Twenty years ago it was hard to believe that the United States and the Afghan Taliban could make a peace deal — but the impossible became a reality in 2020. Today it is difficult to believe that India, the world’s biggest democracy, could engage with the Afghan Taliban, who have demonstrated their hatred of democracy. Stories of backdoor contacts recently surfaced in the media; and while these stories have been denied by Indian officials, there are good reasons for skepticism.

In fact, India has a long history of engagement with the Taliban — which has often irked the government in Pakistan, which is keen to minimize Delhi’s involvement in Afghanistan. Yet as the history shows, this is shortsighted. All regional players should make a joint effort to avoid a civil war and ensure some basic rights for the Afghans.

Indian officials made their first direct contact with the Taliban in 2013, when they issued a visa to the senior Taliban leader, Abdul Salam Zaeef, for a conference. Zaeef was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, but after 9/11 the Pakistani government arrested him and handed him over to the United States. Later, his book, “My Life with the Taliban,” was published in India in 2010. His name was also removed from the U.N. terrorism list; at some point after that he turned up in India. A big question remained: Why did he agree to visit India and why did India let him in?

The Afghan Taliban were not happy with Pakistan’s U-turn after 9/11. Zaeef explicitly expressed his displeasure against the Pakistani security establishment in his book. He wrote: “They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody.” He criticized how his colleagues were tortured in Pakistani prisons.

A senior Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Pakistan in 2010. This arrest was a turning point. Baradar was in contact with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who was quietly pushing Russia, Iran and India to start a dialogue with the Taliban. Pakistan was unhappy with Baradar’s contacts with Karzai and arrested him. This humiliation at the hands of Pakistan forced the Taliban to open channels with Russia, Iran and India. They engaged with Russia and Iran very cleverly by assuring them that only the Taliban could stop the Islamic State in Afghanistan. They were careful in dealing with India.

Pakistan released Baradar in 2018, and the Taliban appointed him head of their negotiating team in Qatar. In the same year some senior Taliban leaders met with Indian representatives in Moscow. They wanted to neutralize India because the Indians had supported anti-Taliban forces in the past. Meanwhile, India was interested in engaging the Taliban because Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had failed to make a united front against them. India invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan after 9/11, even building a new parliament building in Kabul. India also built dams, roads, schools, universities, hospitals and sports stadiums in different parts of the country. All this would go to waste if it didn’t engage with the Taliban.

Last year, the United States also asked India to engage with the Taliban. The Indians were worried that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could encourage militancy in Jammu and Kashmir (as the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 had done). The Taliban made it clear to India they would not interfere in Kashmir. The Taliban also knew that India was providing military support to the Ghani regime. They warned India to remain impartial.

Last month, a top Qatari official disclosed that Indian officials and Taliban leaders had held a meeting in Doha. Pakistan was not happy about these reports. In fact, Pakistan rejected including the Indians in Afghan peace talks. Although Pakistan has been engaging with India recently (both countries announced a cease-fire agreement in February), Pakistan has never been keen on engagement between the Taliban and India. Recently, Pakistani security officials told parliamentarians in a closed-door meeting that the Afghan Taliban are no longer cooperative and that they want to take over Kabul by force. In this meeting, the officials also said that there is no difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, who have been attacking Pakistani security forces for a long time. Pakistan has always accused the Pakistani Taliban of being supported by India.

Some in Pakistan consider the engagement between the Taliban and India a diplomatic embarrassment for Islamabad. Similar views can be heard in India, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party always held that they would hold "no talks with terror,” dismissing the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan. The changing scenario in Afghanistan forced them to talk to the terrorists after all. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently said that India is the biggest loser in Afghanistan, but it is important to ensure that the Afghans don’t lose out in the event of a civil war.

Afghans have every reason to demand that the freedom of speech, the rights of women and other democratic values should be safeguarded. And if Afghans — including the Taliban — have no problem with Indian involvement, then it should be welcomed. Indeed, if it helps to ensure a more stable Afghanistan, it could end up helping Pakistan, too.

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