the view to carve out areas of convergence.


On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in Doha to end the war in Afghanistan. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released from a Pakistani prison in 2018 and is a deputy to the Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, signed this pivotal agreement. Suspicious of the agreement until the very end, Baradar signed only after Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who has dedicated many years to seeing this deal through, lent his signature to the document. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat in the first row in the audience. A large group of Taliban representatives sat behind, cheering on the Baradar-Khalilzad pact.1

Thousands of miles away, in Kabul, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stood next to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at a news conference and issued a joint declaration. It outlined a four-stage process for a “comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement,” culminating in a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”2 Days earlier, the United States had released joint statements in support of the peace agreement with its coalition partners, as well as the United Nations (UN) and Russia.3

Whether observers like the agreement or not, it is a reality.4 Furthermore, this is a bipartisan issue in the United States. There is “no appetite on either side of the aisle” for keeping troops in the country, argues an expert who has tracked Afghanistan since at least the 1990s.5 The Democratic presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, has clearly stated that “we don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home.”6 He argued that “any residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations.”7 This would mean no more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.8

Soon after Khalilzad signed the agreement with Baradar, U.S. President Donald Trump reminded journalists that “everybody’s tired of war.” The withdrawal, he stated, would “start immediately.”9 A reduction of 9,000 troops, according to a former director in the U.S. National Security Council, “seems to be on track by July 2020.” Beyond that, he suggests, “it is unclear what getting to zero [U.S. troops] will actually mean.” What “intel presence” will be left behind is “also not known.”10 For the most part, despite the ambiguity with regard to the drawdown, it is clear that the United States is going home.

Rudra Chaudhuri
Rudra Chaudhuri is the director of Carnegie India. His research focuses on the diplomatic history of South Asia, contemporary security issues, and the increasingly important role of emerging technologies in diplomacy and statecraft.
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India’s position in this present state of affairs is hardly enviable.11 There is no doubt that the agreement privileges both the Taliban, which may ultimately enter into some form of power-sharing agreement in Kabul, and Pakistan, without whose active support it is unlikely that Taliban leaders like Baradar could have even reached the negotiating table. Baradar was arrested by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in 2010. Ironically, he was arrested because he engaged in unauthorized talks with then Afghan president Hamid Karzai. “The ISI,” argues a close Afghan watcher, “were sending a very clear message to the Taliban leadership: don’t engage in talks without our say-so.”12 In 2018, the ISI gave its nod to the talks. In short, without Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and of the agreement in question, the discussions in Doha would have folded years ago.13

The official Indian position on reconciliation supports “an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process for enduring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.”14 But, as the latest talks show, the process is neither Afghan-led nor Afghan-controlled. It is shepherded and largely controlled by the United States.

The Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. Nevertheless, this paper argues that the cost to India of remaining distant from the ongoing attempts at reconciliation (it has thus far nurtured a relationship mainly with the Afghan government) would likely be much higher than the cost of being involved in them. Being more engaged in international negotiations, and even agreeing to talk to certain sections of the Taliban as part of a broader diplomatic initiative, are options that India can no longer afford to disregard.

Leaving the reconciliation process primarily to an unstable administration in Kabul will do little for India’s long-term interests in Afghanistan. To be sure, the power-sharing agreement that Ghani and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah signed on May 17, 2020, as welcome as it is, provides few guarantees for long-term stability. The fact that the Afghan government, following the February 29 agreement, is more likely than before to be in direct contact with the Taliban provides room for India to reposition its imperatives and to talk to sections within the Taliban, with a clearer sense of political purpose. This is not to suggest, at all, that the democratically elected government in Kabul has passed its political sell-by date. Repositioning Indian imperatives means also remaining ever-connected with the deep ties that India has nurtured with both Ghani and Abdullah. Yet, as this paper suggests, it also means being willing to pivot to the changing realities in Afghanistan and being much more involved in conversations on and around reconciliation than before.

With this in mind, Indian officials and representatives need to urgently answer two questions: first, what are the greatest risks to India given this deal, and second, how best can these risks be mitigated?

This paper begins by providing an assessment of the strategic risks to India, in the context of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and the possibility that the peace agreement may result in parts of the Taliban returning to Kabul. It then provides a short overview of the current peace talks and how they have been viewed in India.

Next, the paper presents three sets of strategic actions that could, at least in part, mitigate the risks in question. These actions include adopting a broader diplomatic engagement strategy that accounts for the need to more urgently engage with all parties to the current conflict; continuing to economically support the democratically elected Afghan government and escalate military assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces; and lastly, working with and through other countries invested in Afghanistan’s future.

After examining why each strategic action might be necessary—to “make the case,” as it were—the paper discusses how to implement these actions, including what policy calibrations will be necessary for long-term mitigation. The paper ends with a short conclusion laying out the potential risks and costs associated with the actions and why these might be more acceptable today because of the U.S. withdrawal and the fast-changing nature of the conflict in Afghanistan.

A caveat is in order: we, the authors of this policy paper, are deeply cognizant of Henry Kissinger’s lasting words: “The analyst can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him.”15 Our aim, as researchers, is to examine only what we can observe. Our analysis is based on trends that we see, and conversations that we have been privy to, through interviews, track 2 meetings, and other meetings between 2008 and the present.

Though this paper offers specific prescriptions for action, its aim, ultimately, is to stimulate debate. In writing it, we are more appreciative than it might seem of two more of Kissinger’s dictums: “The statesman is only permitted one guess,” and “the statesman must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them.”16 In short, the aim of this paper is not to second-guess policy decisions made in the past but to offer a set of strategic actions for the future. As a close Afghan watcher who has spent the past decade tracking this conflict says, “The combination of America leaving, a divided government in Kabul, and now the [coronavirus] crisis” presents “newer and fast changing realities.”17

Lastly, John Lewis Gaddis’s warning about history—that it has a “habit of making bad prophets out of both those who make and those who chronicle it”—remains equally true in contemporary times.18 This paper is based on the premise that the United States will withdraw troops from Afghanistan at some point in the next two years and that the Taliban or parts of the movement, in some form or shape, will be politically represented in Kabul or, at the very least, be more involved than it is at present in Afghanistan’s democratic politics as the troop drawdown is completed. These are the foundational assumptions of our observations and analysis. Should they be wrong, we must be and are prepared to be called poor prophets.19

Assessing Risks

Assessing risks is a risky business. The fields of social and cognitive psychology have a considerable body of literature on how risks are perceived and dealt with. There is general agreement that people in a particular empirical field “simplify reality” according to their schemata or the ways in which they choose to organize knowledge.20 Such would be the case even with Indian decisionmakers’ reading of India’s role in Afghanistan.

Further, the reality in question is dependent, as Robert Jervis has often reminded his readers, on perceptions.21 While the precise relationship between perceptions and reality is a question better left to academic debate, what is important from the point of view of a policy paper such as this one is to recognize that such a relationship exists.

An entity’s perception of risks is, after all, connected to its interests, which, at least in part, are a function of its perceptions of emerging realities.22 George Kennan’s famous Long Telegram was crucial to set the basis of containment at the onset of the Cold War exactly because he was able to identify that the Soviet leadership “relied on the fiction of external threat to maintain its internal legitimacy.” This “fiction” was the Soviet Union’s postwar “reality.” Hence, there was no point, according to Kennan, in attempting to win Stalin over by cooperation.23

In general, it could be said that India’s aim should be to continue to have the ability to be represented in Afghanistan for a long time to come. A “degree of stability and security” allowing “us [India] to be engaged” in Afghanistan is how Rakesh Sood, a former Indian ambassador to the country and former special envoy for disarmament and nonproliferation, summarizes the fundamental elements of Indian interests.24

What is it, then, that puts these interests at risk, especially at a time of withdrawal and peace negotiations?

For Indian decisionmakers, there is a well-founded schemata of the risks to India’s interests. Whether observers agree or disagree with the validity of these risks, they are as real to India as the Trump administration’s perception that it needs to withdraw from this so-called graveyard of empires. These risks are India’s truths. They can be falsified by scholars and practitioners alike—in Washington, London, Islamabad, Berlin, Doha, and elsewhere—but these crystallized perceptions are a part of the Indian leadership’s simplified realities and cannot be wished away by disagreement. From the Indian perspective, the question is how they can be mitigated.


The first set of risks has to do with the possibility of international and regional terrorism. One of the four guiding principles mentioned in the joint declaration between the United States and the Afghan government includes “guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals against the security of the United States and its allies.”25 However well-intentioned these words might be, there is little clarity on how these guarantees will be upheld. After all, the factions to be reconciled will also include those elements who have fronted the ISI’s war against India from within Afghanistan. The evidence supporting this claim is overwhelming.26

The Haqqani group, which continues to be the best armed and trained Taliban faction, has engineered and carried out attacks against Indian assets, including the Indian embassy in Kabul. “The US media,” argues Myra Macdonald, “reported that Washington believed the ISI had provided support for the attack.”27 Given the close connections between the ISI and the Haqqani leadership, it is highly likely that a reconciled Haqqani group will continue with its anti-India agenda.28 Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deputy leader of the Taliban, asserted in the New York Times that it is important to “maintain friendly relations with all countries and take their concerns seriously,” but this does nothing to assuage the concerns of Indian security officials.29 As those who have long studied the Haqqani group confirm, the relationship between the group and the ISI is “still strong.”30

Lastly, the security vacuum created by the U.S.-led drawdown of forces has resulted in the rise of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), a branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State operating in South Asia and Central Asia. This group’s ability to attract radicalized individuals, including from India, and recruit well-trained defectors from Taliban and Pakistani militant groups is a very real threat to India’s future in Afghanistan and the region more broadly.31 An attack on a gurdwara (a place of worship) in Kabul, in March 2020—for which the IS-K claimed responsibility32—is the most telling example of the very real security risks to India’s footprint inside Afghanistan.33 That one of the four IS-K operatives who stormed the gurdwara complex was from Kerala, in the south of India, makes this threat all the more pressing for Indian officials.34

Pakistani Influence

The second related set of risks has to do with the ISI’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. The nexus between the Taliban (especially the Haqqani group) and the ISI underscores Pakistan’s increasing influence within the country. The Taliban leadership may not always see eye to eye with the Pakistani state and the ISI, but the ISI’s influence over the Taliban is undeniable.35 “They are our powerful watchmen” is how one former founding member of the Taliban summarized his relationship with the ISI.36 Given the potential of Taliban representation in Kabul in the near future, this state of affairs is naturally far from comfortable for India.

Shreyas Shende
Shreyas Shende is the executive assistant to the director of Carnegie India and a research assistant in the office.

Divided Afghan Government

The third set of risks has to do with the perpetually divided Afghan government. While a semi-united government led by Ghani and Abdullah might have offered India some options for mitigating the risks mentioned above, such an arrangement seemed unlikely with both sides engaged in a months-long bitter rivalry while violence escalated. The recent political agreement between Ghani and Abdullah, while welcome, does not guarantee political stability.37 The two leaders, on opposing sides until very recently, will now have to find ways to work together. India will need to identify its own strategic actions and not rely on an Afghan-led approach on reconciliation, which carries the risk of disintegrating because of the sharply competing politics and the outsized battle of egos among Afghanistan’s leaders.

Relying primarily on the Afghan government for stability may have sufficed as a strategy until a decade ago, when discussions on withdrawal began to occupy administrative energies in Washington and London.38 To a degree, with some adaptations, it might even have worked until January 2017, when Trump inherited this long war. But, at present, it is simply untenable. “Ashraf and Abdullah” provide “no real equities for our [India’s] long-term interests in Afghanistan,” is how one former senior Indian official put it. “If you want to play a role,” he made clear, “you have to build new equities, without forgetting those you [India] have supported for a long time.”39

While there is some agreement across different Indian government departments and agencies on the risks to India’s interests40—outlined in detail above—there is little clarity on how exactly these risks might be mitigated. In general, the approach so far has been to support the Afghan government economically as well as militarily through providing training and limited security equipment.41

If it is accepted that the majority of U.S.-led troops will soon leave Afghanistan and that there is even a slight chance of the Taliban being politically represented in Kabul, or at least playing a larger role than it currently does, such strategic actions may need to be revised. This is all the more pressing given that the U.S.-Taliban agreement is no longer a theoretical possibility. Its effects can be observed and even measured, as outlined below.

What Is the Deal?

The initiation of formal talks on the U.S.-led withdrawal, coupled with the desperate need for international cooperation following the outbreak of the coronavirus, has led the Taliban to adopt a conciliatory tone in formal pronouncements.42 On March 17, 2020, a Taliban official stated that it was ready to “cooperate and coordinate” with the World Health Organization and other international entities “in combating the coronavirus.”43 In the past, Taliban commanders have considered temporary ceasefires to allow vaccination operations in insurgent strongholds.44 It is clear today that the Taliban’s broader diplomatic engagement has become all the more pronounced because of the complex, ongoing health emergency. But it is also clear that the pandemic will partially delay timelines set out in the agreement signed in Doha.45

The central concern around the U.S.-led exit is not just about the withdrawal of the majority of troops from Afghanistan. It is equally about the minimal force structure that might be left behind for counterterrorism missions. As of now, there is no clarity on the latter.46As Joshua White, a former director in the U.S. National Security Council, puts it, estimating the exact number of troops to be left behind is like entering a “world of unknowns.”47 Promotion of democracy, civil liberties, and women’s rights play a limited role in the United States’ decision to leave quickly. Whether one calls this a withdrawal agreement or the initiation of a peace deal, the proclamations on paper will have some effect on the ground. As it is written, the deal does not insist on a reduction of violence upon signing. In fact, the rising levels of violence in Afghanistan soon after the Taliban applauded the Doha agreement has left the U.S. administration expectantly undeterred.48

Unlike in 2012, when the last round of talks commenced and then failed, in Doha in 2020, the Afghan government and all major stakeholders appear to have been brought on board.49 “This is exactly the kind of process that we would have wanted to follow eight or nine years ago,” argues an official intently involved in the 2012 negotiations. He states that then U.S. president Barack Obama “was not willing to go ahead with the Taliban [in terms of talks]” because “there were many more red lines to consider, including the role of women and democratic rights.” Furthermore, “the Afghan government had more of a hold on the talks, making them difficult to proceed with.” This time, he makes clear, “it’s good that the Americans got past that point.”50 As Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009–13), puts it, there was “no political constituency for supporting negotiations with the Taliban.”51 The fact that “Holbrooke [the U.S. special representative under Obama] hated Karzai” could not have helped.52 The only successful track for reconciliation during this time was the one engineered by Karzai himself—that is, the outreach to former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an action that was “initially opposed” by the U.S. government.53

Given all the history, it is “amazing that Khalilzad has been able to crack on,” says a serving British official.54 This is not to say that the deal has active support from all quarters in Afghanistan—rather that every effort was made by the United States and, in particular, Zalmay Khalilzad to invite support for the agreement from sections of Afghanistan’s leadership that have historically opposed talks with the Taliban.55

In essence, what was signed in Doha and agreed upon in Kabul was a detailed framework for a process that is, theoretically, meant to lead to a lasting settlement. The agreement is divided into two parts. As per the first part, the Taliban are expected to provide “guarantees” and spell out “enforcement mechanisms” to ensure that Afghan soil is not used by any group working against the “security of the United States and its allies.”56 And indeed, after the agreement, Taliban spokespersons have not missed an opportunity to publicly stress that they do not want any “foreign outfit using Afghan soil to target any country.”57

In turn, the United States is expected to provide guarantees, outline enforcement mechanisms, and announce a “timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.” In a secret annexure, according to those who have followed reconciliation attempts since at least 2004, the United States has outlined plans detailing which “military bases will be shut and by when” as the peace talks proceed.58 This is essentially a “ticktock of the drawdown,” as Joshua White argues.59 These details have only been shared with select U.S. legislators.60

Following this reciprocal process of providing guarantees, the Taliban were meant to begin “negotiations with Afghan sides” on March 10, 2020. These negotiations were intended to outline the “modalities of a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire” and what would potentially become a joint Taliban–Afghan government “political roadmap for Afghanistan.”61

A crucial part of this process includes a steady withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—from the current 13,000 troops down to 8,600 by July 12, 2020, or 135 days from the signing of the agreement. This, one observer suggests, “appears to be on track.”62 By April 30, 2021, or fourteen months from the signing of the agreement, the United States and other coalition forces are supposed to completely withdraw from Afghanistan.63

The withdrawal timetable is intended to run in parallel with a plan for the release of both Taliban prisoners held in Afghan jails (up to 5,000 in total) and Afghan government and military personnel held in Taliban captivity (1,000 in total). “This was thrown into the agreement in the last minute by Khalilzad,” an expert following the negotiations argues, “to get the deal over the line.”64

According to Dawood Azami, a BBC journalist and a regional expert, 1,500 Taliban prisoners are supposed to be released in the near term. Following the beginning of negotiations within Afghanistan, 200 Taliban prisoners are to be released every week thereafter.65 This process apparently started in the middle of April 2020 and was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.66 By May 29, 2020, the United States is supposed to commit itself to working with the UN and other allies to remove members of the Taliban from a sanctions list.

As per the second part of this agreement, further verifications are to be conducted to make sure that the Taliban remain detached from al-Qaeda. The Taliban have made clear that other groups that threaten the security of the United States and its allies “have no place in Afghanistan”; its commitment to ensuring this, too, will need to be verified. As mentioned above, the verification process has been kept a secret. The last step is for the UN to recognize and endorse the completion of the agreement.67

For a range of reasons, the timetable for this agreement is not being followed so far. According to experts, Ghani’s desire for “full control” over the intra-Afghan peace process;68 his “immediate and expected refusal” to “agree to the prisoner swap,”69 an important part of the “final deal that he was not fully consulted on by the Americans”;70 and the delays following the outbreak of the coronavirus have set these timelines back by a few months already.71 Apart from not being consulted on the section about prisoner exchanges, the Taliban argue that there is “no reason” for the delays from their end. The main issue, experts claim, is that all sides of the current Afghan government are continuing to “use the deal to get concessions” even after the United States and the Taliban have signed.72

Frustrated with all the other sides involved in the agreement, on March 10, 2020, Pompeo stated that the Taliban’s increase of violent attacks against Afghan civilians was “unacceptable.”73 A few days later, clearly exasperated with the inability of the Afghan leadership to create a unified government in Kabul, Pompeo announced a review of aid assistance to Afghanistan, with the aim of reducing it by $1 billion. He provided an inducement at the same time, however: “Should Afghan leaders choose to form an inclusive government, that can provide security and participate in the peace process,” he made clear, “the United States is prepared to support these efforts and revisit the reviews initiated today.”74

Despite the delays, it remains possible that steps toward meaningful negotiations will commence in the near future. If Pompeo’s billion-dollar threat is anything to go by, the United States will coerce those it can pressure in Kabul and those it has already shaken hands with in Doha to begin the process. To an extent, the pressure the United States is inflicting is paying off. On March 27, 2020, the Afghan government appointed Masoom Stanekzai, the Cambridge-educated former spy chief as the head of a twenty-one-member negotiations team.75 He is, according to an expert who has known him and has followed the peace process for a long time, “easily the best person” to take charge. It means, he argues, that the Ghani government is “now taking this very seriously.”76 What also helps, argues a British official and close Afghan watcher, is that Stanekzai “knows the Taliban.”77 On May 17, 2020, Ghani and Abdullah finally reached a power-sharing agreement. Accordingly, Abdullah, who at this point is considered to be close to Russia, has been made the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. He will lead the negotiations with the Taliban.78 What this means in practice, given the role that Stanekzai was supposed to play, remains unclear.

An Indian Reading

During his recent visit to India, Trump reportedly provided Prime Minister Narendra Modi with certain “guarantees” about Taliban reconciliation. “India need not worry” is how one official summarized Trump’s message to Modi.79 Broad and ambiguous guarantees such as these are unlikely to satisfy the concerns of Indian officials—and neither should they. After all, these officials emphasize, with Trump, “anything is possible.”80

Most Indian experts make clear that the deal is “entirely one-sided.” Essentially, the argument goes, this is a withdrawal agreement that has left Afghanistan at the mercy of both the Taliban and Pakistan.81 The fact that U.S. legislators briefed on the more secret aspects of the deal have asked whether the Trump administration has basically handed Afghanistan to the Taliban will only strengthen Indian officials’ belief that the deal is nothing less than a sellout.82 This is the majority view. Even those in India who have historically supported speaking with the Taliban are unconvinced by the merits of the agreement signed in Doha.

At least one former senior Indian official, who has spent considerable time in Afghanistan, views the current negotiations as a means by which the United States is seeking to “reposition itself.” According to their reading, the Trump administration has reached the conclusion that a deal with the “Taliban may provide greater stability” in Afghanistan. The fact that “Baradar is directly talking to Trump” is telling. Khalilzad, they argue, “really believes that a deal is still possible,” one way or another.83

One person closely involved in the negotiations argued that Khalilzad “gave them [the Taliban] a lot of credibility”—in fact, more than was needed. He has made the Taliban believe, wrongly, that “they are more powerful than they actually are.”84 In turn, the Taliban are a lot more prepared today, argues a British official, than they ever have been. Khalilzad, the official emphasizes, “learnt the right lessons” from the “light touch” approach eight years ago. The bottom line is that the “Americans are willing to go where they weren’t in 2012.”85 It is increasingly clear that the Taliban, or some part of the group, will likely be a constituency in the political future of Afghanistan.

No doubt, the idea of dealing directly with the Taliban is a bitter one for Indian officials and the larger Indian population, and for good reason. This was the group that escorted terrorists into Pakistan following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999.86 As Arun Singh, the former Indian ambassador to the United States, recollects, during the hijacking, “it was painfully revealed to us that India had no outreach to the structures dominating Afghanistan then.”87 After all, the Taliban, supported by the Pakistani state, remained antagonistic to India throughout their time in power between 1996 and 2001. Equally, for Indian officials, there was little or no merit in engaging directly with the Taliban because of their close ties to the ISI. Further, one key Taliban faction, the Haqqani group, remains firmly anti-Indian.88 Supported by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, they have done the bidding of the ISI for a very long time.89 They, without a doubt, represent the best bet the Pakistani establishment has of playing a significant role in the future of an as-yet indeterminate Afghan state.

Further, Indian experts often make the case that talking to the Taliban is of no value given the organization’s near-complete reliance on the Pakistani state.90 After all, Taliban families continue to live under the close watch of the ISI, and Pakistani minders shadow Taliban leaders in their engagements with the international community.

Nevertheless, the agreement is underway. And whether India likes it or not, some version of the Taliban will contribute to the future of Afghanistan’s political life. If India wants to protect its fundamental interests—of remaining engaged in Afghanistan and being able to support an independent government—it will have to make some uncomfortable choices and reposition its strategic actions with a view to mitigating the risks identified by its own officials and diplomats.

As Rakesh Sood argues, there are two choices before the Indian government. First, it can “wait and watch” to see if Ghani and Abdullah are able to mend fences and provide a degree of political stability. Second, given the “enormous instability” that looms large, in order to remain “engaged in Afghanistan in the future,” India may have to build “new equities.” This will require India to be “actively involved” and, equally important, “to be seen to be actively involved” in a wider set of international and national conversations.91 This paper strongly advocates the latter approach.

Mitigation Strategies: Broader Diplomatic Engagement

The Case

Successive Indian governments have been consistent in lending support to an Afghan-led reconciliation process. In 2011, the Congress-led government of then prime minister Manmohan Singh took what was considered a “leap of faith” when it supported such a program.92 India’s commitment continues to the present day. In a letter delivered to Ghani a day before the Khalilzad-Baradar pact was signed, Modi wrote, “We also remain committed to our principled position of support for an inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace and reconciliation process.”93

The strategy of working primarily through the Afghan government has, for a long time, been an unrealistic one. That Ghani and Abdullah cannot agree on a unified vision for the state, and until very recently on a national government, is not surprising. In a bizarre development, on March 9, 2020, both Ghani and Abdullah held parallel presidential swearing-in ceremonies in Kabul. Although Ghani was declared the winner of the 2019 presidential election by the country’s Independent Election Commission, Abdullah cried foul and created his own “inclusive government.”94 Even Khalilzad could not broker peace between the two Afghan leaders, argues Abdullah Khenjani, the former editor-in-chief at Tolo TV, an Afghan television station.95

For Pompeo, according to a longtime Afghan watcher, “Ghani lost credibility” as a result of the increasingly divided state of politics in Kabul. There is, according to this expert, “a significant cooling” in the U.S.-Ghani relationship. He argued that though “you won’t see the Afghan administration crumble,” new configurations will emerge in this time of instability.96 The failure of Afghan leaders, some experts argue, has not only negatively impacted the credibility of the Afghan political class but also “its legitimacy.”97 The May 17 agreement may have returned a degree of legitimacy to both Ghani and Abdullah, but whether or not this will actually lead to stability is questionable. Given the acrimonious recent past, whether or not they will be able to agree on matters of national importance, such as dealing with the Taliban,98 or broader governance issues like the appointment of provincial governors, are political tests that cannot be banked on. In sum, for India, the urgency of adopting a broader diplomatic strategy is as pressing today as it was prior to the Ghani-Abdullah agreement.

Afghan insiders like Khenjani, who have historically been well disposed toward India, argue that “New Delhi waited too long on the peace process” and that despite its “enormous leverage and capital” in Kabul, it consciously pushed itself to “irrelevance.”99 An attendee at the signing ceremony in Doha argues that India’s official position—that it will work only through the Ghani-led government and not “annoy” it—has “distanced” India from a process that is shaped only in part by Ghani.100 Ghani and Abdullah realize that the Afghan government has limited agency in seeing the deal through.101 That “Ghani has less leverage” now than before in this entire process and in the agreement is clear to experts and practitioners alike.102

In short, it is becoming increasingly apparent with each passing day that the strategy of working through the Afghan government needs to be adapted. Senior Indian officials who have long followed the politics of Afghanistan suggest that if and when direct negotiations between the Taliban and the democratic government in Kabul begin, it would be prudent for India to “visualize scenarios” that would require “spreading the net wide,” including “within parts of the Taliban” in the context of such a peace process.103 Other Indian experts state bluntly that, for India, talking to the Taliban before it is a “part of the formal governing arrangement” is “the only way forward.”104 At the same time, engaging in talks with certain sections of the Taliban does not mean playing a central role in an otherwise uncertain process—in fact, it is not clear whether India can or should do this. Rather, it would mean seeking to ensure that India’s voice and concerns are represented in every opportunity for dialogue and retaining the advantage of building bridges.

As Lawrence Freedman concludes in his masterly account of conflict in the Middle East, all too often states tend to “describe enemies in overly stark terms.” More often than not, they view them as “having an unrealistic homogeneity” and miss out on “their internal conflicts and potential for implosion.”105 Directly speaking with those in the Taliban who are able and willing to listen would allow India the advantage of making the best of the political implosions that are likely to occur in the future.

As far as the Taliban’s ability to engage with India is concerned, Azami, who was present in Doha in February 2020, argues that “the mainstream Taliban is very careful with India.” They are not always, he suggests, as “trapped by their Pakistani handlers” as it might seem. There are parts of the Taliban, he makes clear, that “are open to working with India.”106 Interviews with Taliban commanders and former Taliban officials suggest that there is a smaller, older, and still effective part of the insurgency that is open to talks with India.107 One former Indian official who supports adopting a broader diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan argues that “engaging with both the Kabul- and Doha-based elements of the Taliban” makes sense only when the Ghani-led government directly negotiates with the Taliban.108

However, as this paper makes clear, a revised diplomatic strategy should include talking to sections of the Taliban as soon as is possible. As David Loyn, an expert on Afghanistan, argues, with the “prisoner releases being authorized and put in practice,” and with the appointment of Stanekzai and then Abdullah to lead the negotiations on behalf of the government in Kabul, “the prospect of some Taliban representation in Kabul is more likely than it has ever been.”109 This is the reality that India faces. This is not to say that the state administration in Kabul will weaken to the extent of irrelevance—“this is highly unlikely,” according to Gautam Mukhopadhaya, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), supported by a staunchly anti-Taliban administration, is well capable of continuing to support the democratically elected leadership in Kabul, he suggests. Mukhopadhaya also underlines that his views on Afghanistan’s future “are not necessarily in consonance” with those presented in this paper.110 But the potential of change and challenge is worrisome, and this is where India needs to do more to prepare for the future.

This is not to suggest that a wider and a better-networked approach will in any way directly give India an opportunity to offset the risks described in this paper. Rather, India must seek to diversify its equities in Afghanistan, including with parts of the Taliban. India will need to carefully consider who in the group it will engage with. To plan these advances, it can rely at least partially on past experiences. According to Avinash Paliwal, the author of a substantial book on India and Afghanistan, “India has,” in the last few years, “reached out to the Taliban.”111

Whether it is through Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) or on their own, Indian intelligence agencies have long had contacts with various factions within the Taliban. Turning these sporadic intelligence-led outreach operations into a sustainable diplomatic strategy will require administrative reorganization.

Pivoting to these new realities will have the added advantage of also capitalizing on what Freedman describes as the fundamentally “argumentative” nature of radical groups like the Taliban. Here, it is worth keeping in mind what Freedman refers to as one of the truisms of radical insurgent groups: their “capacity” to “fracture and overplay what are often poor hands.”112

Policy Calibrations

India might consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to Afghan reconciliation. A serving senior diplomat in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) or a retired ambassador with experience in Afghanistan would be the ideal choice. The envoy could make sure that India’s views are heard at every meeting and conference on reconciliation. Further, the special envoy could look to enter into discussions with Taliban representatives or former representatives who have not been disowned by the movement. Such Taliban influencers are easy to access and are open to dialogue with Indian officials.

To be sure, the question of whether or not Indian representatives should directly engage with the Taliban has been debated in India for years.113 The idea of a special envoy has been “floating around for a long time,” within the MEA as well as India’s National Security Council (NSC). It is, according to some former officials, “positively necessary.”114

As mentioned above, Indian intelligence officers have connected with Taliban fighters in the past—through the NDS as well as through Iran.115 These contacts were largely established to help secure the release of kidnapped Indian engineers and personnel working in Afghanistan. For instance, retired Indian officials met with former but influential Taliban leaders for talks in London as far back as 2011.116 Even as recently as 2018, during peace talks with the Taliban in Moscow, India was represented by two former senior diplomats at a nonofficial level.117 Reportedly, India coordinated its participation in Moscow with the Afghan government.

In addition to ensuring that India is heard, an envoy committed to reconciliation could keep abreast of the fast-moving changes within Afghanistan and remain in constant touch with once staunchly anti-Taliban leaders in the Afghan government who have now offered rhetorical support for the peace process. For instance, in an article he authored in Time magazine, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who was targeted by the Haqqani group in a daring attack on the first day of his political campaign in 2019, has advocated for the need to “change the past and make ourselves peace builders.”118

In the past, Saleh had routinely warned international visitors and the Afghan government of Pakistani duplicity and had argued that speaking to the Taliban was futile.119 Yet, today, whether “he likes it or not,” it is clear that he cannot afford to “resist the U.S. demand for peace talks,” according to those who have known him for a long time.120 Interviews with those from the Panjshir Valley, Saleh’s home base, suggest that he is still a “strong anti-Pakistani voice,” but even he “can’t openly challenge the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan the way he used to.”121

There are many in Saleh’s camp, in northern Afghanistan, who are unwilling to support any form of reconciliation with the Taliban. In addition to connecting with external actors and the Taliban, the envoy would need to keep channels open with detractors, many of whom have helped India greatly in the past. Partially centralizing such advances around the office of one dedicated envoy would help form a bridge for the many departments that deal with Afghanistan, improve coordination on India’s position, and help preserve institutional memory. It would also allow other external actors to connect with one central office when it comes to Afghanistan, rather than working through multiple Indian agencies and ministries.

There is, according to former senior Indian officials, “a strange resistance” to the appointment of a special envoy. Bureaucratic turf-protection is cited as the most common reason for the objection.122 No doubt, a position such as this requires the support of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the MEA, the NSC, and the embassy in Kabul. A special envoy would need an office space where she or he could, as and when necessary, study classified cables and access files. This would need to be in a government office. According to Shakti Sinha, who was the private secretary to former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and also the head of development and governance in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the position would require the “complete support of the prime minister.”123

This will not be easy. Take the case of Satinder Lambah, former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy on Pakistan. Lambah shaped what came to be called the “four-step formula” for peace between India and Pakistan.124 He enjoyed the support of the prime minister. Yet he was often received with curt welcomes from senior diplomats within the MEA. Whether he was visiting Kabul or Bonn, Germany, he could not be sure of receiving “support on the ground” from within the Indian administration.125 As Rakesh Sood puts it, getting “support from different parts of government” is “the most difficult part of the job.”126 Indeed, even as special representatives in the United States have learned, positions such as these are as much about jostling internally as they are about being effective externally—a balance that is perilously difficult to get right.127 Khalilzad is perhaps one of the few envoys who has mastered the art of bureaucratic politics of this nature.

In India, there is precedence for such a position. In 2015, the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed the former director of the Intelligence Bureau, Asif Ibrahim, as special envoy for counterterrorism and extremism.128 Furthermore, following the Indian general election in 2019, the MEA has demonstrated an incredible ability to pivot to new administrative structures,129 free up time and space for strategic thinking by appointing empowered additional secretaries, and bring on board senior experts of the rank of additional secretary as policy advisers.130

If there is an MEA that has an appetite for risk-taking and out-of-the-box solutions, it is the one in place today. If the term “special envoy” is the problem, the position could perhaps instead be titled the senior policy adviser to the foreign minister. No matter what administrative formula works best, what will be essential, according to a person who has held the post of special envoy in the past, is a degree of “strategic clarity” on the scope of the position and the authority that derives from it, coupled with “the support of the prime minister.”131

Mitigation Strategies: Continued Training and Investments

The Case

In mid-November 2001, only six weeks after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan began, a team, led by Lambah and including Arun Singh and Mukhopadhaya, was headed to Kabul to open the Indian embassy after a hiatus of five years. Singh was then a joint secretary in the MEA and later became the Indian ambassador to the United States. The embassy had been hurriedly closed in September 1996, following the Taliban’s march into Kabul.132 Mukhopadhaya was to serve as the first Indian chargé d’affaires in a “liberated” Afghanistan. He would return to the country as the Indian ambassador in 2013. In his two-decade long engagement with the country, the only constant feature, he argues, was the high potential for “sudden surprises.”133

While a special envoy or adviser might be charged with centralizing India’s approach to reconciliation, to support democratic forces within the country, it will also be critical to continue to train the ANSF and provide development assistance to Afghanistan. By supporting such forces, through the Afghan government and the administrative states, India can greatly improve its chances of mitigating the risk of capitulation and the growing risks of international and anti-Indian terrorism.

The growth of international terrorist groups operating out of Afghanistan has been a key concern for Indian officials. Between 2001 and roughly 2012, Indian sleuths focused on groups such as al-Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the 313 Brigade, led by Ilyas Kashmiri.134 Killed in a drone attack in June 2011, Kashmiri was a contact for David Headley, the one-time U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency informant who ran surveillance operations for the LeT in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, prior to the terrorist attacks on the city in 2008.135 Reportedly, even Osama bin Laden attended an “extraordinary planning meeting” in Pakistan between the ISI, LeT, and al-Qaeda on the Mumbai attacks.136

The fact that Headley received directions from the Pakistani ISI is beyond doubt.137 Further, it is indisputable that both the LeT and the 313 Brigade sheltered Taliban fighters in Pakistan.138 The intermingling of these organizations, as well as the permanency of the Haqqani group, continues to present a nightmare scenario for Indian agencies.139 That Sirajuddin Haqqani—a designated “global terrorist” on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted list—authored an op-ed in the New York Times on the conditions for peace almost defies belief.140

Since 2012, Taliban leaders have claimed that it is “a given” that they will delink from groups like al-Qaeda. This, they suggest, became a lot easier after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.141 The Taliban has been less clear about its association with the LeT, whose members Taliban commanders have often passionately referred to as “freedom fighters.”142 LeT fighters have also been found on the battlefield in southern Afghanistan.143According to Joshua White, “the LeT is a marginal threat to the U.S. homeland and its treaty allies.” It is unlikely that the role of the LeT is of “major importance” in the current negotiations with the Taliban. “India,” he argues, “will need to fight for its own interests.”144

One of the main efforts of the special envoy, and the Indian government more generally, could be to convince the United States to adopt a wider view of terrorism as the negotiations with the Taliban fructify, including on questions such as the role of the LeT in Afghanistan. Though India may not immediately see outcomes from this effort, greater engagement has more upsides than remaining on the margins. Further, by engaging in a wider set of discussions on the peace talks, the envoy could ascertain the exact role that the anti-Indian Haqqani group will play in the future of Afghanistan. After all, this is a group that will, without doubt, continue to be closely associated with the ISI.145

In addition, the growth of the IS-K is of vital interest to Indian officials. Its first recorded activity dates back to 2015.146 In 2019 alone, the UNAMA attributed 157 terrorist incidents to the IS-K. They resulted in over 300 civilian deaths and left more than 900 injured.147 Reportedly, the IS-K includes individuals who have defected from the Taliban, former members of Pakistani militant groups like the LeT, and younger and more radical individuals who see little merit in peace. These include radicalized Indian nationals,148 including one who was involved in the attack on the gurdwara in Kabul on March 25, 2020. The attackers were subsequently killed by Afghan security forces.149

The Indian operative came from Kerala, in southern India. If the IS-K continues to grow in strength, the possibility that Indians will be radicalized remains high, according to officials. The IS-K has a proven ability to radicalize individuals, such as those from India who have spent time in the Persian Gulf.150 Equally, Indian security practitioners worry about the very real risks associated with returning Indian IS-K fighters.

It remains unclear who financially supports the IS-K. According to a former director in the NSC Secretariat, “the IS-K is a creature of many parts, sometimes acting with the Taliban, sometimes violently against it, sometimes prioritizing business operations, and at all times, opaque about who it takes orders from.”151 After the Doha meeting, reports from the eastern Afghan province of Kunar highlighted the fact that disaffected Taliban fighters were being recruited into IS-K.152 Many of these erstwhile Taliban fighters disagree with the efforts at peace led by their one-time leaders in Doha, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “These groups of disaffected fighters,” argues White, are the “most dangerous” parts of the IS-K’s growing footprint within Afghanistan.153 The IS-K’s operational-level alliances are murky at best. According to Hanif Atmar, a former Afghan national security adviser, the Taliban are allied with the IS-K in the north of Afghanistan.154

In other areas, there is growing evidence of a sharp divide between the Taliban and the IS-K. In fact, according to one expert, “there are increasing numbers of credible reports that the U.S. military and the Taliban are actively coordinating operational activity against the IS-K.”155 This perhaps partially explains why Trump has unhesitatingly labeled the Taliban as “tough people” who he expects will fight the IS-K alongside Afghan forces.156 Whether this is actually possible in the long run after the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops is another matter altogether. Will the Taliban continue to fight the IS-K following the withdrawal? Will the Haqqanis refrain from attacking Indian assets? Will the Taliban leadership be able to honor its pledge to remove all “foreign outfits,” including the LeT, from “Afghan soil”?

Policy Calibrations

To mitigate the very serious risks associated with these questions, whose answers are difficult to ascertain, India will need to make its support to the ANSF a priority. Although placing boots on the ground would do nothing for India, as the potential costs would massively outweigh the estimated benefits, India could continue to provide much needed military support to Afghan forces. India began training Afghan troops on Indian soil as far back as 2003 and has since then trained thousands.157 India offers tailor-made courses on “Military Policing Cadre” for the Afghan National Army.158 It also offers courses for capacity building and professional enhancement.159 In late 2019, India provided basic weapons training and leadership skills to an all-women batch of the Afghan army and air force for the third year in a row.160

To derive the full benefits of the initiatives outlined above, according to Indian intelligence officers, India could offer a detailed “long-term capacity building” plan with a funding commitment for the next five years.161 Accordingly, training will need to be designed over the long term. Paliwal suggests focusing on special operations training. India’s Special Group, he argues, could be doing much more with its Afghan counterparts.162 Having studied in detail the role played by successive International Security Assistance Force commanders in Afghanistan, Loyn argues that militaries quite easily adjust their training practices to achieve maximum effect. The “configuration of the U.S. training mission in Afghanistan,” argues Loyn, changed in 2014. The United States switched from focusing on training at the level of a corps command to the training of more “granular forces,” with a view to creating pockets of specialized cadres.163 This kind of specialized training could easily be conducted by the Indian military and paramilitary on Indian soil.

Further, intelligence sharing will be a critical aspect of India’s requirements before it undertakes future investments in Afghanistan. Since the U.S. administration remains ambiguous about sharing details on the Taliban’s compliance—essential details in any peace deal—India will need to access this information on its own. India, according to a former senior U.S. NSC staffer, “has very deep ties to the NDS.”164 It will remain an essential agency for India, and actively supporting and investing in its growth is in India’s national security interest.

“The Afghan agency,” argues Paliwal, “is deeply militarized, but has limited research and analysis capability.” India has trained NDS officers in the past. It could, more easily than other countries, double down on these efforts. While there is always the risk of “ISI penetration,” strong vetting could overcome this challenge, he suggests.165 Apart from providing military assistance, India has also invested significantly in Afghanistan.166 Thus far, India has committed $3 billion in assistance toward development.167 While Indian aid is not at the same level as that provided by the West, its efforts are widely considered to be “cost-effective and relevant.”168 Indo-Afghan cooperation has also created the conditions for an economic partnership that is growing steadily. Bilateral trade between the two nations is at $1.5 billion.169 Since the commencement of an air freight corridor in 2017, over 500 flights have ferried more than 5,000 metric tons of cargo directly benefiting Afghan farmers and small traders.170

To be sure, pivoting to a development-led strategy as far back as 2001 required a degree of creativity and drive. The United States, then, did not want too deep an Indian involvement. Indian diplomats, like Arun Singh, found themselves rethinking engagement strategies that would be “least controversial” and at the same time have the potential to “achieve tremendous impact.” Development goals initially focusing on “quick delivery” were the answer. India invested in buses, provided medicines, and later invested in large infrastructure projects. These decisions, taken at a time of rapid and dramatic change, were crucial in generating the goodwill that is so often directed toward India by local Afghans.171

More recently, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, India gifted 500,000 tablets of hydroxychloroquine and 100,000 tablets of paracetamol to Afghanistan.172 Around the same time, India also gifted 75,000 metric tons of wheat to the country. The first consignment, consisting of 251 containers of 5,022 metric tons of wheat, routed via Chabahar port,173 reached Herat on April 23.174 India is also readying rapid response teams to help Afghanistan (as well as neighbors such as Bangladesh and Bhutan) deal with the coronavirus pandemic.175 These teams will help set up coronavirus testing laboratories and train local medical professionals to fight the pandemic.

Currently, high levels of uncertainty within Afghanistan, coupled with the virus-hit economy in India, could strengthen the argument that India should simply wait and watch before investing further. But in fact, now more than before, India should make its presence felt through further development assistance. Continuing to provide training and assistance, and even escalating their levels, is a crucially important way to achieve India’s long-term goal of being able to function in a relatively stable Afghan state.

Mitigation Strategies: Working With and Through Others

The Case

In July 2019, addressing the World Peace Forum in Beijing, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai told a room full of diplomats and journalists that the role played by China and Russia in Afghanistan’s future is of “significant importance.”176 Karzai, who negotiators blame for dashing the prospects for peace talks in 2012,177 then went a step further. China, Karzai made plain, can play the “role of [a] guarantor of [a] peace process after [the] U.S. exit from Afghanistan.” Russia, he continued, could partner with China. He concluded by stating that “India, Pakistan, Iran and others” could be involved.

Karzai did clarify that he was not advocating Chinese “boots on the ground.” He was suggesting greater Chinese involvement in “more political and diplomatic terms.”178 What exactly he meant by that remains unclear. The statement was startling to say the least, especially to the Americans and Indians in the audience. For most observers, Karzai oversold, by a wide mark, the potential role that China and Russia can actually play in Afghanistan.179

Yet it is clear that China and Russia want in. The Trump administration’s retreat from internationalism (most evident in its preference for limited multilateralism and selective trade) has no doubt left vacuums to be filled by others. In the case of Afghanistan, every time the talks led by the United States have faltered, either Russia or China has stepped in. China and Russia’s “influence on the Taliban and Pakistan,” one observer argues, is “critical” in the peace process.180 Another put it down as “modestly helpful.”181 Either way, it has been important. After all, both China and Russia want U.S. troops out and a stable government to be left behind.

How can India leverage these fault lines in an increasingly fragmented Afghanistan? The Indian embassy in Kabul, the MEA more generally, and various Indian agencies as part of their routine business, of course, remain closely connected with other countries and have been engaging with them about their interactions with Afghanistan. If the above risks are to be mitigated, India must center these activities around the office of a special envoy, agree to talk with parts of the Taliban, and use every available opportunity to secure India’s primary goal of a stable Afghanistan. These imperatives are a lot more urgent today than they were even a year ago, precisely because of the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

This is why, according to Sood, “everyone is in dialogue with the Taliban.”182 Countries are hedging their bets. Some, like Iran and Russia, pivoted to these changing realities well before the talks in Doha even looked possible. To minimize risks to its long-term engagement in Afghanistan, and with a view to further developing its own equities before the withdrawal is completed (potentially sometime in late 2021), India could deepen a number of existing relationships.

Policy Calibrations

First, it could continue to work through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Afghanistan Contact Group. Established in 2017, the same year India became a full member of the SCO,183 the Contact Group has held three meetings (in 2017, 2018, and 2019) to discuss the process of intra-Afghan reconciliation.184 India participated in the meetings in 2018 and 2019. This forum affords India the possibility of some degree of cooperation even with China.

To date, Indian bilateral coordination with China to engage the Taliban has been nonexistent.185 China, which is opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, welcomed the signing of the peace deal in Doha.186 Following the failure of the first round of talks in Doha in 2012, Chinese leaders hosted a Taliban delegation in late 2014.187 In 2019, China held two meetings with the Taliban (one in June and another in September) just as talks between the United States and the Taliban broke down.188 The one objective that is common to both India and China, at least to an extent, is that both the countries oppose the growth of the IS-K.

This commonality provides grounds for a degree of cooperation. To be clear, nothing can be expected from China as far as the growth of Pakistani-supported groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the LeT inside Afghanistan is concerned. Cooperation will need to be restricted to the IS-K. There is already a mechanism through which this can happen. At an informal trilateral Russia-India-China Summit in 2019, Modi designated the promotion of counterterrorism as a key area in which the three nations could coordinate.189 This platform could focus narrowly on tracking the expansion of the IS-K, exchanging intelligence (as limited as it might be) on the group’s leadership, and potentially also on tracking its sources of funding. This is, of course, a difficult proposition given China’s close ties to Pakistan, but there is no reason not to invest further in a mechanism that has the blessings of the three state leaders.

Second, India can do more with Russia. Ghani remains wary of Russia’s advance, especially as the ties between Russia and sections of the Taliban have grown.190 But these associations with Russia are exactly the kind that India may need, which will allow it to leverage the otherwise strong ties between the two countries. Russia’s approach seems to have been to support the negotiations in Doha and also open a direct and official line of contact with the Taliban. In January 2017, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Moscow with the aim of securing a place for India in Russian-led discussions on Afghanistan.191 This led to India’s inclusion in what came to be known as the six-party talks, convened in February 2017, to discuss the future of Afghanistan.192

In early 2019, Moscow hosted two meetings with Afghan leaders.193 When talks between the United States and the Taliban broke down later in the year, Russia hosted a Taliban delegation and urged them to “relaunch the negotiations.”194 Following the signing of the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, the former put out a joint statement with Russia reiterating that peace can be achieved only through “an inclusive negotiated political settlement among Afghans.”195 Though Russia welcomes India’s participation at forums to discuss the Afghan peace process,196 it has worked in a limited capacity with India, a key reason for which has been India’s reluctance to publicly engage the Taliban. If this impediment were to change, and India were to invest in a long-term risk mitigation strategy, there would be greater potential for cooperation with Russia, a strategic partner that India supported in Afghanistan, even during the trying years of the 1980s.

Third, Iran has served as India’s best bet for intelligence collection in southern and southwestern Afghanistan.197 Despite Iran’s bitter history with the Taliban, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that “it would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban.”198 Iran has in the recent past reportedly lent active support to Taliban factions,199 possibly with a view to ensuring that it has access to a future Afghan government with potential Taliban membership. It is, according to a senior Indian official, “politically the most important country in Afghanistan after the United States and Pakistan.” They “can’t be trusted,” argues this official, who has years of experience working with Iran, but their “contacts are extensive” and very useful to India.200

Iran, argues another official, can “provide real-time intelligence on the Haqqanis and the Pakistanis.”201 Indeed, as Paliwal notes, Iran’s engagement with the Taliban since 2015 has played a key role in breaking the movement’s coherence. “Apart from U.S. airstrikes and ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] ops,” he argues, “the biggest challenge Pakistan faced in its management of Afghanistan’s militant landscape was from Iran.” In the past, India has relied on Iran to “covertly reach out to select Taliban factions.”202

However, to make the best of this relationship in the near future, India will need to strengthen its strategic ties with Iran. Consider, for instance, its response to Iran during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the world’s democracies, India has been a leader in providing supplies to different corners of the globe.203 Tellingly, and at the time of writing, Iran’s request for medical supplies is currently “under process.”204 India’s muted response can be attributed to a downturn in its ties with Iran. While India has consistently attempted to balance its relationships with Iran and the United States,205 recent and repeated Iranian criticism of India’s domestic policies has been a point of contention.206 This is a relationship that will require greater diplomatic investment on both sides—welcome in itself, but particularly important because of the role Iran continues to exercise in Afghanistan.

Fourth, while the United States is in the driving seat at least for now, as far as reconciliation is concerned, there has historically been limited coordination between the United States and India. The reason, in one sense, is simple: as one Indian official in Kabul argued as far back as 2010, “the United States has always switched on and switched off when it comes to India, here in this country [Afghanistan].”207 Between 2001 and 2009, the George W. Bush administration was resistant to Indian involvement in Afghanistan.208 It was the new Afghan government in November 2001 that ensured India’s return to Kabul and unhesitatingly supported India’s presence in the country.

Between 2009 and 2014, Obama’s White House invested some effort in a regional approach.209 The underlying idea was simple: instability in Afghanistan, according to Obama’s point person on the new strategy, was directly connected to instability in Pakistan and vice versa. The strategy was articulated in a white paper published in March 2009. A part of the strategy—although it was not explicitly mentioned in the white paper—was to try and build bridges between India and Pakistan.210

Pressured by Pakistan, the United States brought the conflict in Kashmir back into sharp focus for the first time since the early 1990s. During his presidential campaign, Obama spoke of the need for a U.S. special envoy to ease tensions in South Asia, with a view to convincing Pakistan, as he put it, “to focus on the biggest threat . . . coming from the Afghan border.”211

The Obama team’s hypothesis was, essentially, that “the road to Kabul runs through Kashmir.”212 For Pakistan, the game plan was simple. This was an opportunity to once again internationalize the Kashmir dispute.213 Endless track 1.5 and track 2 meetings were conducted in London, Oslo, Dubai, Istanbul, Berlin, Bangkok, and other places to support this process. The aim was to test the Kashmir-to-Kabul thesis, as well as explore the potential for peace in Afghanistan.214

These talks played a significant role in bringing important and challenging ideas to the table for consideration between Indian and Pakistani influencers and officials. They ultimately led to roundtables outside of Afghanistan, such as the one between Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef (the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan) and Indian, Afghan, Pakistani, British, and American officials, former officials, and experts in London on the potential for reconciliation.215 Zaeef had earlier, at Kabul University, organized a meeting between Taliban representatives and American officials.216

These discussions helped build bridges where none existed. But they also made clear that the idea of solving the Kashmir problem, with a view to easing Pakistani anxieties in Afghanistan, was simply too complicated. The effort paid no dividends. As the officials tried to follow through, all the approach did was aggravate relations between the United States and India, which blocked the strategy,217 and also the United States and Pakistan, which remained disappointed by its failure. But as late as 2015, despite these failures, Obama-era officials argued that more should have been done to stabilize the region “by balancing power between India and Pakistan.”218

This context is crucial for anyone seeking to understand how Indian officials who have long worked on Afghanistan view the United States with regard to India’s interests in Afghanistan today. There is little doubt that much of Indian development activity in Afghanistan, from building roads to running hospitals, was possible because of the stability provided by the U.S.-led military footprint in the country. This they readily accept. But when it comes to actual cooperation today, the situation leaves much to be desired. According to White, “more could be done” to “coordinate the supply of military hardware to the ANSF.” Coordination on this front has been the practice in the past, argues the former director in the U.S. NSC.219

Everyday diplomatic engagement will, of course, continue on Afghanistan, in New Delhi, Washington, and Kabul. If, as this paper has suggested, a special envoy or senior adviser were to be appointed, more could be done to stay regularly in touch with both Khalilzad and his office as well as different parts of the U.S. administration focused on Afghanistan. At present, the engagement appears to be sporadic and very public. Following his calls with the Indian foreign minister, Khalilzad does not miss the opportunity to untactfully tweet about it or publicly declare that he “welcomes Indian engagement in regional and international efforts.”220

On a visit to New Delhi in May 2020, Khalilzad met with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Doval and noted that a key focus of his discussion was to get India to “take a more active role in the peace process.”221 True to style, Khalilzad publicly stated that India is an “important force” in Afghanistan and even suggested that India should engage with all the key Afghan players, including the Taliban.222 Speaking to sections of the Taliban might be necessary for India but not because of the U.S. imperative to sign onto an agreement with the view to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Despite the limited nature of cooperation on Afghanistan, and notwithstanding the recent historical contours that shape this process, there are three common aims and areas of interest between India and the United States: the desire for stability in Afghanistan, the need to identify the IS-K as the enemy, and the need to ensure that Afghanistan should not be used as a launch pad by international terrorists. The three areas of divergence and difference are the United States’ reliance on Pakistan, its increasing reliance on the Taliban, and its muted response when it comes to Pakistani terrorist groups such as the LeT.

Keeping these convergences and differences in mind, the contours of which are unlikely to change in the near future, limited cooperation is more than possible today. Further, agreeing to speak to certain sections of the Taliban, appointing a special envoy to remain constantly connected with the multiple stakeholders on Afghanistan, and leveraging the close relationship between Modi and Trump—to the extent that this is possible—will be imperative when India designs its own path.


There are costs to every strategy of action. If India were to consider appointing a special envoy, speaking directly to the Taliban, and seriously consider escalating military assistance to the ANSF—both of which this paper strongly advocates—it would no doubt invite opposition from the Ghani-led government (which itself is struggling with the question of Taliban negotiations), Pakistan (which remains opposed to everything India does in Afghanistan),223 and other quarters. Though the situation is in flux, India will need to conduct a detailed net assessment of the political costs to its interests. The key will be to find an equilibrium between approaches to its strategy that are necessarily paradoxical, as such approaches often are.

However, the potential costs should not become excuses to ignore the urgent need to politically reassess the current shifts underway in Afghanistan. As much as the analysis in this paper has been based on a close reading of these shifting realities, it has also been written keeping in mind the Indian state’s emphatic ability to pivot to “uncharted initiatives.” India’s recent history is full of examples where it took bold decisions, rather than, as a former Indian national security adviser puts it, “letting sleeping dogs lie.”224

The Modi government has shown that it can “look beyond dogma,”225 whether it is through a willingness to use force in Pakistan; to build stronger relations with the Middle East; to capture Trump’s imagination; to recognize Europe’s importance in times of changing geopolitics; to embrace the fact that technology is central to international relations; or to rewire India’s position within Asia.226 As Jaishankar states, “Evidence strongly supports the view that India has advanced its interests effectively” precisely “when it made hard-headed assessments of contemporary geopolitics.” He adds, “Taking risks is inherent to the realisation of ambition.”227

It is time for such ambition to be tested in Afghanistan. It will mean taking risks, assessing costs, and expecting failures, but it will also mean doing everything possible to address very real challenges in a country that readily signed a Treaty of Friendship with India as far back as 1950. Facts have to be taken for what they are. That Afghanistan is changing is a fact. That there is even the probability of the Taliban returning to Kabul, in some form or shape, is a fact. That the United States is leaving is a fact. It is not easy, as Kissinger argues, to change facts. What is more possible, as he has often made clear, is for facts to be used should you wish to do so.228

About the Authors

Rudra Chaudhuri is the director of Carnegie India. His primary research focuses on the diplomatic history of South Asia and contemporary security issues. He is currently writing a book on the global history of the Indian Emergency, 1975–1977. At present, he is also heading a major research project that involves mapping and analyzing violent incidents and infrastructural development on and across India’s borders. He is the author of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947 (published in the United Kingdom by Hurst, in 2013, and in the United States and India by Oxford University Press and Harper Collins, respectively, in 2014).

Shreyas Shende is the executive assistant to the director and a research assistant at Carnegie India.


The authors would like to thank the following for their detailed reviews of the paper and their generous time corresponding with us on the same: Ambassador Rakesh Sood, Shakti Sinha, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya, Ambassador Amar Sinha, Ambassador Arun Singh, David Loyn, Joshua White, Avinash Paliwal, Christopher Clary, Suhasini Haidar, Abdullah Khenjani, Dawood Azami, and others in the United Kingdom, the United States, Afghanistan, and India who wish to remain anonymous.


1 For details see: Mujib Mashal, “Taliban and US Strike Deal to Withdraw American Troops From Afghanistan,” February 29, 2020, New York Times, For a primer, see: Lindzay Maizland, “US-Taliban Peace Deal: What to Know?,” March 2, 2020, Council on Foreign Relations,

2 “Joint Declaration Between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of State, February 29, 2020,

3 “Joint Statement on the Signing of the US-Taliban Agreement,” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, March 9, 2020,; and “Joint Statement on the Signing of the US-Taliban Agreement,” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, March 9, 2020,

4 For a background on the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, see: Carter Malkasian, “How the Good War Went Bad – America’s Slow-Motion Failure in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020,

5 Chaudhuri telephone interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

6 Carter Malkasian, “What a Withdrawal From Afghanistan Would Look Like – Learning to Live With Taliban Rule,” Foreign Affairs, October 21, 2019,

7 “The Presidential Candidates on the War in Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 30, 2019,

8 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

9 Ryan Pickrell, “Trump Says US Troops Will Start Leaving Afghanistan Immediately,” Business Insider, March 1, 2020,

10 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

11 For a brief discussion, see: Avinash Paliwal, “Time to Recalibrate India’s Afghanistan Policy?,” India in Transition, Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, November 19, 2018,

12 See Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001-2014 (London: Bodley Head, 2017), 404–405.

13 For a background see: Umair Jamal, “What Has Pakistan Gained From the US-Taliban Peace Deal?,” Diplomat, March 6, 2020, and Mark Mazzetti and Ismail Khan, “From the Afghan Peace Deal, a Weak and Pliable Neighbor for Pakistan,” New York Times, March 5, 2020,

14 “India Welcomes the Announcement About Formation of a Team for Intra-Afghan Negotiations,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, April 1, 2020,

15 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 27.

16 Ibid.

17 Chaudhuri interview with an Afghan expert in the UK, April 5, 2020.

18 John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the history of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 244.

19 Note: the authors of the paper interviewed over a dozen experts and practitioners in India, the UK, Afghanistan, and the United States. In some cases, the interviewees have been directly quoted. In others, and keeping in mind that the officials we spoke to include serving security officers, intelligence officers, diplomats, and others, we have anonymized the interviews. We coded these anonymous interviews. In either case, every single interview has been sanctioned by the interviewee. The records of which are held by the authors.

20 For a review see: Richard Hermann, “The Power of Perceptions in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: Do Views of the Soviet Union Determine the Policy Choices of American Leaders?,” American Journal of Political Science 30, no. 4 (November 1986): 841–875.

21 See Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 13–31.

22 Ibid.

23 As stated by John Lewis Gaddis in Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 18–19.

24 Chaudhuri interview with Rakesh Sood, April 21, 2020.

25 “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of State, February 29, 2020,

26 For a brief overview, see: Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Why Pakistan Supports Terrorist Groups, and Why the US Finds It So Hard to Induce Change,” Brookings, January 5, 2018,; also see: Marvin G. Weinbaum and Meher Babbar, “The Tenacious, Toxic Haqqani Network,” Middle East Institute, September 2016,

27 Myra Macdonald, Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War (New Delhi: Penguin, 2017), 197. Note: That the ISI were involved in the attack is almost a given. Interviews conducted by Chaudhuri with a range of British, Canadian, U.S., and German officials in Kabul soon after the attack attest to the same. See: Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 (New Delhi: Allen Lane, 2018), 336–337.

28 Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013): 219–234. Also see: Matt Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship Between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents,” Crisis State Discussion Papers, June 2010,; also see: Ryan Crocker, “Lessons Learned Interview, 12/1/2016,” in “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” Washington Post, December 2019,

29 Sirajuddin Haqqani, “What We, the Taliban, Want,” New York Times, February 20, 2020,

30 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

31 Chaudhuri interview with a senior Indian official [hereafter D], April 24, 2020.

32 Mujib Mashal and Fahim Abed, “Terror Attack Strikes Afghan Capital as Another City Is Locked Down for Coronavirus,” New York Times, March 25, 2020,

33 Indrani Bagchi, “Pak-backed Haqqani-LeT Behind Kabul Gurudrwara Attack, Thinks Indian Security Establishment,” Time of India, March 26, 2020,

34 “Who is Mohammed Muhsin, the Indian Suspect in Attack on Sikh Gurudwara in Afghanistan?,” The Week, March 30, 2020,

35 For a background on the unease in and yet the necessity of the ISI-Taliban leadership, see: Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life With the Taliban (London: Hurst & Company, 2010), ed. by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. Also see: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Also see: Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

36 Unpublished interview between Rudra Chaudhuri and a former founding member of the Taliban, in the Gulf, 2012. For a published version of the interviews, see: Michael Semple, Theo Farrell, Anatol Lieven, and Rudra Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation,” Royal United Services Institute Briefing Paper, September 2012,

37 Mujib Mashal, “Afghan Rivals Sign Power-Sharing Deal as Political Crisis Subsides,” New York Times, May 17, 2020,

38 See Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001-2014, 370–387.

39 Chaudhuri interview with former senior Indian official [hereafter F], April 12, 2020.

40 With the view to ascertain that these were indeed the primary risks to Indian security in Afghanistan, we scanned a range of open source articles and interviewed practitioners and experts too. These included, Chaudhuri interviews with Shakti Sinha, April 21, 2020; Gautam Mukhopadhaya, April 21, 2020; Rakesh Sood, April 21, 2020; and a senior Indian intelligence official, April 24, 2020.

On terrorism, see: M. K. Bhadrakumar, “India Loses Afghan Proxy War,” Rediff News, July 16, 2019,; Aditya Ramanathan, Anand Arni, and Pranay Kotasthane, “All Things Policy: What’s Next in Afghanistan?,” All Things Policy podcast, 13:50 – 15:00 mins, Takshashila Institution,; G. Parthasarathy, “Peace Deal With US Won’t Deter Taliban,” Hindu Businessline, March 17, 2020,; Kabir Taneja, “Islamic State in Afghanistan: Reading Between the Blurred Lines,” Observer Research Foundation, March 17, 2020,; M. K. Bhadrakumar, “India Meets the Taliban,” Outlook, November 24, 2018,; Rani D. Mullen, “A Tumultuous Afghanistan Policy,” India Seminar, March 2019,; Ashley Tellis, “Namaste Trump: Afghanistan Peace Deal,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 24, 2020,; Larry Hanauer and Peter Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” RAND, Occasional Paper, 2012, 11,; Husain Haqqani, “The Taliban Smell Blood,” Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2019,; Husain Haqqani, “Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam. US Should Know That Walking Away Won’t Be Easy,” The Print, March 5, 2020,; Carter Malkasian, “The Real Test in Afghanistan Is Still to Come,” Foreign Affairs, February 27, 2020,; Malkasian, “What a Withdrawal From Afghanistan Would Look Like”; and David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk, “Can America Trust the Taliban to Prevent Another 9/11?,” Foreign Affairs, April 1, 2020,

On Pakistani influence, see: Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (Noida: Harper Collins, 2017), 13; Pranay Sharma, “India Itchy After US, China, Russia Welcome Pakistan to Discuss Peace with Taliban in Afghanistan,” Outlook, July 29, 2019,; Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane, “Review Article: Assessing India’s Foreign Policy Towards Afghanistan,” European Review of International Studies 5, no. 1 (2018): 69,; Bhadrakumar, “India Loses Afghan Proxy War”; Aditya Ramanathan, Anand Arni, and Pranay Kotasthane, “All Things Policy: What’s Next in Afghanistan?,” All Things Policy podcast, 15:30 – 17:00 mins, Takshashila Institution,; Tellis, “Namaste Trump”; Hanauer and Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 11; Paliwal, “Time to Recalibrate India’s Afghanistan Policy?”; C. Raja Mohan, “India’s Kashmir Strategy Under the Afghan Shadow,” ISAS Brief No. 683, August 7, 2019,; Shyam Saran, “Great Game in Kabul, Redux,” India Today, February 18, 2019,; Mark Mazzeti and Ismail Khan, “From the Afghan Peace Deal, a Weak and Pliable Neighbor for Pakistan”; Paul Miller, “A Bad Deal for Afghanistan,” Lawfare, March 9, 2020,; Harsh V. Pant and Avinash Paliwal, “India’s Afghan Dilemma Is Tougher Than Ever,” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2019,; and Karan Thapar and Rakesh Sood, “Taliban Is The Biggest Loser and India a Key Loser From Trump’s Deal,” Wire, 2020,

On divided Afghan government, see: Sharma, “India Itchy After US, China, Russia Welcome Pakistan to Discuss Peace with Taliban in Afghanistan”; Gautam Mukhopadhaya, “Why India Must Support Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan,” Outlook, September 6, 2019,; Aditya Ramanathan, Anand Arni, and Pranay Kotasthane, “All Things Policy: What’s Next in Afghanistan?” All Things Policy podcast, 8:15 – 9:00 mins, Takshashila Institution,; James Dobbins et al., “US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure,” Atlantic Council, September 3, 2019,; Prasun Sonwalkar, “A Pak-Free Taliban Better for Afghan Peace Process,” Hindustan Times, March 3, 2019,; Suhasini Haidar, “India Monitoring Impact of U.S.-Taliban Deal: MEA,” Hindu, March 2, 2020,; Saran, “Great Game in Kabul, Redux”; Ioannis Koskinas, “Don’t Sign a Death Warrant for Afghan Democracy,” War on the Rocks, August 26, 2019,; Malkasian, “The Real Test in Afghanistan Is Still to Come.”

41 Krzysztof Iwanek, “36 Things India Has Done for Afghanistan,” Diplomat, January 8, 2019,

42 Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said: “Our Mujahideen are helping the health workers to spread out the messages about the dangers of COVID-19 . . . among the public in our controlled areas.” See: Abdul Qadir Sediqi, “Coronavirus Makes Taliban Realise They Need Health Workers Alive Not Dead,” Reuters, March 18, 2020,

43 Ibid.

44 Chaudhuri interview with Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, London, February 2011. Note: this was also highlighted by four Taliban commanders and sympathizers in interviews conducted in 2012. For a brief on the interviews, see: Semple, Farrell, Lieven, and Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation.”

45 Jarrett Blanc, “Afghanistan and Coronavirus,” in “Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape,” ed. by Jarrett Blanc and Frances Z. Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 14, 2020,

46 Chaudhuri interviews with David Loyn, April 25, 2020, and Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

47 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

48 Stefanie Glinski, “U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal Under Fire,” Foreign Policy, March 4, 2020,

49 Note: That the peace talks failed in 2012 because the Afghan government (led by then president Hamid Karzai) had not been brought on board has been communicated to Rudra Chaudhuri in numerous track 1.5 meetings with Afghan, U.S., British, and Indian officials, held in London. These meetings were organized at King’s College London. For alternative explanations for the failure of the talks see: Julian Borger, “US-Taliban Talks Collapsed Over Guantanamo Deal, Says Official,” Guardian, October 8, 2012, and “Peace Talks With the Taliban,” New York Times, October 4, 2012, For a very brief background to the talks see: Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (London: Harper Press, 2011), 290–291.

50 Chaudhuri interview with a serving British official [hereafter H], April 5, 2020.

51 Barnett Rubin, “Lessons Learned Interview, 2/17/2017,” in “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” Washington Post, December 2019,

52 Barnett Rubin, “Lessons Learned Interview, 1/20/2015,” in “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” Washington Post, December 2019, 

53 “Reintegration of Ex-Combatants: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, September 2019, 56,

54 Chaudhuri interview with [H].

55 Chaudhuri interview with a senior Afghan journalist in Kabul [hereafter A], March 19, 2020.

56 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Which Is Not Recognized by the United States as a State and Is Known as the Taliban and the United States of American,” U.S. Department of State, February 29, 2020,

57 Suhasini Haidar, “We Will Build Ties in the Neighbourhood: Taliban,” Hindu, April 24, 2020,

58 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

59 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

60 John Bresnahan, “Secret Documents on Trump Afghanistan Peace Deal Shared With Congress,” Politico, March 2, 2020,

61 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Which Is Not Recognized by the United States as a State and Is Known as the Taliban and the United States of American,” U.S. Department of State.

62 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

63 “Joint Declaration Between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of State, February 29, 2020,

64 Chaudhuri interview with Afghan expert and long-time journalist [hereafter C], April 25, 2020.

65 Chaudhuri interview with Dawood Azami, March 18, 2020.

66 “Taliban Says It Released 20 More Afghan Government Prisoners,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, April 17, 2020,

67 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Which Is Not Recognized by the United States as a State and Is Known as the Taliban and the United States of American,” U.S. Department of State.

68 Chaudhuri interview with Dawood Azami, March 18, 2020.

69 Ibid.

70 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

71 Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes, “Coronavirus Disrupts Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan,” New York Times, March 18, 2020,

72 Chaudhuri interview Dawood Azami, March 18, 2020.

73 “Statement on Intra Afghan Negotiations and the Road to Peace,” U.S. Department of State, March 10, 2020

74 “On the Political Impasse in Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of State, March 23, 2020,

75 “Afghanistan government announces team for Taliban talks,” Al Jazeera, March 28, 2020,

76 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

77 Chaudhuri interview with [H].

78 Mashal, “Afghan Rivals Sign Power-Sharing Deal as Political Crisis Subsides.”

79 Chaudhuri interview with a senior Indian official [hereafter D] February 27, 2020.

80 Chaudhuri interview with senior Indian official [hereafter E] April 21, 2020.

81 Former senior Indian intelligence official quoted in: Suhasini Haidar, “Experts Raise Concerns for India Over U.S.-Taliban Agreement,” Hindu, March 1, 2020,

82 David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “A Secret Accord With the Taliban: When and How the U.S. Would Leave Afghanistan,” New York Times, March 8, 2020,

83 Chaudhuri interview with [E].

84 Chaudhuri interview with [C].

85 Chaudhuri interview with [H].

86 “Suo Motu Statement by Minister of External Affairs in Parliament on the Hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, March 1, 2020,

87 Chaudhuri interview with Arun Singh, May 6, 2020.

88 Mujib Mashal, “Taliban Say Haqqani Founder Is Dead. His Group Is More Vital Than Ever,” New York Times, September 4, 2018,

89 For a brief background on the link between the Haqqani group and the ISI, see: Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (Noida: Harper Collins, 2017), 235.

90 Haidar, “We Will Build Ties in the Neighbourhood: Taliban.”

91 Chaudhuri telephone interview with Rakesh Sood, April 21, 2020.

92 M. K. Bhadrakumar, “Manmohan Singh Resets Afghan Policy,” Hindu, May 15, 2011,

93 Elizabeth Roche, “India Committed to Unified, Democratic and Peaceful Afghanistan,” LiveMint, February 29, 2020,

94 Shereena Qazi, “Ghani Sworn in as Afghan President, Rival Holds Own Inauguration,” Al Jazeera, March 9, 2020,

95 Chaudhuri interview Abdullah Khenjani.

96 Chaudhuri interview with [C].

97 Shakti Sinha, “Talking To The Taliban: ‘India Must Ride The Tide At Its Flood,’ StratNews Global, May 12, 2020,

98 “Details of Ghani-Abdullah’s Proposed Agreement,” Tolo News, May 15, 2020,

99 Chaudhuri interview Abdullah Khenjani.

100 Chaudhuri interview with Dawood Azami.

101 Chaudhuri interview with an Afghan analyst and close reconciliation watcher [hereafter B].

102 Chaudhuri interview with [H].

103 Chaudhuri interview with [E].

104 Shakti Sinha, “Talking To The Taliban: ‘India Must Ride The Tide At Its Flood,’ StratNews Global, May 12, 2020,

105 Lawrence Freedman, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, (London: Phoenix, 2008), 509.

106 Chaudhuri interview with Dawood Azami.

107 Chaudhuri interview with Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, London, February 2011. Note: this was also highlighted by four Taliban commanders and sympathizers in interviews conducted in 2012. For a brief on the interviews, see: Semple, Farrell, Lieven, and Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation.”

108 Chaudhuri interview with [E].

109 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

110 Chaudhuri interview with Gautam Mukhopadhaya, April 21, 2020.

111 Chaudhuri interview with Avinash Paliwal, April 23, 2020.

112 Freedman, A Choice of Enemies, 509.

113 Suhsini Haidar, “Afghan Peace and India’s Elbow Room,” Hindu, April 30, 2020, Also see: Pant and Paliwal, “India’s Afghan Dilemma Is Tougher Than Ever”; Avinash Paliwal, “A Cautious Balance – Explaining India’s Approach Towards Afghanistan’s Peace Process,” Asian Security, September 16, 2019,; and Paliwal, “Time to Recalibrate India’s Afghanistan Policy?”

114 Chaudhuri interview with [E].

115 For a brief background on India’s “close” ties to the NDS, see: Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy, 238, 244.

116 Track 1.5 meetings with Afghan, U.S., Pakistani, British, and Indian officials, held in London. These meetings were organized at King’s College London between 2009 and 2014.

117 Srinath Raghavan, “India’s Presence at Moscow-Led Taliban Talks Is No Real Departure From the Past,” The Print, November 13, 2018,

118 Amrullah Saleh, “I Fought the Taliban. Now I’m Ready to Meet Them at the Ballot Box,” Time, February 28, 2020,

119 Coll, Directorate S, 436–437.

120 Chaudhuri interview with [B].

121 Chaudhuri interview with [B]. Also see Coll, Directorate S, 435–436.

122 Chaudhuri interview with a former senior Indian official.

123 Chaudhuri interview with Shakti Sinha, April 21, 2020.

124 Suhasini Haidar, “Claiming the Four-Step Formula,” Hindu, May 15, 2014,

125 Chaudhuri interview with [F].

126 Chaudhuri interview with Rakesh Sood, April 21, 2020.

127 For a background see: Barnett Rubin, “A Tale of Two Scepticisms: Fighting and Talking With the Taliban During the Obama Years,” War on the Rocks, February 26, 2020,

128 “ACC Appointment,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, June 5, 2015,

129 Indrani Bagchi, “MEA Starts Its Biggest Internal Rejig in 50 Years,” Times of India, January 31, 2020,

130 “Ashok Malik Appointed MEA Policy Advisor,” Economic Times, October 23, 2019,

131 Chaudhuri interview with Rakesh Sood, April 21, 2020.

132 V. Sudarsham “First Among Unequals,” Outlook, December 3, 2001,

133 Chaudhuri interview with Gautam Mukhopadhaya, April 21, 2020.

134 For a detailed background see: Syed Saleem Shahzad, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 72–120.

135 Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (London: Hurst, 2011), 224–231.

136 Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Exile (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 374.

137 Ibid.

138 Shahzad, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, 82–114.

139 For a background see: Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 317–322.

140 Sirajuddin Haqqani, “What We, the Taliban, Want,” New York Times, February 20, 2020,

141 Semple, Farrell, Lieven, and Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation.” Also see: Coll, Directorate S, 560.

142 Chaudhuri interview with Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, London, February 2011.

143 Michael Flynn, “Lessons Learned Interview, 11/10/2015,” in “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” Washington Post, December 2019,

144 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

145 Chaudhuri interview with [D].

146 “The Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (IS-KP),” Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, last modified June 2018,

147 “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2019,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, February 2019, 36,

148 “Indians Among ISIL-K Foreign Fighters Who Surrendered to Afghan Authorities: UN Report,” Economic Times, February 3, 2020,

149 Vijaita Singh, “Kerala Man Was Among Kabul Gurudwara Attackers,” Hindu, March 28, 2020,

150 Saurav Sarkar, “The Islamic State’s Increasing Focus on India,” Diplomat, March 30, 2020,

151 Tara Kartha, “In Afghanistan, a New ‘Great Game’ With ISIS, ISK and Pakistan Is on With a Vengeance,” The Print, March 11, 2020,

152 Abdulhaq Omeri, “Al-Qaeda Recruiting Disaffected Taliban: Kunar Officials,” Tolo News, March 12, 2020,

153 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

154 “NSA Mohammad Haneef Atmar’s interview with the Times of India (Mar 09 2017),” Embassy of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, New Delhi, April 4, 2017,

155 Chaudhuri interview with a former U.S. official, May 5, 2020.

156 Julian Borger, “Trump Reportedly Tells Taliban Official ‘You Are a Tough People’ in First Phone Call,” Guardian, March 3, 2020,

157 “US Welcomes India’s Role in Boosting Afghanistan Military; Pakistan Worried,” Economic Times, July 12, 2018,

158 “Annual Report 2018-19,” Ministry of Defence, Government of India, 2019, 158,

159 Ibid, 3.

160 “Annual Report 2018-19,” Ministry of Defence, 130.

161 Chaudhuri interview with [D].

162 Chaudhuri interview with Avinash Paliwal, April 23, 2020.

163 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

164 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

165 Chaudhuri interview with Avinash Paliwal, April 23, 2020.

166 For a background on Indian aid and developmental projects in Afghanistan, see: Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy, 184–190.

167 “Annual Report 2018-19,” Ministry of Defence, 3.

168 Shakti Sinha, “Talking To The Taliban: ‘India Must Ride The Tide At Its Flood,’” StratNews Global, May 12, 2020,

169 “Annual Report 2019-20,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 2020, 12,

170 Ibid, 39.

171 Chaudhuri interview with Arun Singh, May 6, 2020.

172 “Ambassador of India to Afghanistan, H.E. Mr. Vinay Kumar, Today Handed Over the Consignments of Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol Tablets to H.E. Mr. Asadullah Khalid, Afghan Minister of Defense,” Embassy of India in Kabul, Afghanistan, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, April 2020,

173 “India to Use Chabahar Port to Send Assistance to Afghanistan,” Hindu, April 13, 2020,

174 “The first consignment of humanitarian assistance, 5022 MT of wheat, reached Herat today,” Embassy of India in Kabul, Afghanistan, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Twitter, April 23, 2020,

175 “India Readying Rapid Response Teams for Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan,” Hindu, April 21, 2020,

176 Chaudhuri notes, World Peace Forum, Beijing, July 9-10, 2019. Note: Chaudhuri was a speaker at the World Peace Forum.

177 See note 49 for further background.

178 Chaudhuri notes, World Peace Forum, Beijing, July 9–10, 2019.

179 Chaudhuri interview with Avinash Paliwal, April 23, 2020.

180 Chaudhuri interview with [B].

181 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

182 Chaudhuri interview with Rakesh Sood, April 21, 2020.

183 “Brief on SCO,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 2019, 3,

184 “SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group held its third meeting with SCO participation in Bishkek,” Shanghai Cooperation Organization, April 19, 2019,

185 Details about bilateral India-China collaboration in Afghanistan are shrouded in secrecy. See: Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy, 277.

186 “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on March 2, 2020,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The People’s Republic of China, March 2, 2020,

187 Nathan Hodge, Habib Khan Totakhil, and Josh Chin, “China Creates New Avenue for Afghan Peace Talks,” Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2015,

188 “Taliban in China to Discuss Afghan Peace After US Talks Collapse,” Al Jazeera, September 23, 2019,; and Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain, “Afghanistan’s Taliban meets Chinese government in Beijing,” Reuters, September 22, 2019,

189 “PM’s Opening Remarks at the Informal Summit of ‘Russia-India-China’ (RIC) Leaders on the Margins of G-20 Summit 2019,” Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India, June 28, 2019, Also see: Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy, 276.

190 Chaudhuri interview with David Loyn, April 25, 2020.

191 Sushant Singh, “No Lesser Evil,” Indian Express, February 18, 2017,

192 “Press release on six-party consultations on Afghanistan in Moscow,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, February 15, 2017,

193 “Russia Hosts Taliban Delegation Following Collapse of US Talks,” Guardian, September 15, 2019,

194 Ibid.

195 “Joint Statement on the Signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement,” U.S. Department of State, March 6, 2020,

196 “India, Russia Support Afghan-Led, Afghan-Owned Peace Process: Deputy NSA,” Economic Times, November 14, 2018,

197 Track 1.5 meetings with Afghan, American, Pakistani, British, and Indian officials, held in London. These meetings were organized at King’s College London between 2009 and 2014.

198 Nidhi Razdan, “Taliban Will Have Role in Afghanistan, But Not Dominant One,” Says Iran,” NDTV, January 9, 2019,

199 Margherita Stancati, “Iran Backs Taliban With Cash and Arms,” Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2015, and Talatbek Masadykov, Antonio Giustozzi, and James Michael Page, “Negotiating With the Taliban: Toward a Solution for the Afghan Conflict,” Crisis States Working Papers Series No. 2, January 2010,

200 Chaudhuri interview with [E].

201 Chaudhuri interview with [D].

202 Chaudhuri interview with Avinash Paliwal, April 23, 2020.

203 Rekha Dixit, “The Magic Tablets of India’s Pillbox Diplomacy,” The Week, April 16, 2020,

204 “Transcript of Weekly Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, March 13, 2020,

205 Tanvi Madan, “India’s Reaction to the Killing of Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani,” Lawfare, January 3, 2020, Also see: Rudra Chaudhuri, “India’s View on Soleimani, Iran, and the United States, Carnegie India, January 9, 2020,

206 Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Iran Continues to Criticise India in Unusual Move,” Economic Times, March 5, 2020,

207 Chaudhuri interview with Indian official, Kabul, August 12, 2010.

208 For a review see: Srinath Raghavan, The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia (New Delhi: Penguin, 2018), 347-354.

209 On Obama’s regional approach to Afghanistan and the approach’s various conceptions, see: Ashley Tellis, “Implementing a Regional Approach to Afghanistan: Multiple Alternatives, Modest Possibilities,” in “Is a Regional Strategy Viable in Afghanistan?” ed. by Ashley Tellis and Aroop Mukharji, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010, 85–124,

210 “Press Briefing by Bruce Riedel, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and Michelle Flournoy on the New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Office of the Press Secretary, White House, March 27, 2009,; also see: Rubin, “A Tale of Two Skepticisms.”

211 For a background, see: Howard B. Schaffer, The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press), 194–196.

212 For details on the logic behind the approach, see: Ahmed Rashid, “The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir,” Foreign Policy, November 11, 2010,

213 For a background, see: Rudra Chaudhuri, “The Proxy Calculus: Kabul, Not Kashmir, Holds the Key to the Indo-Pakistani Relationship,” The RUSI Journal 155, no. 6, December 22, 2010,

214 Note: Chaudhuri led six of these meetings in London, at King’s College London.

215 Note: this was one of six meetings organized by Chaudhuri in February 2011.

216 Coll, Directorate S, 441.

217 Laura Rozen, “India’s stealth lobbying against Holbrooke’s brief,” Foreign Policy, January 24, 2009,

218 Barnett Rubin, “Lessons Learned Interview, 8/27/2015” in “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” Washington Post, 2019,

219 Chaudhuri interview with Joshua White, April 29, 2020.

220 Rezaul Laskar, “Khalilzad Reaches Out to Jaishankar on Troubled Afghan Peace Process,” Hindustan Times, April 19, 2020,

221 “Meeting of EAM and NSA With US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, May 7, 2020,; and Suhasini Haidar, “India Should Talk Directly to Taliban, says U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad,” Hindu, May 8, 2020,

222 Ibid.

223 On Pakistani opposition to India see: Ashley Tellis and Jeff Eggers, “U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Changing Strategies, Preserving Gains,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 22, 2017,

224 Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, (India: Penguin Random House), 190.

225 “S. Jaishankar at RNG Lecture Full Text: ‘How Do You Reconcile Howdy Modi and Mamallapuram? Look Beyond Dogma’,” Indian Express, November 16, 2019,

226 For a review see: Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018), 95–124.

227 “S. Jaishankar at RNG Lecture Full Text,” Indian Express.

228 Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), xi.