Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited leaders from the restive Kashmir valley for talks
in New Delhi.
Each of these developments is a significant about-turn in Modi’s foreign and security policy and a marked departure from his political goals.
For several years, India had refused to engage in any manner with the Taliban. This was partly out of respect for the sensibilities of the Afghan government in Kabul and partly because of its suspected involvement in the hijacking of an Indian plane
With Pakistan, a spate of terrorist attacks in Kashmir over the past few years derailed all dialogue and outreach. Hindu nationalist
politicians have long presented Islamabad as an existential threat to India.
The engagement with Kashmiri leaders is even more dramatic. Many of those Modi invited to Delhi had been vilified as traitors and placed under house arrest for several months after the Modi government revoked the state’s autonomy
in 2019. Opposition leaders who sympathised with them had been widely derided by the government.
But several factors are now forcing India to pursue a reset. Ever since India and China clashed on their border
last year, Delhi has been haunted by the possibility of a two-front war with a China-Pakistan alliance
India’s military resources have been considerably strained by the need to bolster the long borders with both China and Pakistan in treacherous terrain, with the possibility of conflict at any time.
After several rounds of talks on their troubled border, India and China seem to be reaching an indefinite stalemate, leaving the power equation on the ground permanently tilted in favour of Beijing.
Indian intelligence sources recently said that the Chinese army has built fresh infrastructure in the area, indicating it is “preparing for the long haul and permanent winter occupation of these posts”.
India’s problems have been made worse by its struggles with Covid-19
, which has devastated its economy and left fewer resources for national security concerns.
According to Kaushik Basu, the former chief economist of the World Bank, India registered the 142nd-lowest growth rate out of 194 nations last year. That was before the deadly second wave wreaked havoc this year.
Under such circumstances, Delhi is right to believe that fighting Pakistan and containing unrest in Kashmir
is a serious drag on India’s military preparedness. Modi is now walking back his government’s muscular posturing. In June, Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat publicly suggested he considers China a bigger security threat than Pakistan.
India has similarly found itself in a bind in Afghanistan after US President Joe Biden
committed to pulling American troops out by September 11
. For several months, after former president Donald Trump concluded a deal with the Taliban, Delhi chose to wait and watch. It threw its weight behind its traditional ally, the civilian government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani, while ignoring the Taliban.
That policy soon became unsustainable as the Taliban began to dominate. Estimates differ over how much territory the Taliban controls. One survey by an Afghan news agency says that more than half of Afghanistan is now under Taliban control; the Taliban claims it is actually 70 per cent. Regardless, everyone agrees the group has grown dramatically
in recent weeks, with a corresponding rise in violence.
For years, in sharp contrast to India’s policy, China has been stepping up its outreach to the Taliban, aided by Pakistan’s influence. In June 2019
, the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited Beijing. Months later, another nine-member Taliban delegation travelled to Beijing amid the deal-making with the United States.
These ties have now come in handy for Beijing with the new political circumstances in Afghanistan. In May, China offered to host peace talks
between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It has also chaired multiple rounds of discussion with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Having found itself shut out of the dialogue in Afghanistan under Trump, India now worries that a China-Pakistan nexus in Afghanistan – with the Taliban in control – will significantly curtail its influence in that country. So, in a first, India opened channels in early June to engage with some factions of the Taliban that are perceived to be outside Pakistani influence.
Amid the border stalemate with China and economic woes
caused by the pandemic, India’s backchannel diplomacy on each of these fronts is a welcome attempt at pursuing much-needed peace on its western frontier.
But if Modi is to successfully sustain peace for any reasonable length of time, he will have to overcome significant trust deficits with Pakistan, the Taliban and the Kashmiris. With Hindu nationalists having caricatured each of them as monolithically treacherous within India’s political discourse, that will not be easy.
Mohamed Zeeshan is the author of “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership”