India’s Afghanistan ‘Vidambana’ – Our Take

By Ajay Mishra & Chiranjeev Barthakur

The withdrawal of the US and NATO conventional military apparatus from Afghanistan is reshaping our thinking and approach towards that landlocked country is no new news. Bordered by multiple countries, its strategic importance in Central Asia can be measured by the mere fact that countries like the USA, China, Russia, and India are all involved in ascertaining its future outlook over the next year.

Our External Affairs Minister has stated in Parliament recently, after his talks with the US Secretary of State, that India will not accept any political outcome in Afghanistan which has been attained by force. Which to our understanding simply means we will support any democratic process in Afghanistan irrespective of the leader who emerges out of the democratic process. Historically, this is a posture that India has been consistently taking vis-à-vis Afghanistan, atleast officially. Our recognition of Afghanistan as a republic started in 1973 and we were the only South Asian country to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the civil war broke out and the Taliban came to power, our recognition and support for that country were negligible. Since 2001 when the US and its allies dethroned the Taliban and a new democratic government was established, India again restarted its diplomatic relations, provided aid and helped in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Since then the amount of support India has offered Afghanistan, monetarily and otherwise, has been more than significant. Our assistance well-crossed USD 3 billion and projects in roads, dams, schools, hospitals, electricity substations and grids, etc have been delivered by India.

All of the goodwill, projects and bonhomie is at stake yet again if the Taliban re-control Afghanistan. The soon to be withdrawal of US-NATO conventional forces from the country have energized the Taliban into regaining back control of the country from the Afghan government with the use of force. Taliban now controls more than half of rural Afghanistan, overtaken critical border crossings on borders with Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Large cities are at risk of being lost to the Taliban and assessments from US authorities in private fear that Kabul could fall in 6 months’ time. This will essentially mean the Taliban regaining control over the country. Political talks coordinated by the US between the Afghan government and Taliban have been ongoing but the Taliban’s military gains are leading them to believe that these political talks are mainly talks on surrender.

The recent meeting of the member of the Taliban and the Chinese Foreign minister has been not criticized by the US. Rather, US Secretary of State has described this move as a “positive thing”. The involvement of China in Afghan talks appear conducive to both China and the US. For the US, the major focus now seems to lie in preventing a full civil war in Afghanistan. This has been communicated clearly by the US Secretary of State. For China, these talks appear conducive as China needs to engage the Taliban to not allow Afghanistan territory for the operation of Uyghur militants against China. The Taliban has assured China that it will not allow any terrorist activities from its territory against China. Also, Afghanistan rich mineral reserves and the feasibility of trade routes through that country interest China.

Turkey’s latest involvement in Afghanistan is rather interesting. Turkish President while in discussion with the US President at the NATO summit in June has officially proposed to guard and secure the Kabul International Airport, the only major international airport of Afghanistan. It’s being touted as one of the attempts by Turkey to placate the US and mend relations. The relations between the two countries turned sour after Turkey purchased the S 400 system from Russia and the US officially imposed sanctions on Turkey for the same. This offer has however faced opposition from the Taliban.

New Delhi so far has adopted a wait and watch approach for Kabul and has made black white demarcations on whom to side within this whole Afghan saga. New Delhi’s is of the view that the best-case scenario for us would be a power-sharing pact between the Afghan government and the Taliban as talks are already underway. The objective is to have a government in Kabul that is receptive to Indian interests. And it does not want to drag itself into another mess, already having to take care of many cleanups. The assessment in the circles of decision-makers here is that the Taliban will escalate its fighting and up its bid to take over major cities in Afghanistan once the US and NATO conventional forces make a complete withdrawal by 31st August. However, some experts disapprove of our wait and watch stance. Vivek Katju, a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, opines that we have “strategic paralysis” with regards to Afghanistan and that we should have proactively engaged with the Taliban once the US did it. Shyam Saran, another foreign affairs expert, argues that India should support the Afghan government and put its weight behind President Ashraf Ghani, whom the Taliban wants out desperately. His view is that a military stalemate in Afghanistan is better than a Talibani takeover. India now is in talks with all stakeholders in Afghanistan including the Taliban whom they met in Doha.

Our Take

No other country other than India has a bigger ‘Vidambana’ to face vis-à-vis the situation developing in Afghanistan. Total Taliban control means more access to Pakistan – China to Afghanistan. China can now engage with the Taliban directly or through its deep state Pakistan. China already sees the Taliban as a major political group as emphasized by the Chinese Foreign Minister. Total Taliban control also means increased insecurity to Indian built projects there. The Chabahar access to landlocked Afghanistan will also come under the Taliban’s scanner. Engaging the Taliban means stopping all overt formal support to the Afghan government. Taliban has already put a prerequisite for engaging with India – holding all military support to the Afghan government. Engaging with this medieval militant group also means going against the publicly stated position of working with only duly democratically elected governments and turning a blind eye to their horrific atrocities. Total success for the Taliban also means increased stress on Kashmir. Experts anticipate the reorientation and relocation of terrorist groups operating inside Afghanistan. Not engaging with the Taliban and publicly supporting the Afghan government means taking a big risk. If the Taliban were to take control, then Afghan-India ties will be completely lost and its strategic value in the Indian – Pakistan- China equation will be 0 for us. Already Afghan officials have mentioned that around 10000 terrorists have entered Afghanistan from Pakistan to help the Taliban fight the proxy war.

That India has to pro-actively take part in the process is a no brainer. We cannot always go for the wait and watch policy. Countries like Afghanistan look towards us and resolving this issue might demonstrate our will and capability in coping and resolving other issues like Tibet, Iran and Palestine. It needs to be figured out by our decision-makers how much investment Russia, China and Pakistan have done in Afghan and Afghani People in the last 2 decades as compared to India and there whose stake is at the highest risk. Just because Russia, China and Pakistan share borders with Afghanistan does not necessarily imply these nations will decide who will rule Afghanistan and hence we have to play our role from the front and not from the back. 

Considering that all the major countries in South Asia want stability in Afghanistan, India can pro-actively work with Central Asian countries to achieve that. In this context, a disorganized and internally disturbed Pakistan may be the base template and absolute necessity for it. It’s known that Turkey is striving hard to mend relations with the US and off late Turkey – Pakistan relations haven’t been the best. Overtly, India can work with countries like Turkey to engage all the stakeholders in Afghanistan and ensure the establishment of a democratically elected government there. For Turkey, it would be proving that one chance to give the US some justification in mending its ties with them. For India, it would mean decoupling the Taliban from its fighting and Pakistan. When the Taliban gets support in arms and ammunition from countries who want a say in the Afghan resolution process, applying the same logic India should support the current Afghan dispensation and its Armed Forces with more military hardware and indirect support. Covertly our military planners and Special Forces should be used to train the Afghan Armed Forces for the actual battle that is raging on in that country and how to capture back the Taliban areas. In essence, the Taliban should be given the message that the only way to rule Afghanistan is through a democratic process.

 

Writers – Ajay Mishra & Chiranjeev Barthakur are colleagues in an ed-tech company based out of Mumbai. When not at work, they like to pursue their interests. Ajay likes foreign policy and Chiranjeev likes national defence. This is their attempt at writing what they think.

Sources: 

Hindustan Times “India will never accept outcome in Afghanistan decided by force: Jaishankar” accessed on 1 August 21 at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-will-never-accept-outcome-in-afghanistan-decided-by-force-jaishankar-101627550754668.html

 Wikipedia page ‘Afghanistan-India relations’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanistan%E2%80%93India_relations

Wikipedia page ‘Afghanistan-India relations’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanistan%E2%80%93India_relations

The Indian Express ‘Explained: A look at India’s investments in Afghanistan’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-indias-afghan-investment-7406795/

The Guardian ‘China’s talks with Taliban could be a positive thing, US says’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/29/chinas-talks-with-taliban-could-be-a-positive-thing-us-says

France 24 ‘Turkey offers help securing Afghan airport, but has Erdogan bitten off more than he can chew?’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210714-turkey-offers-help-securing-afghan-airport-but-has-erdogan-bitten-off-more-than-he-can-chew

The Print ‘India right to wait till Taliban comes in full view. No need to rush into an ‘Afghan strategy’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://theprint.in/opinion/brahmastra/india-right-to-wait-till-taliban-comes-in-full-view-no-need-to-rush-into-an-afghan-strategy/705920/

Hindustan Times “India is losing out in Afghanistan” by Vivek Katju accessed on 1 August 21 at https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/india-is-losing-out-in-afghanistan-101627649110752.html

Foreign Policy page ‘Can India Make a Play in Afghanistan? accessed on 1 August 21 at https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/07/29/india-afghanistan-us-blinken-visit-regional-diplomacy/

The Print ‘Experts say ‘redeployment’ of Pakistan terror groups in Afghanistan serious threat to India’ accessed on 1 August 21 at https://theprint.in/world/experts-say-redeployment-of-pakistan-terror-groups-in-afghanistan-serious-threat-to-india/706716/