Modi’s Re-election: A Chance to Revitalize Afghanistan-India Relations

Credit Photo: Photos of the emptied-out interior of the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, November 2023. Facebook / Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – New Delhi

By Sadiq Amini

These days, Afghan democrats need a champion, and India, under Modi’s leadership, could be that champion – if New Delhi can correct course on its Afghanistan policy.

For centuries, and particularly over the last two decades, India and Afghanistan have shared a close and friendly relationship. This relationship was significantly disrupted when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021. Since then, India’s policy has been primarily driven by short-sighted tactical interests, focusing mainly on engaging with the Taliban. This approach has led to considerable disappointment among Afghans, who now hope for a change in policy.

Narendra Modi’s likely re-election as prime minister presents a valuable opportunity for India to re-adjust its approach. By engaging with non-Taliban Afghans, including democratic forces and especially Afghan women, India can play a crucial role in facilitating intra-Afghan negotiations. Such engagement could pave the way for establishing an inclusive government in Afghanistan that guarantees freedom and dignity for all Afghans, particularly women’s rights to vote and participate in public life.

Despite recent setbacks, the trust and goodwill that Afghans hold toward India remain strong and are worth preserving for the future. This renewed engagement would not only reinforce India’s commitment to democratic values but also strengthen its long-term strategic interests in the region.

India and Afghanistan have had a deep and strong historical and civilizational relationship for centuries. Formally, India signed a “Friendship Treaty” with Afghanistan in 1950. In subsequent years, New Delhi frequently sought to have friendly relations with governments in Kabul, including with the pro-Soviet Communist regimes, through several mutual agreements and protocols. However, throughout the 1980s India was marginalized in the affairs of Afghanistan by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, which established and sponsored mujahideen militias to fight against the Soviet and Communist forces. With the emergence of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 1996, India continued to remain sidelined but maintained a presence by supporting the then-Afghan government in exile, and the so-called Northern Alliance forces. But, given the restricted environment at the time, Indian involvement remained modest in Afghanistan.

The events of September 11, 2001, provided new prospects for India to engage with Afghanistan more thoroughly, compared to the limited opportunities during the first Taliban era. From 2001-2021, India was very active and relied upon development projects, educational programs, and other forms of humanitarian assistance to boost its soft power in Afghanistan. India was actively involved in the training of Afghan civilian and military personnel, too. Hence, for almost two decades, New Delhi was not just a development partner – the largest in the region, and the fifth internationally – but also a security partner for Kabul and enjoyed considerable influence in Afghanistan. But not anymore.

New Delhi was worried all along about the prospects of the U.S.-led negotiation, and eventual signing, of the Doha deal with the Taliban. As U.S.-led NATO forces began to pull out in 2021, New Delhi was especially alarmed that Kabul could give in to the combined influence of Pakistan (supported by China) and the Taliban, at the cost of India’s standing in the regional geostrategic competition. This led to a sharp adjustment of India’s foreign policy posture toward Afghanistan from August 15, 2021.

Suddenly, India was no longer seen as a friend by many Afghans, especially Afghan women. India abruptly halted all contact and communication with former Afghan officials, leaving many seeking refuge in India without support. The Indian government stopped issuing visas for Afghans and even canceled visas for Afghan students who had returned to Afghanistan for breaks and were subsequently trapped after the Taliban takeover. The official reason given was that the Afghan passport directorate was controlled by the Haqqani network, creating uncertainty about the identities of Afghan applicants.

While the rest of the world was actively evacuating Afghans, India was among the first to close its borders. A country that claims to be a regional power with global aspirations, India’s failure to assist a friendly nation in the neighborhood in times of crisis was a significant disappointment. This response was far from what Afghans had expected from India, a nation they had considered a reliable ally.

Subsequently, Afghans were surprised to see Indian diplomats warming up to Taliban representatives in Doha and eventually returning to Kabul to reopen their embassy, even if only with limited operations. Afghans watched with dismay as the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi became embroiled in controversy. The Republic-appointed Afghan ambassador announced the embassy’s closure, while a group of Afghan diplomats, with the approval of India’s External Affairs Ministry, moved in to claim the embassy would remain open. This move appeared to be coordinated with the Taliban. Among these diplomats was Zakia Wardak, who was recently accused of smuggling gold from Dubai to Mumbai.

India’s justification for these actions was that they were seeking ways to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. However, Afghans understand that India is more focused on counterbalancing Pakistan and China than genuinely assisting Afghanistan. The aid that was delivered was often sent at the behest of Taliban officials and used by Taliban and their affiliates. So far, Indian aid has failed to reach the impoverished people of Afghanistan. This strategic misstep only deepened the disappointment Afghans felt toward a country they once saw as a reliable friend.

Today, more than two decades of friendship – and centuries of goodwill – between India and Afghanistan hang in the balance. Frustrated by these tactical maneuvers, Afghans around the world expect change from India. Those representing India need to do better.

As Modi is poised to remain in power for a third term, he has a unique opportunity to seize this moment of victory to preserve and strengthen India’s long-standing and valuable relationship with Afghanistan. He can begin by revitalizing the External Affairs Ministry and other relevant entities working on Afghanistan, infusing them with fresh energy and a renewed commitment to supporting the Afghan people.

As the largest democracy in the world, India must recognize the plight of over 20 million Afghan women and girls who are deprived of basic freedoms, including education, work, and movement. Afghanistan’s nascent democracy has collapsed, replaced by the Taliban, an anti-democratic group. India should refrain from engaging with such groups and individuals. As an Afghan proverb says, “baa maah neshini maah shawi, baa deg neshini seya shawi,” which literally translates to “if you sit with the Moon, you will become the Moon; if you sit with an oven, you will get black stains on you.” India must protect itself from being tainted by associating with those in Doha, Kandahar, and Kabul who are complicit in violence and repression. The Taliban have blood on their hands.

The Afghan democrats are scattered across the region and the world. Only a few, including Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former head of the High Peace Council for National Reconciliation, might be in India these days. India needs to reach out to these Afghan democrats and listen to them. It is urgent for India to re-adjust its foreign policy to prioritize engagement with non-Taliban Afghans, particularly Afghan women. India needs to utilize its connections and mobilize its diplomatic and economic resources to facilitate an intra-Afghan negotiation that could lead to the formation of an inclusive Afghan government. The government needs to guarantee the freedom, and dignity of the Afghans, particularly Afghan women. Their rights to education, work, and movement must be protected, and India can play a role to get this done. 

These days, Afghan democrats need a champion, and India, under Modi’s leadership, could be that champion. It’s time for Indians to say “India-Taliban bye-bye” and start saying “India-Afghans bhai-bhai.”


The article was first published in The Diplomat on June 7, 2024.


Sadiq Amini is a program manager at ORF America, overseeing external relations and outreach. He was previously a political assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and worked at Afghanistan’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. The views expressed here are strictly his own. 



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