India Afghanistan Relations:

Context: US recently announced withdrawal of 7000 US troops from Afghanistan, a decision which would reduce its presence in Afghanistan by half and would force India to rethink its Afghan Policy.

US’ South Asia/ Afghan Policy 2017:

  • US announced deployment of additional 4000 troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers to avoid the collapse of Kabul government by creating a vacuum for terrorists.
  • US warned Pakistan for its support to terror havens which lead to instability in Afghanistan.
  • US refused to engage with Taliban without involving Afghan government in the process.
  • US recognized India’s contributions to stability in Afghanistan and expected India to play a more proactive role in Afghan development.

Recent developments vis-à-vis Afghanistan around the world:

  • US wants to reduce its military presence in foreign states i.e. in Afghanistan and Syria.
  • US wants the regional players like India, China and Pakistan to play more active role in Afghanistan by sending their troops to Afghanistan, as it considers these players to be direct beneficiaries of Afghanistan stability.
  • US, in a changed attitude, has initiated direct talks with Taliban representatives,by appointing special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in September 2018 to lead talks with the Taliban, without taking Afghan government in the loop.
  • In contrast with its criticism of Pakistan, US recently praised Pakistan for its stabilizing efforts in the region.
  • Russia held a meeting ‘Moscow Format’ to discuss Afghan question in which India was represented unofficially by former diplomats, which marks a drastic shift from rejection to unofficial talks with Taliban. 
Moscow Format:
• It was a meeting of world leaders, held in Moscow, Russia, in November 2018, to discuss future of Afghan polity, Taliban’s role in it and Taliban’s acceptability among world leaders.
• ‘Moscow format’ was organised by Russia. Earlier the meeting was called off due to non-participation of Afghan government, this time meeting was open also to non-government representatives.
• Deliberations took place on a number of issues surrounding Taliban and its role in Afghanistan.
• The Afghan government did not send any officials, but four members of the Kabul-based High Peace Council (HPC) attended the event.
• India was represented in ‘Moscow Format’ by former diplomats non-officially. The choice of delegates allowed India and Afghanistan distance and deniability about Taliban.

 

Impact of US troops withdrawal on India:

  • Security situation: Weaker American presence in Afghanistan would embolden local militant groups such as the Taliban,whose influence could subsequently spread to neighboring Pakistan and Kashmir.
  • Regional connectivity and related economic concerns: India’s investments of billions in Afghanistan (India is Afghanistan’s largest contributor of development assistance in the region) and plans to connect with Central Asia would be jeopardized if Taliban, being supported by Pakistan, gains ground.
  • Regional instability: Sudden American withdrawal might create a civil war like situation as various regional stakeholders (China, Russia and Pakistan)will try to reshape the battlefield in accordance with their own strategic priorities, which will hamper India’s long gestated efforts at building Afghanistan.
  • Isolation of India: India’s displeasure with Taliban is explicit and India was supported by US on this, but post US announcement of withdrawal most of the other stakeholders,like Russia and US, have simply ignored and isolated India’s views and have engaged with Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan in finding a solution.

Impact of US withdrawal on the world:

  • Spurt in terrorism around the globe: Taliban may join forces with Pakistani militants to create safe havens for terrorists targeting India, the United States and others using the fertile ground as used earlier by Al Qaeda.
  • Increasing salience of Pakistan in Afghan affairs: In variance with 2017 US policy, which attenuated Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, US withdrawal has again brought Pakistan at the centre-stage in Afghan politics by raising its geo-strategic importance for other contestants.
  • Space for external influence: The removal of the U.S. presence from most theatres of action has created space for regional players: leaving Syria to Iran and its allies; Yemen to Saudi Arabia; Afghanistan to players like Russia, Pakistan and Iran; and Pakistan to China.
  • China’s advance in South Asia:Instability in Afghanistan would give an opportunity for China to make inroads in Afghanistan through its deep pockets, similar to its actions in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan, thus challenging India’s leadership in South Asia.

India-Afghanistan engagement:

India is committed to “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled” peace process. India’s engagement with Afghanistan is multi-dimensional.

 

India’s engagement with Afghanistan vis-à-vis Taliban has been non-linear:
• Taliban emerged in 1994 in Afghanistan and India refused to recognise the Taliban regime of 1996-2001 in Afghanistan as it was being propped by Pakistan’s army and the ISI.
• After 9/11 attacks US crackdown led to the fall of Taliban regime in 2001. When Taliban re-emerged in 2006-07 to challenge US forces, India maintained its distance with it.
• Post US withdrawal in 2009, Afghan government reached out to Taliban with a peace and reconciliation process.
• India’s unofficial participation in ‘Moscow Format’ recently marks a drastic shift from rejection to unofficial talks as this is the first time India shared a room with Taliban.
Reasons behind India’s changed stance vis-a-vis Afghan Taliban:
• US earlier maintained that it would continue its presence in Afghanistan and also gave push to India’s role in Afghanistan. These factors ensured reduced Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and also ensured that India’s gains in Afghanistan would not be jeopardized. .
• India participated because of its desire not to be left out from Afghan deliberations because of Afghanistan’s geostrategic importance for India.
• By participating in the peace process, India wanted to ensure that Pakistan does not manipulate the terms of reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul against India’s favor.
Taliban is gaining stronghold in Afghanistan and increased acceptability among Afghan government and other countries like Russia, China and now US. If it forms a legitimate government in Afghanistan in future, India’s isolation would increase Pakistan’s influence in the region, which requires India to revisit its stand on Taliban. 

 

Way forward for India:

  • S.’s eventual pullout as Afghanistan’s peacekeeper is inevitable, and it would be more prudent for India to prepare for it than to deny it will happen.
  • By abandoning SAARC in favour of BIMSTEC and BBIN to isolate Pakistan India faced the collateral damage of distancing Afghanistan too in the process. Hence India needs to step-up bilateral engagements with Afghanistan.
  • The Afghan government has been equally surprised by America’s announcement and has recently shown its detestation for Pakistan by appointing two ministers known for their hardline position on the Taliban and Pakistan, which brings opportunity for India to have closer engagement with Afghan government.
  • As part of the “India-China plus” initiative, New Delhi and Beijing have identified Afghanistan for implementing joint development projects. Similar initiatives should be explored with other like-minded countries like Russia for Afghan growth and development.
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