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Taliban has swiftly advanced across Afghanistan after a speedy withdrawal of US troops. While the US has confirmed that 90% of the withdrawal is done, the Taliban has claimed that it is in control of 85% of Afghanistan territory.
These developments mean that the regional powers now have the burden of managing the military vacuum created by the US retreat.
In this article we are going to discuss India’s present Afghan policy, associated challenges and its future policy recalibration vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Why should India act on Afghanistan issue?
India should formulate a long-term strategic policy wrt Afghanistan because of the following potential reasons:
- The immediate impact may well be on Jammu and Kashmir, which is a sensitive area contested by Pakistan on one side and by China on the other. A fundamentalist Sunni regime in Afghanistan and supported by both Pakistan and China will add to India’s vulnerability in Kashmir.
- There is a danger that Afghanistan under the Taliban could also begin to nurture anti-India terror groups.
- While the Afghan people have suffered nearly five decades of conflict, there is hardly any other country in the neighborhood and beyond that has escaped unharmed. Investing in an inclusive and sustainable Afghan political settlement would be beneficial for all domestic and external stakeholders. India can play a key role considering its developmental role in Afghanistan.
India’s Afghan policy
New Delhi’s engagement with Kabul underscores the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and is based on the principles of soft power diplomacy. India has been consistent with its developmental assistance to Afghanistan post-2001 era. India’s development programmes in Afghanistan are focused around following five pillars:
- Large infrastructure projects: Shahtoot Dam, Salma Dam (Afghan-India Friendship Dam), Pul-e-Khumri transmission line of 2009, Parliament building etc
- Human resource development and capacity building: Habibia High School,
- Humanitarian assistance: India sent more than 20 tonnes of medicines, other equipment and transported 75,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan to address the COVID-19 challenge.
- High-impact community development projects.
- Enhancing trade and investment through air and land connectivity: Zaranj-Delaram road
India has time after time demonstrated its long term commitment towards the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan. Since 2001, India has committed USD 3 billion towards rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Policy shift wrt Afghanistan
India never engaged with Taliban, and focussed completely on the Northern Alliance, but that policy might change soon. This is reflected by India’s move of opening channels of communication with Afghan Taliban factions and leaders. The shift in India’s position is in sync with the position taken by key powers that the Taliban will play a part in any future dispensation in Kabul.
- The outreach is being made with the Afghan-Taliban which is composed of factions and leaders that are perceived as being “nationalist” and are not under the control of the deep state of Pakistan and Iran.
- The move is also backed by the recent perception that the Taliban is no longer a monolithic organization and some factions may not be completely under the sway of Pakistani generals.
This marks a significant shift in India’s Afghan policy.
Challenges before India
- India’s role in Afghanistan is severely constrained due to a lack of access, with Pakistan blocking the way and the Iran route becoming more and more problematical.
- Military intervention is not an option: Without a clear political objective or strategy, military intervention of any description can be ruled out.
- India cannot rely on US: India cannot count on closer ties with the US to influence the course of Afghan politics. The US has displayed its own narrowing options when it abruptly left the elected government of Afghanistan to the mercies of drug-financed extremists armed by Pakistan.
- Tensions with Pak & China: India’s own relations with Pakistan and China have touched new lows. The reinstatement of a ceasefire with Pakistan along the Line of Control remains precarious. In Ladakh, where the Chinese military made steady inroads in 2020, the agreement to de-escalate tensions and for Chinese troops to pull back along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has been only partially effected.
- Mistrust on Taliban: Though there are indications of a policy shift but still there has been a high degree of mistrust on Taliban since the Hijack of an Air India flight to Kandahar in 1999. Further Taliban’s proximity to Pakistan has also hampered the Indo-Taliban relations.
- Further, supporting the Taliban will be a betrayal for the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban can go back to medieval practice and establish an Islamic republic based on Sharia. This will result in denying the hard-earned rights of the Afghan peoples.
- Pro-China Taliban: The Taliban have already hailed Beijing as a “friend,” which means that China-centric militants will be eliminated and China’s material interests will be protected by the Taliban.
India’s future Afghan policy
- Collaborating with Iran and Russia: The Afghan government’s loosening grip over the country’s international borders must be sufficient reasons to make Tehran and Moscow anxious. Also, despite complete withdrawal, the US is still one of the most important players in the Afghan issue. All this makes Washington, Iran and Russia indispensable for New Delhi’s calculations. They should collectively encourage all Afghan parties to work for relatively smooth transition to a neutral interim government.
- Abandoning Afghanistan: Abandoning Afghanistan is also a policy option for New Delhi; similar to the Tibet situation when in December 1962, India closed its consulate general in Lhasa, in the aftermath of its war with China. India has already shut its two Afghan consulates in Herat and Jalalabad. Though an option, India is unlikely to go down this road.
- Soft power: India should continue with its soft power diplomacy and engagement methods (that involve winning hearts and minds) to strengthen cultural and political relations with Afghanistan, even under Taliban. India’s contribution to the development of cricket in Afghanistan is such an example. Also, it would do India good if it augments its soft-power with the hard power of military capability.
- Engaging with Taliban: India’s Afghan policy must be based on a clear-cut understanding of India’s strategic goals in the region, and the regional and global strategic environment. Though it is a bit late, yet India has taken the right decision by engaging the amenable section of the Afghan Taliban.
- Though New Delhi cannot influence the Biden administration’s approach toward Pakistan, efforts should be made to impress upon Washington that US–Pakistan relations should be redefined so as to ensure that any tactical accommodation between them comes with consequences.
- Revitalizing Chabahar: Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf, languishing from Indian disinterest for several years should be back on the Indian agenda. The shortest route to the sea, whether to extract minerals—which Afghanistan is rich in—or to connect with Central Asia, is through Iran at Chabahar. It also offers an alternate option for China’s Belt and Road initiative thereby countering Chinese influence in Afghanistan
India should formulate its long-term Afghan policy keeping in view factors such as America’s need for tactical cooperation with Pakistan, China-Pakistan strategic coordination, and the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.