From SAARC to BIMSTEC: Neighborhood Perspective
February 06, 2022
24 December, 2021
Afghanistan has been the land of great games, be it the Persian and Ottoman Empire or Russia and Britain rivalry or USA-USSR rivalry. It is also known as graveyard of empires as it was responsible for demise of great empires from Alexander the Great to USSR and Now the mighty US. Even at present the new great game is emerging between the US and China in Afghanistan. Rajiv Sikri in his book, “Rethinking India’s foreign policy” mentions Kautilya’s Mandal Siddhant[i]. According to it neighbour’s neighbour is our friend. Thus, for India, friendly, stable regime in Afghanistan is an insurance against Pakistan’s deep-state. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is important for India for security in Kashmir, securing Indian investment in Afghanistan as well as India’s power projection as a major global power. M.K. Narayanan in his article in The Hindu titled ‘Picking up threads from Afghan rubble’ mentions that “Due to its geographical positioning and influence on regional stability, the political future of Afghanistan will be of considerable significance to several nations with competing sets of interests as well as to pan-Asian relations as a whole.” (Narayanan)[ii]
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF INDIA-AFGHANISTAN
Beginning of Great game: British designs on preventing any expansion of Russian influence beyond the north- western border of Afghanistan started the ‘Great Game’ of the nineteenth century and established the idea of Afghanistan as a buffer state between British India and Russian Central Asia, leading to the signing of a MoU between British India and the Afghan Amir on the ‘Durand Line’ as delineating their respective spheres of influence.
During cold war: In the Cold War decades, particularly until 1979, Indian and Afghan foreign policy interests had much in common, though India shied away from close engagement with Afghanistan. Both countries were among the original members of the Non-Aligned Movement, despite being inwardly focused on the task of developing their countries during the 1950s and 1960s.
Soviet occupation: With the 1979 occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops, India’s non-aligned stance, despite initial protestations to the Soviets, gave way to a grudging recognition of Soviet-backed rule in Afghanistan —a low point in the relationship between the two countries.
Soviet withdrawal: After withdrawal of soviet forces, India, along with Iran and Russia, started supporting the ‘Northern Alliance’ against the Pakistan-backed radical Islamist group, the Taliban.
USA defeated Taliban: When the Taliban was defeated by American troops in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, India was one of the first countries to reopen its embassy in Kabul. India continued to remain engaged in Afghanistan through political, economic, cultural, and investment means.
Growing closeness between India and Afghanistan: The growing closeness between India and Afghanistan was evident with the 2011 signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the first such agreement for India and the first with a country in the region for Afghanistan, underscoring the crucial role India will play in shaping Afghanistan’s future.
However, India’s role was limited to developmental partner due to pressure from the US. US had made the Pakistan as frontline state in it ‘global war on terrorism’. This Indian policy was criticized by realist as risk aversion policy or Panipat syndrome. According to Harsh V. Pant, India was following Pakistan’s policy channelled through USA. (Pant)[iii] (Pant, India's Afghan Muddle)[iv] (Pant)[v] (Pant)[vi]
Steve Coll in his book “Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret War in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016” has also mentioned that India kept on implementing Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan and gave away strategic space to Pakistan by limiting itself to Soft Power diplomacy (Coll)[vii]. According to Happymon Jacob, India does not have a contingency plan and soft power alone cannot secure Indian interests in the region. (Jacob)[viii] (Jacob)[ix] In words of Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, “A clear effect of India’s stand of Afghan led and Afghan owned process” has been to isolate India in the multiple negotiations with Taliban for ending the war.” (Rajgopalan)[x]
SIGNIFICANACE OF AFGHANISTAN FOR INDIA
TALIBAN TAKEOVER OF AFGHANISTAN
According to M. k. Narayanan, after two decades of active involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan, and spending over a trillion dollars in the process to defeat terrorism and the al Qaeda, the U.S. has left Afghanistan in a worse situation than when it entered. This was followed by collapse of Afghan government and swift power capture by Taliban without any bloodshed. (Narayanan)[xi]
WHY USA FAILED?
Dominic Tierney in his book, ‘The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts’ has analyzed how the U.S. in conflicts tends to aim high, achieve a narrow goal and then go home with as much dignity as possible. He attributes it to overconfidence and hubris of US policymakers (Tierney)[xii]. According to Henry Kissinger, Washington’s attempt to turn the country into a modern democracy was an over-ambitious, unachievable goal (Kissinger)[xiii] (Kissinger H. )[xiv]. It failed to establish robust independent institutions in Afghanistan after 2001 Bonn Conference. Instead US focused on top-down liberal society establishment. According to official assessments published in 2009 by the Center for Complex Operations at the US military’s National Defense University, this external approach, based on military occupation, was “doomed to fail” as political reform is more successful when it originates from the local societies and political cultures (USA)[xv]. Further, when local leaders are dependent on foreign military forces to maintain power, it is hard to build popular legitimacy, govern effectively and build a shared national identity.
Ideological issue- In Afghanistan, decades of Western military superiority failed to uproot the Taliban’s ideological narrative regarding the corrupted nature of Afghan leaders and their allies and their betrayal of Islamic traditions and practices.
After 2003, it focused on Iraq which allowed Taliban to recuperate. Despite objections from India, US relied on Pakistan, which continued playing a double game. Due to US’s sanctions against Russia and Iran, US was completely dependent on Pakistan for access to Afghanistan.The US could have and should have coordinated with and involve all stakeholders like Russia, China and India. Hussain Haqqani in his article “To win Afghanistan, get tough on Pakistan” has mentioned that USA accepted Pakistan’s argument that it was supporting Taliban to counter against existential threat from India (Haqqani)[xvi]. However, the argument was wrong since India never has offensive presence in Afghanistan to wage a two-front war against Pakistan. He further points out that, the US took restricted help of India which had good knowledge of Afghan region. Ethnic conflicts and Multiple tribes and factions within Afghanistan did not allow stability.
NEW GREAT GAME IN AFGHANISTAN
During the Cold War, Afghanistan was seen by the West as a bulwark against a Soviet push towards tropical oil fields and trade routes, just as the British Empire had against Russian expansion. But this ‘buffer state’ device may not have survived an extended phase of US support via Pakistan to Afghan Islamists over the 1980s for the overthrow of a Moscow-backed regime. The influence of an Islamist ideology could explain post-9/11 Pakistani duplicity over its pursuit of Al-Qaeda, but, notably, it coincided with a shift in Islamabad’s strategic ties from Washington to Beijing, which apparently has its own plans for the region. According to M. K. Narayanan, Pakistan has emerged as ‘patron saint’ of new Taliban government in Afghanistan. Islamabad along with Beijing and Moscow are the main supporters of Taliban regime (Narayanan)[xvii] (Narayanan)[xviii] (Narayanan)[xix].
According to Rakesh Sood, Pakistan looks at Afghanistan through prism of India. Pakistan always wanted strategic depth in Afghanistan and boundary issues with Afghanistan, separatist elements, India’s role in Bangladesh and India’s good relations with Karzai and Ghani government created security dilemma for Pakistan (Sood)[xx] (Sood)[xxi] (Sood)[xxii].
According to Sushant Sareen, even if some countries led by the US shunned the Taliban, there were others that would eagerly and gladly accept the new reality and establish relations with the Taliban regime. This will be seen in Pakistan as another grand diplomatic and strategic achievement – the PRICs alliance comprising Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Central Asian states built around Afghanistan, an alliance that would obviate the need to seek Western recognition (Kabir Taneja)[xxiii] (Sareen)[xxiv] (Sareen)[xxv] (Sareen)[xxvi].
Stability in Afghanistan means that foreign fighters will turn to Pakistan to spread terrorism. Thus, Pakistan is trying to shift the battlefield to Kashmir as seen in Mumbai attack of Jihadi nature and Pulwama attack. Pakistan also fears of Pashtun nationalism as no government in Afghanistan has ever accepted Durand line. That’s why Pakistan wants to control afghan military and its foreign policy. Another aim of Pakistan is to extend CPEC to Central Asia and bringing to fruition the connectivity and geoeconomic dreams. Pakistan aims to establish itself at the centre of China’s BRI project through CPEC. Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China and inclusion of Afghanistan in BRI can further marginalise India in Afghanistan in new unfolding ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan.
COUNTRY WISE PERSPECTIVES :-
Russia, though no longer the power it once was, is currently seeking to enlarge its influence in Eurasia, and the Afghan imbroglio gives it an opportunity. The withdrawal of the US from its backyard is considered geopolitical victory for Moscow.
According to Brahma Chellany, Putin wants to expand its geopolitical chessboard. It thus Supports ChinaPak axis with the aim of U.S. retrenchment from area. Today though most global media predict that Russia and China would fill the U.S.-left void. However, Russia is cautious, since it has not completely recovered from the “Afghan syndrome,” referring to traumatic memories of the conflict nationwide. (Challaney)[xxvii] (Challaney)[xxviii]
President Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia is aware of “how counterproductive it is to try to force unnatural forms of governance.” The Taliban remain banned in Russia, which limits prospects for a swift recognition of the Taliban government by Moscow. The primary threat for Russia is that Afghan militants could infiltrate nearby countries, spreading terrorism (Hindu)[xxix].
At present, China is attempting to fill the void left by the US. The US withdrawal has provided it an opportunity to assert itself in Eurasia and fulfil its dream of middle kingdom. China, which envisages domination of Asia as the first step in its bid to become the world’s number one power, sees Afghanistan as a prize both from a geo-economic and geo-political standpoint. According to Brahma Chellaney, China has dangled the prospect of providing the two things the Taliban needs to govern Afghanistan: diplomatic recognition and much-needed infrastructure and economic assistance. He further adds that, An opportunistic China is certain to exploit the new opening to make strategic inroads into mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia (Challaney)[xxx] (Challaney)[xxxi]. According to C. Rajamohan, If Pakistan retains its influence over the Taliban, then Kabul could emerge as a peg in a Chinese game for a change. The Taliban have been in direct talks with China, which already has Pakistan enrolled in its Belt and Road Initiative. In the twilight of the Industrial Age, control of Kabul may no longer be the prize it once was to the West, but similar sort of leverage could satisfy a Chinese plot to encircle adversaries—with India as its main target (Rajamohan)[xxxii] (Rajamohan)[xxxiii] (Rajamohan)[xxxiv].
China was one of the first global powers to recognize the Taliban “an important military and political force” while holding the bilateral summit in July 2021. That followed the Taliban’s reassurance to Beijing that they will not “interfere in China’s internal affairs.” For China, the mineral wealth of Afghanistan is only one aspect; a key objective is to make its Belt and Road Initiative a truly viable entity, and further extend its reach to the Indian Ocean, without being totally dependent on Pakistan. From realist perspective, P. Stobdan has held that, for China Afghanistan is another region where India can be preoccupied (Stobdan)[xxxv]. However, Peace in Afghanistan is also critical for Peace in Xinjiang region and to increase its economic and strategic presence in Afghanistan and beyond. The recent spike in regional terrorist attacks targeting Chinese interests – most notably, the July-August suicide bomb attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan – has China concerned that the Taliban could turn a blind eye to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has used Afghanistan as a training ground. China may use the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), combined with regular China-Tajik antiterrorism collaborations, to form a regional buttress for stability. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may also play a more invigorated role as regional security guarantor, since all member-states are interested in regional stability and curbing terrorism.
Commenting on the U.S. withdrawal after a 20-year war, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held that, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan “was a failed enterprise from the start even though Russia supported it during the first stages,” (Gorbachev)[xxxvi] (Insider). Even American leading political scientists described the U.S. mission as “fatally flawed from the outset” because of impossibility of transforming Afghanistan into a unitary state. US president Biden has justified the withdrawal from Afghanistan to deal with China. However, through withdrawal, the US is ceding strategic space in Afghanistan to Russia and China. 2 strategic scenarios from US’s withdrawal o If China and Russia, together with some other countries—notably Pakistan—manage to bring stability to Afghanistan, it will mean loss of strategic space for the US and its allies from a very large geography in Asia (Times)[xxxvii] (World)[xxxviii].
On the other hand, if America’s adversaries fail to pacify and normalise Afghanistan, the terrorism challenge will metastasize into an uncontrollable strategic threat. Both these scenarios will seriously impact the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
According to Sushant Sareen, the Strategic Disconnect between India and US has Been Revealed by Afghanistan. He further pointed out that, for many years now, top US officials and policy wonks maintained that while the US and India had 95 per cent convergence east of India (read China), they had just 5 per cent convergence west of India. To appease the Pakistanis, the Americans made the security domain, a virtual no-go area for India. This, strategic discontent has led to loss of critical geostrategic space to ChinaPakistan-Russia axis (Sareen)[xxxix] (Sareen)[xl] (Sareen)[xli].
India has bitter memories of the previous Taliban stint in power from 1996 to 2001 and the group's links to Pakistan. There has been criticism that India put all its eggs in the basket of the Ghani government when the United States itself had begun talks with the Taliban, and that New Delhi left it too late. However, according to various reports, over the past year as the Taliban emerged as a dominant force and U.S.-brokered negotiations began in Doha, Indian diplomats had opened a line with the group. According former Indian ambassador to Kabul Jayant Prasad, "Our position today is one of adjusting to reality. We have to play the long game in Afghanistan. We don't have a contiguous border but we have stakes there (Prasad)[xlii]." According to Myra MacDonald, author of three books on South Asia and a former Reuters journalist, while the Taliban takeover was a setback for India, it was not game over for New Delhi (Macdonald)[xliii] (Macdonald)[xliv].
India as a major economic player can be attractive to the Taliban, looking to avoid an over-dependence on China. Further, India has development projects in every one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Some analysts have also pointed out that many Taliban harbour deep resentment over how they have been treated and bullied by the Pakistanis. For their part, the Pakistanis are wary of Taliban recalcitrance, defiance, and support for the Pakistani Taliban. These factors might not come into play surface immediately but will eventually. Further, overbearing, interference and demands by Pakistan could lead to a pushback from the Taliban, and perhaps create an opening for India. India can also leverage Pashtun nationalism, Faultline between Afghanistan and Pakistan over Durand line and goodwill among Afghan warlords to regain the lost ground in Kabul.
GCC and AFGHANISTAN :-
The Gulf monarchies find themselves facing a new and difficult dilemma vis-à-vis the Taliban regime. They are nervous about the “Islamic Emirate” returning to power for fears of instability in Afghanistan spilling into the Gulf and the West Asian country once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorist groups. According to Khalid al Jabar, Director of MENA Center in Washington, DC, Saudi Arabia will have “no other option” but to “accept the Taliban” a second time, especially considering the “historical relationship” between the two nations. He further adds that, Saudi Arabia’s approach will likely be a moderating one as the new Saudi leadership has championed “moderate Islam,” Riyadh may try to use its influence over the Taliban to push the group in a direction further away from the extremism. At the same time, Riyadh is conducting outreach to Washington, and backing the American line on Afghanistan. Among GCC countries, Qatar has been hosting an overseas office for the Taliban since 2013, and Doha has been the venue for the intra-Afghan Peace Talks between the erstwhile Afghan Government and the Taliban. Qatar’s ties with the Taliban have also caused strains in ties with other Arab Countries (Jabbar)[xlv] (Jabbar)[xlvi].
Secondly, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who fled Afghanistan was not allowed to land in Tajikistan and has been given exile in the UAE. Also, the United Arab Emirates has agreed to host 5000 Afghan nationals evacuated from Afghanistan on their way to third countries. The role of GCC countries and organizations like OIC will be crucial in Afghanistan apart from Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. Thus, New Delhi needs to find synergies with Middle Eastern countries, especially Iran and Qatar, which have strong links with the Taliban (Today)[xlvii].
For Iran, Washington’s Afghanistan fiasco is about more than just the victory of the Taliban; it has been touted as confirmation that U.S. policy in the Islamic world is doomed to fail. In its messaging, Tehran has tried to reinforce the idea for its partners and allies that it is the only reliable actor in the Middle East, in opposition to a supposedly unreliable Washington that lacks strategic resolve. At the same time, Iran, which is already home to some 2.5 million Afghans, and whose dire domestic economic situation means it cannot afford a new wave of Afghan refugees, may use the Afghan exodus to blackmail Europe, where most of those refugees would want to end up. These immediate geopolitical and ideological gains, however, could be overshadowed by the potential challenges that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may pose for Iran’s security and regional interests in the long run. The consolidation of Taliban rule could also involve serious challenges for Iran. First of all, the Taliban’s approach to local Shiites will have a significant impact on Tehran-Kabul relations. During their reign in the 1990s, Taliban were known for their strong anti-Shi’a ideology, reflected in systematic harassment, torture, and killing of the Shi’a Hazara minority. Also, Iran will once again face a serious threat on its eastern frontier if the Taliban fail to establish stability and security in Afghanistan and deter extremist and terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
POSITION OF DIFFERENT COUNTRIES ON RECOGNISING TALIBAN
Most Western governments have already made it clear that they do not intend to recognize the “Islamic Emirate.”
For India, the virtual retreat of the U.S. from this part of Asia; the growing China-Russia-Pakistan nexus across the region; and an Iran under a hardliner like Ebrahim Raisi, all work to its disadvantage.
Post US withdrawal
Srinath Raghavan in his recent book 'The most dangerous place: A history of United States in South Asia' has written that US policy to disentangle the choke points of the region resulted in its own entanglement in the area with loss of 3 trillion dollars and 2400 USA soldiers. The vacuum can be filled by China and Pakistan which can be detrimental to India’s security. There is also risk of terrorism (Raghavan)[xlviii]. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement states that the Taliban will prevent terrorist outfits from operating on Afghan soil, there is little clarity on how the agreement will be verified and enforced. It is not possible to discern any reduction in terrorism or the demise of any of the better-known terror groups, such as the al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), or of lesser known terror outfits. The other risk has to do with the growing influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which shares an undeniable link with the Taliban, especially the Haqqani group.
SECURITY :- Afghanistan is hub for transnational terrorism and radicalisation. It can have a spill-over effect on Kashmir. It is also a hub for opium trade and organised crime. Taliban’s recent comments on J&K raises serious concerns over terrorism in J&k.
TRADE :- Trade through Afghanistan under a Taliban regime would be routed through Karachi and Gwadar, and the Indian investment in the Chabahar port, meant to circumvent Pakistan, may become unviable. Due to security concerns the Air corridor may also be of little use.
Connectivity :- India lacks direct connectivity with Afghanistan. Suhasini Haider has pointed out that, the end of any formal dialogue between India and Pakistan since 2016 and trade since 2019, have resulted in Pakistan blocking India’s over-land access to Afghanistan. India’s alternative route through Chabahar, though operational, cannot be viable or cost-effective also long as U.S. sanctions on Iran are in place (Haidar)[xlix] (Haidar)[l] (Haidar)[li].
India’s boycott of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017, and now tensions at the Line of Actual Control after the Chinese aggression in 2020, make another route to Afghanistan off-limits.
Russia and CHINA :- Rising Chinese footprint in Afghanistan through its proxy i.e. Pakistan and emergence of China-Pakistan-Iran-Russia axis may also affect India’s presence in Afghanistan negatively. In a show of growing partnership and political bromance, Russia and China have agreed to foster collaboration over Afghanistan and pledged to strengthen strategic communication and mutually “safeguard the rightful interests.”
Institutional weakness in Foreign Policy making due to risk aversion approach and lack of capacity to meet rising expectations of Afghanistan. According to Harsh V Pant, this has frustrated our allies and emboldened our enemies (Pant)[lii].
New Great game :- Between US-INDIA-Afghanistan on one hand and Pakistan-China-Russia on the other. This may further deepen already existing fault lines in Asian Geopolitics.
Ethnic tensions in Afghanistan :- A 33-member interim government overwhelmingly Pashtun in character. According to M. K, Narayanan, Pakistan holds certain key cards given the prominent role assigned to its protégés, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar. This may further intensify power struggle within different tribes, putting Indian investments in danger (Narayanan, The Hindu)[liii].
India’s relations with Taliban government :- India’s relations with the new Taliban leadership may remain strained due to its association, earlier with the Northern Alliance, and subsequently with the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani administrations.
HUMAN RIGHTS :- There is the worry for India of the impact on Afghanistan itself, given the Taliban’s past record in power, of an erosion in women’s and minority rights, the overturning of a democratic system and the imposition of the Taliban’s brutal form of justice.
INDIA’S POSITION-SHIFT ON TALIBAN
Presently, India is taking ‘wait and watch’ approach as events are still unfolding in Afghanistan. However, India’s recent engagements with Taliban and Taliban’s request to New Delhi to resume flights to Kabul highlight position shift towards Taliban. India is unlikely to pursue past policy of not recognising Taliban and supporting Northern Alliance.
WHY CHANGE IN POSITION?
US Withdrawal and Taliban coming back to power.
Pragmatic shift -India’s previous stance had become untenable as it led to India missing out from various peace processes related to Afghanistan.
Pakistan Factor - Taliban is also willing to have relations with India as an insurance against Pakistan. No afghan government including previous Taliban regime has accepted Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Indian Investment - India also has invested more than $
Connectivity imperative - Afghanistan is also critical for India for connectivity to Eurasia and for energy security (Tapi Pipeline). Thus, having cardinal relations with ruling party in Afghanistan is an imperative for India.
Course correction - India needs to avoid previous mistake of not recognising Taliban Government which led to hijacking of IC-814 (adatum.com)[liv].
India has 3 policy options in Afghanistan
1. Realist policy - According to Harsh V Pant, New Delhi need to shift theatre from Kashmir to Afghanistan and should work towards building Delhi-Washington-Moscow consensus to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan (Pant, The Print, ORF)[lv]. On similar lines, Shyam Saran has suggested that India should kick-start new great game by leveraging USA’s local network, good relations with various tribes and goodwill that New Delhi enjoys due to its developmental work (Saran)[lvi] (Saran)[lvii].
2. Continuation of Soft power policy - This policy is supported by scholars like Rakesh Sood, Shiv Shankar Menon and M.K. Bhadra Kumar. According to them, India should continue with No boots on ground policy to stay out of the Afghan quagmire. In words of M.K. Bhadra Kumar, “India should not try to fish in troubled waters.” - However, this policy carries a risk of giving away strategic space to China and Pakistan. It can also endanger India’s investments in Afghanistan under Taliban (Bhadrakumar)[lviii] (Bhadrakumar)[lix].
3. Smart power strategy - According to this strategy, India should come out of its Panipat Syndrome and pursue proactive policy to safeguard India’s national interest. According to Shanthie Mariet D’Souza New Delhi needs to engage with new government in Afghanistan without damaging its carefully nurtured image of a trustworthy neighbour (D'souza)[lx] (D'souza). According to Vivek Katju, India should maintain quiet engagements with Taliban to remain in loop. It will neither confer legitimacy on Taliban, now will it erode legitimacy of India (Katju)[lxi] (Katju)[lxii].
India should remain present in region either through direct talks or backdoor channels and remain prepared to engage even when a new government is in power. Engaging with Taliban- India with the help of its developmental aid and soft power has created enormous goodwill among all sections of society, including Pashtuns, which comprise majorly the Taliban forces. Thus, India has legitimacy in eyes of all stakeholders including Taliban. It would allow New Delhi to seek security guarantees from the insurgents in return for continued development assistance or other pledges as well as explore the possibility of the Taliban’s autonomy from Pakistan. According to M. K. Narayanan, India should take on a mediating role among the different nations anxious to involve themselves in Afghanistan, and produce a formula that would help maintain Afghanistan’s neutrality and ensure that it becomes a buffer zone to prevent further Chinese expansionism towards South Asia (Narayanan)[lxiii]. According to Sushant Sareen, without interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, India can still build partnerships between various stakeholders and raise the capacity and capability of Afghan people (Sareen)[lxiv]. Further, pointing out that USA was in Afghanistan for its own interests, he suggests that, India should increase its presence in Afghanistan security matrix and its capabilities to ensure that it can preserve its national interests on its own.
India needs to work with countries like China and Iran who have similar stakes in peace and stability in the region. The announcement of India-China joint development project in Afghanistan during Wuhan Talks is a welcome step. However, considering present state of affairs between India-China, the future of such cooperation is uncertain. Working with Central Asian countries- In words of Suhasini Haider, “As the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) end their presence in Afghanistan and set off a churn in the neighbourhood, Central Asia is emerging as a key player that the global Troika of the United States, Russia and China are turning to (Haidar)[lxv].”
India and the Central Asian States share common concerns about an Afghanistan overrun by the Taliban and under Pakistan’s thumb: the worries of battles at their borders, safe havens for jihadist terror groups inside Afghanistan and the spill-over of radicalism into their own countries. Suhasini Haider in her article in The Hindu titled, ‘Needed, a more unified Asian voice in Afghanistan’, has suggested that, as part of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), India must also step up its engagement with the Central Asian countries on fighting terror. She further pointed out that, travelling to Kazakhstan in 2015, Prime Minister Modi spoke of why the Silk Road that connected the two regions faded away. “The end of the Silk Road did not just come about from the rise of sea-based trade of the new European powers, It also happened because Central Asia was no longer a bridge between regions, but the new fault line between great empires to the east, west and south.” Ensuring a similar rupture is not wrought in Afghanistan is essential, which today has the potential to become that bridge or the biggest boulder between Central and South Asia (Haidar)[lxvi].
India needs to closely collaborate with US’ local networks, which still carry considerable heft, when engaging the Taliban. The US has also shown an appetite for India’s increased role by recently inviting it to the latest rounds of Afghan peace talks. India should strive to ensure the continuance of the Kabul process so that counter-terrorism, women’s rights, and democratic values stay on the agenda. This may entail bringing the Taliban into a “legal” process of governance and simultaneously supporting the rise of civilian leaders who have legitimacy and clout beyond Kabul. Sushant Sareen in his article in ORF titled ‘Afghanistan: The endgame and the new great game’, mentions that a new ‘Great Game’ is just starting in Aghanistan. India needs to show strategic patience. It is a matter of time before things open up for India once again. Perhaps if the Taliban prove they are not medieval monsters but only deeply conservative, India could open up to them. Or they will make an outreach to India to balance Pakistan. Alternatively, there could be resistance to Taliban from around the region, which again will open up new options for India. For now, however, India must prepare for the long game. This includes helping India’s friends in Afghanistan by giving them refuge. They will be our strongest allies whenever things take a turn in Afghanistan. In the long run, Taliban may also try to remain independent of Pakistan. Thus,New Delhi should first try to break the Pak-Taliban nexus. Taliban may also break its nexus with Pakistan if it gets alternative avenues (Sareen)[lxvii].
Former Ambassador to Kabul Jayant Prasad in his article in the hindu titled ‘Afghanistan — the shape of things to come’ has suggested that, given the uncertainties, India’s game plan will have to evolve as the situation unfolds, which is not a call for strategic restraint or masterly inactivity. For the present, India must abstain from granting recognition to the Taliban regime. He further adds that, India should hold it accountable to its publicly stated commitments concerning the right of Afghans and foreign nationals to leave Afghanistan in a safe, secure, and orderly way, and that Afghan territory will not be used to threaten or attack any country, encapsulated in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2593 (UNSCR 2593), adopted during India’s presidency of the Council (Prasad)[lxviii].
India’s assistance activities and development partnership with Afghanistan covers four broad areas:
HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE :-
Daily supply of 100 grams of fortified, high-protein biscuits to nearly 2 million children under a School Feeding Programme administered through the World Food Programme.
Free medical consultation and medicines through 5 Indian Medical Missions to over 30,000 Afghans monthly. Reconstruction of Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul.
285 military vehicles for the Afghan National Army, and 10 ambulances for public hospitals in five cities).
MAJOR INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS
Zaranj to Delaram: Construction of 218 km road from Zaranj to Delaram to facilitate movement of goods and services from Afghanistan to the Iranian border and, onward, to the Chahbahar Port (completed).
Transmission line: Construction of 220kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul.
Salma Dam power: Construction and commissioning of Salma Dam power project (42 MW) in Herat province.
Afghan Parliament: Construction of the Afghan Parliament
SMALL AND COMMUNITY BASED DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS
These are in vulnerable border areas, with focus on local ownership and management and extend to agriculture, rural development, education, health, vocational training, and solar energy.
84 small projects are under different stages of implementation in 19 provinces of Afghanistan.
EDUCATION AND CAPACITY BUILDING
Studies for Afghan student: 500 annual long-term university sponsored by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for under-graduate and postgraduate studies for Afghan students in India.
Training program: 500 annual short-term ITEC training programmes for Afghan public servants.
Women’s Vocational Training Centre in BagheZanana for training of Afghan women by the well-known Indian NGO SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association).
Capacity building programmes are also underway in the fields of diplomacy, media and information, civil aviation, agricultural research and education, health care and medicinal science, tourism, education, rural development, public administration, electoral management and administration.
As suggested by C. Rajamohan, strategic rewards in Afghanistan are as large as risks. India is realistic enough to know that it doesn't have power to unilaterally define Afghanistan’s future. But India needs to develop some leverage and influence outcomes in Afghanistan through proactive diplomacy and some purposeful action on the ground (Rajamohan)[lxxii]. According to Shashank Joshi, India is a small fish in the water, but its clout is growing. New Delhi has so far shown an unusual tenacity in its dealings with Afghanistan. It now needs to move beyond the binary of economic cooperation and military engagement and evolve a comprehensive policy which involves all dimensions of power. Afghanistan is a tough country. Only those who are willing to fight on multiple fronts will be able to preserve their leverage (Joshi)[lxxiii].
[i] Challenges and Strategy : Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy : Rajiv Sikri
[iv] India Afghanistan Muddle : Harsh V Pant
[vii] Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret War in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 : Steve Coll
[xii] The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts : Dominic Tierney
[xiv] Diplomacy : Henry Kissinger
[xliii] Defeat is Orphan : Myra Macdonald
[xlviii] The most dangerous place: A history of United States in South Asia : Shrinath Raghavan
February 06, 2022
December 02, 2021