Why should India worry about Russia's growing friendship with the Taliban

Russia’s decision to recognise Taliban as a ‘political movement’ hasn’t gone down well with long-term ally India, which has a history with the hardline Islamist movement that’s vying with the Islamic State to gain a stronghold in Afghanistan.

India has been disturbed by recent events, the spokesperson at India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Vikas Swaroop, reportedly reacted to reports of Russia courting the Taliban.

Swaroop added that he didn’t expect India’s bilateral relations with Russia to worsen.

On the other hand, the Russians have been pretty forthright about their involvement with the Taliban.

According to recent media reports, a Russian official said during a speech he gave in Afghan Parliament that Russia’s interests in fighting the Islamic State converge with that of the Taliban.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan, with strict interpretation of Sharia law, for nearly five years before being toppled by US-led Coalition troops in the wake of September 11, 2001 attacks.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment played a key role in the formation of Taliban and arguably call shots in the Islamist movement to this day, a detail that Russia hasn’t missed.

At the recent ‘Heart of Asia’ conference organised in India, Russia’s envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov criticised India and Afghanistan for showing up Pakistan’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Sartaj Aziz due to Islamabad’s involvement in sponsoring terrorism in both South Asian countries. Kabulov also cited to critics close cooperation between America and India to defend Moscow’s expanding military ties with Pakistan.

(Source: Youtube)

Russia and Pakistan troops’s participated in a military exercise on the subcontinent in September, an event widely discussed in India.

Moscow’s collaboration with the Taliban, and Pakistan, started around when IS started to make headway in Central Asia, as per some accounts.

Kremlin reportedly worries that growing IS presence in the neighbourhood would inspire separatists within Russia to stir trouble in the restive Chechnya province.

Taliban isn’t on good terms with IS, with both radical Islamic movements vying for leadership in the Muslim world. The Putin leadership is said to see this mistrust between the two radical Islamist movements as an opportunity, that could be exploited to serve Moscow’s security interests. But whether or not the Kremlin anticipated friction with old ally India over this strategy is anybody’s guess.

The writing on the wall for India about the emerging Russia-Taliban nexus started  to become clearer last year, when reports of Moscow’s intelligence sharing with the Taliban first surfaced. A closer understanding with Taliban will inevitably lean Russia toward Pakistan, and it may have some serious implications for India’s interests.

Closer Russia-Pakistan relations

Indian authorities have time and again accused Pakistan Army of financing and arming anti-India militants.

India’s claims are based on the precedent of the Taliban, which was created and groomed by the ‘military-mullah’ establishment in Islamabad with support from the US, in order to counter Soviet-backed Northern Alliance in the 1980s.

Practically the handlers of the Taliban, the Pakistan Army and intelligence agency, the ISI, have also been accused of sponsoring terrorism on Indian targets through redirecting American money and weapons allotted to originally fund the Taliban project and ,after 9/11, combat terrorism.

Pakistan’s armed forces have been involved in three lost wars with India since 1947 and there is a deep mistrust of India’s intentions in the Pakistan’s security establishment.

While the trend of US resources being used against India is more of history as the superpower moves away from Pakistan and closer to India, Russian involvement with the Pakistan Army to reach out to Taliban may end up causing security problems like India has faced in the past.

India’s history with the Taliban

A hijacked Indian Airlines’ flight, IC814, which was on its way to New Delhi, was diverted midway by Islamist militants belonging to  Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), a terror group fighting Indian forces in Kashmir, and ultimately taken to Kandahar in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1999.

While the Taliban officially claimed that it wasn’t involved in the entire episode and just intended to act as mediator to help negotiate the release of Indian hostages, there was a perception in Indian political and military circles that the Kabul regime was in cahoots with the hijackers.

The Taliban is reported to have provided armed security to the hijacked airplane as it stood on the Kandahar air strip, which Indians saw as the Taliban regime providing cover to the hijackers in anticipation of an Indian rescue operation.

(Source: Youtube)

Russia’s favourable overtures to the Taliban may cause a friction in India-Russia relations, which have flourished since the signing of 1971 friendship treaty.

Fear of losing crucial ground in Afghanistan

India has invested $2 billion in Afghanistan in the post-war reconstruction effort, as it sees the resource-rich country as important to meet its future security and energy needs. The present democratically elected Ashraf Ghani government, like most of the previous administrations since 2004, has been mindful of India’s interests, which may not be the case if Taliban makes its way back into Afghanistan’s politics and society.

India severed diplomatic relations with Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power, and remains suspicious of its fundamentalist political ideology.

A more influential Taliban in Kabul will present a headwind for India.