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After decades of opposing Taliban, India may be forming a relationship with them

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A year ago, India was not happy about the state of affairs in Afghanistan. The U.S. was negotiating its exit. The Taliban was consolidating power. And decades of India supporting anti-Taliban forces was evaporating. But just last month, Indian officials went to Kabul to meet with Taliban leaders. India has also partially reopened its embassy in Kabul to coordinate humanitarian aid. So why is India opening dialogue with the Taliban now? Let's bring in Asfandyar Mir. He's an expert in international relations and counterterrorism at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASFANDYAR MIR: Thanks for having me, Juana.

SUMMERS: So tell us, what exactly was this meeting between Indian and Taliban officials last month about?

MIR: So in recent weeks, the Taliban have been making a series of public moves to India, which was really, as you know, an unlikely prospective partner country, given that the Taliban have been allied with Pakistan, which is an arch rival of India. So in many ways, this is a stunning development. There are some real tensions between the Taliban and the Pakistani government. For one, the Taliban have taken a position which is contrary to Pakistan's expectation on the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another reason is that the Taliban are protecting one of the most significant anti-Pakistan insurgent groups known as the TTP. And so watching that, the Indian policymakers seem to have concluded that perhaps the Taliban, after all, are not a mere proxy of the Pakistanis and that there might be some room for them to forge a working relationship.

SUMMERS: Since last year, Afghanistan has faced deep economic turmoil, a hunger crisis, a devastating earthquake that killed over a thousand people. To your mind, is the Taliban desperate enough to turn to a former adversary, India, for help?

MIR: You know, that is really one of the more important variables playing into the Taliban's willingness to engage with the Indians. You know, for years, they bemoaned India's support for the former Afghan government republic. And then India's embassy was blown up by the Taliban in 2008. So there was a lot of bad blood between the two sides. So the question is, why are the Taliban so interested now? And economics might be one big reason the Taliban are really struggling to govern the country. The fact that they are not diplomatically recognized is making it difficult for them to just, you know, fund their government. There's a humanitarian crisis in the country. There are issues of food security. And the Taliban are hoping that the Indians would increase their supplies of wheat to the country. And over the medium term, the Taliban seem to be interested in India reviving its development projects.

SUMMERS: Right. And so that raises a question, though. Apart from altruism, what then is in it for India?

MIR: So one concern the Indians had in the lead-up to the Taliban's rise to power was, you know, much like the 1990s, Afghanistan, under the Taliban, would become a safe haven for terrorists and not just anti-U.S. and anti-Western terrorists but also anti-Indian terrorists. And so the Taliban, for their part, have reciprocated with some guarantees similar to what they have provided to the United States government, that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used against India, that the Taliban are telling the Indians they're even ready to take action on any intelligence that the Indians might provide.

SUMMERS: If these early signs of a potential relationship between India and the Taliban does amount to something, is there something here for the United States to gain?

MIR: If the Taliban are responding to India, if they are, say, talking about terrorism, if they somehow open up to a human rights conversation with the Indians, that might be good news. In addition, I would say that if the Indians can really figure out a counterterrorism pact with the Taliban, I think that would also be a significant, positive step and could provide a channel for the international community and the U.S. in particular. So I think it's a complicated situation, and my view is that the U.S. should really be coordinating with India to maximize the counterterrorism benefit and any other benefits that can be had from India's engagement.

SUMMERS: That was Asfandyar Mir. He is an expert in international relations and counterterrorism at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you so much for being here.

MIR: Thanks for having me, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.