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The Taliban’s offer of bilateral relations with India is a “masterful” move that will significantly shape Asian geopolitics as the militant group seeks to bolster its image on the global stage, diplomatic observers say.
Sher Stanekzai, a top Taliban official, said India was “very important for this subcontinent” and that the Taliban would want to continue Afghanistan’s “cultural, economic, political and trade ties” with the country.
“We attach great importance to our trade, economic and political relations with India and want to maintain that relation," Mr Stanekzai, the deputy head of Taliban’s political office in Qatar, said in a video broadcast on Saturday.
New Delhi has historically shunned the Islamist group that it claims is backed by its arch-rival Pakistan, and has preferred to deal with the governments that came to power after a US-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
But after the collapse of the New Delhi-friendly and western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani on August 15, India found itself isolated as its rivals China and Pakistan raced to embrace the new regime.
Mr Stanekzai, who is tipped to become foreign minister, said the new government in Kabul would want trade with India by a land route through Pakistan, which could anger Islamabad.
Pakistan has blocked New Delhi and Afghanistan from using its territory for trade, forcing Kabul and India to open air corridors.
Experts regard Mr Stanekzai's statement as the first formal contact with India after New Delhi pulled its diplomats out Kabul and moved more than 550 people from Afghanistan as the Taliban overran the city two weeks ago.
Amalendu Misra, professor in the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University, UK, said the Taliban extending the olive branch to India was a recognition of New Delhi’s soft power on the global stage and its “constructive role” in rebuilding the war-torn country.
"It is conscious of the advantage it can gain by nurturing India rather than maintaining an antagonistic position,” Prof Misra told The National.
“Its attempts to reach out to New Delhi in opening up a trade corridor to India is a masterful decision."
India, like most nations, did not recognise the previous Taliban regime when it ruled the country under its strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001.
Its concerns included the Taliban being a proxy of Islamabad and the group's alleged ties with militant groups fighting Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region.
New Delhi was further antagonised when an Indian plane was hijacked by Pakistan-based militants and taken to Kandahar in 1999, forcing India to release three Kashmir-linked militants in exchange for the passengers.
After the fall of the Taliban, India strengthened ties with Afghanistan through cultural, military, trade and people-to-people exchanges.
New Delhi invested more than $3 billion in development projects such as roads and dams, and also rebuilt Afghanistan’s Parliament building to curb Islamabad's influence.
India and Afghanistan established an air freight corridor for bilateral trade in 2017, giving the landlocked country access to India’s huge markets. Bilateral trade reached more than $1.5bn in 2019-2020.
While the Taliban may have regained military control over Afghanistan, they are struggling for global recognition and economic support.
For India, the biggest concerns are the Taliban's closeness to Islamabad and China's interest in the mineral-rich country, including an extension of its global Belt and Road Initiative through Afghanistan to connect Central Asia with the Indian Ocean through Pakistan’s Gwadar port.
India regards the $62bn section of BRI known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a threat to its sovereignty, as it passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir that New Delhi claims as its territory.
Jitendra Nath Misra, a former Indian diplomat, believes the Taliban’s call to India could be part of a policy to strike a power balance in the region, as it does not want to be overwhelmed by China or Pakistan.
“The Taliban could behave in a pragmatic manner and they are mindful of the exponential growth of Chinese power. It is not the China of the 1990s, it is a vastly more powerful country,” Mr Misra told The National.
“The Chinese are interested in Afghanistan’s minerals. The Taliban would not want to be too dependent on China for national reconstruction."