Foreign Policy Watch: India-Afghanistan

Looking beyond Taliban: Focus on the Pashtun Question


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Regions of Afghanistan

Mains level: Paper 2- Implications of the return of Taliban for India.

The US-Taliban peace deal signals growing heft of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pashtuns constitute nearly 42 per cent population of Afghanistan and the Taliban is essentially a Pashtun formation. Also,  remember Pakistan: just like the kid who is always up to something. The ethnic fragmentation and Pakistan’s meddling is a recipe for perpetual conflict zone in the region.

The question of India’s engagement with Taliban

  • Taliban’s effective control of territory in Afghanistan expanded in recent years.
  • This led to the question of India’s direct dialogue with the Taliban gain some relevance.
  • It has acquired some immediacy after the US announced plans for a significant draw down of its forces from Afghanistan and signed a peace deal with the Taliban earlier this year.
  • Also, recently the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, called on India to open a political conversation with the Taliban.
  • The interest was further amplified by a signal from the Taliban that it is eager for a productive relationship with India.

So, what should India do?

  • Those calling for direct engagement with the Taliban say that Delhi can’t ignore such an important force in Afghan politics.
  • Opponents say there is no reason for Delhi to join the international stampede to embrace the Taliban.
  • If and when the Taliban becomes a peaceful entity and joins the quest for a political settlement with Kabul, they argue, Delhi should have no objection to direct talks.
  • So, opening a dialogue with the Taliban is a tactical issue focused on when, how and on what terms.

Pashtun question and India’s enduring interest in Afghanistan

  • The Taliban remains an important sub-set of the larger and more strategic Pashtun question.
  • The Pashtun question holds the key to India’s enduring interest in Afghanistan: Promoting a peaceful, independent and a sovereign Afghanistan that is not a subaltern to the Pakistan army.

2 Basic issues that will define the Pashtun question

1. Forming unity among multiple ethnic groups

  • First is the problem of reconciling the interests of multiple ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
  • The Pashtuns constitute nearly 42 per cent of the population.
  • The sizeable Afghan minorities include 27 per cent Tajiks, 9 per cent each of Hazaras and Uzbeks.
  • Irrespective of the nature of the regimes in Kabul over the last four decades— constructing a stable internal balance has been hard.
  • That problem will acquire a new intensity as the Taliban stakes claim for a dominant role in Kabul.

But has the Taliban learnt to live in peace with the minorities?

  • The Taliban, an essentially Pashtun formation, had brutally crushed the minorities during its brief rule in the late 1990s.
  • There are some indications that the Taliban is now reaching out to the minorities but it is some distance away from winning their trust.

2. Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan

  • The problem of constructing internal balance in Afghanistan has been complicated by Pakistan’s meddling.
  • Pakistan would like to have the kind of hegemony that the British Raj exercised over Afghanistan.
  • Neither can Pakistan replicate that dominance nor are the Afghans willing concede it to the Pakistan army.

What about the Pashtun minority in Pakistan?

  • There are more than twice as many Pashtuns living in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.
  • The Pashtun population is estimated to be around 15 million in Afghanistan and 35 million in Pakistan.
  • And as mentioned above, the Taliban is essentially Pashtun formation.
  • Although Pashtun separatism has long ceased to be a force in Pakistan, Islamabad finds the Pashtun question re-emerge in a different form.
  • Pakistan can’t really bet that the Taliban will not put Pashtun nationalism above the interests of the Pakistani state.
  • The Taliban, for example, has never endorsed the Durand Line as the legitimate border with Pakistan.
  • It is by no means clear if Pakistan’s construction of the Taliban as a conservative religious force has obliterated the group’s ethnic character.
  • Sufferings of Pakistani Pashtun People: Islamabad’s quest for control over Afghanistan over the last four decades has heaped extraordinary suffering on the Pashtun people on Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line.
  • As the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement seeks a peaceful redressal of its demands for basic human rights, Pakistan has unleashed massive repression.

India’s importance in Afghanistan

  • That the Taliban wants to talk to India and Pakistan brands Pashtun leaders as Indian agents only underlines Delhi’s enduring salience in Afghanistan.

Consider the question “After the US-Taliban peace deal, India is forced with a difficult prospect of opening the dialogue with the Taliban. Examine the implications of the return of Taliban in Afghanistan for India. What is your opinion on India starting the dialogue with Afghanistan?”


Pakistan’s expansive military and political investments in Afghanistan have not really resolved Islamabad’s security challenges on its western frontier. If an Afghan triumph eludes Pakistan, Delhi can’t escape the complex geopolitics of the Pashtun lands.

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