New Delhi has responded cautiously to the unprecedented changes in Afghanistan after the Taliban captured power in Kabul. India has significant stakes in Afghanistan and Iranian representatives had earlier stated that New Delhi’s role in the country and region is crucial. Recently, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla confirmed that India is communicating with key partners including Iran on the developments in Afghanistan. India and Iran have different priorities and challenges concerning Afghanistan, however, both countries remain skeptical about the Taliban. While India has for a long time been reluctant to reach out to the Taliban, Iran in recent years despite its skepticism has indicated that it is willing to work with the Taliban to secure its regional interests. India still recalls the Taliban’s hijacking of its airline flight IC 814 in 1999.
The killing of Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, the immediate closure of India’s embassy and consulates as well as the slow evacuation process leading to frustration among stranded Indians in Afghanistan reflect the lingering mistrust between New Delhi and the Taliban. India has spent nearly $3 billion on infrastructure development projects in Afghanistan over the last several years. Bilateral trade abruptly stopped after the Taliban cut off imports and exports to India via Pakistani transit routes.
Both India and Iran have converging internal security concerns after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. India’s Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat, recently said: “India will make sure that any activity which is likely to flow out of Afghanistan and find its way to India will be dealt with in the manner which India is dealing with terrorism.” India’s Intelligence Bureau is monitoring public narratives and comments about the Taliban and 14 people in Assam were recently arrested for social media posts that extended support to the Taliban. As per some reports, the Iranian government also arrested some Afghans for waving the Taliban flag in Tehran. Both the Indian and Iranian governments are concerned about growing public support for the Taliban leading to radicalization and potential extremist sleeper cells forming.
India and Iran share strategic economic interests in Afghanistan, particularly to expand trade relations with the country and both countries have been active in integrating their development projects into the International North-South Transport Corridor. India over the last several years has worked to establish direct access to Afghanistan through Chabahar, however, in light of recent developments, trade relations between India and Afghanistan have come to a halt for the current period. While India has not yet made any overt attempt to interact with the Taliban over bilateral trade, Iran has formed close links with the Taliban, especially along the shared border regions. Several reports also indicate that Iran has recently resumed its oil exports to Afghanistan after the Taliban agreed to cut trade tariffs up to 70 percent. Since Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan unlike India, Tehran’s immediate concerns largely revolve around ensuring border security and averting an influx of refugees. Hence, despite some unprecedented tensions in bilateral economic relations, Tehran is likely to continue to interact with the Taliban on trade and border security issues. The development of Chabahar port was a key priority for both India and Iran, however many Indian investments have been stalled amid US sanctions and bureaucratic impediments. For India, Chabahar remains a strategic counterweight to Pakistan’s Gwadar port as the port will enable New Delhi to establish trade connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, since the Taliban has taken over several strategic locations in Afghanistan, the relevance of the port for India remains questionable, especially in light of recent reports suggesting that Afghanistan will not be a part of the quadrilateral nations grouping proposed to discuss the future of Chabahar.
To some extent, both India and Iran see the Taliban as a threat and recent indications suggest that there could be future cooperation between Tehran and New Delhi, particularly on security matters. During the turmoil in the 1990s both India and Iran opposed the Taliban and extended their support to the Northern Alliance. However, in light of strategic considerations in Afghanistan, neither India or Iran are likely to directly confront the Taliban. India’s Ministry of External Affairs recently said: “Situation on the ground is uncertain (in Afghanistan). Primary concern is security and safety of people. Currently, there is no clarity about any entity forming a government in Kabul. I think we are jumping the gun regarding recognition.” India remains wary about Russian, Iranian, Chinese and Pakistani interventions in Afghanistan and is adopting a “wait and watch” policy to gauge the best strategy to reset the regional security balance in South Asia. The divergences between Iran and India will emerge through their interactions with the Taliban, as the strategic priorities in the short-term differ for both countries in Afghanistan. Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan, is forced into setting aside ideological differences and adopting a pragmatic approach towards the Taliban, whereas, India is in no hurry to adopt a position towards the Taliban until the transition process provides more clarity to New Delhi.