According to experts, the greatest weakness in Afghanistan is the disunity among several non-Taliban factions and power brokers.  (Photo:  Reuters)

In Afghanistan, Indian interests face a descent into chaos

The development raises several concerns for India, both geopolitical and more immediately tactical. Over the past two decades, India has participated in the rebuilding of the country—the Afghan parliament buildingthe Salma Dam in Herat province that generates electricity and irrigates 75,000 hectares of agricultural land and the 202-km-long electricity transmission line connecting Pul-e-Khumri in the north to Kabul are some of the big-ticket projects that India has executed.

Now with the US and other international troops exiting Afghanistan as per the terms of a peace deal signed with the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban in February 2020, India is faced with the ascendance of the influence of Pakistan in Afghan affairs.

In New Delhi, the estimates are that the Taliban is currently in control of about 50% of Afghanistan, up from the almost 40% they held earlier. From the Taliban’s perspective, the more territory it controls, the greater is its ability to force a political settlement to their advantage, with a correspondingly lesser say for the Afghan government in Kabul that New Delhi backs.

India has had to evacuate its diplomatic personnel from a third Afghan city—Kandahar—on 11 July, given the fierce fighting in nearby areas. The Indian foreign ministry did clarify that the consulate in Kandahar was not closed, and that the evacuation was a temporary measure. But add this to the closure of the consulates in Herat and Jalababad last year, and it becomes clear that India’s footprint in Afghanistan is shrinking.

India downing the shutters of its consulates would be music to the ears of Pakistan that has long been suspicious and wary of Indian presence in Afghanistan. In an interview to Afghanistan’s Tolo News last month, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi accused India of carrying out terrorist activities against Islamabad from Afghan soil. Pakistan has long sought a pliant government in Kabul— one that it can fall back on in case of hostilities with India. And a government in Kabul that is dominated or controlled by the Taliban fits in neatly with Islamabad’s scheme of things.

“India’s engagement in Afghanistan was premised on the belief that it can expand its diplomatic and development footprint in Afghanistan under the US security umbrella and the limits of that engagement are clear today,” Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College, said.

Avinash Paliwal, a professor of international relations at the SOAS University of London, believes that India’s role in Afghanistan in the post-US withdrawal phase would be determined by the nature and intensity of the conflict. “If the Kabul government is able to survive, and eventually resist the Taliban onslaught, then India is likely to continue with its current approach of developmental assistance and perhaps more support in the security sector,” he said. “But if the Kabul government collapses, India’s presence in the country is likely to scale down in the near term.”

But will the government collapse? And what is the window of time to prevent it?

‘Determined to defend’

The February 2020 pact between the US and the Taliban, 19 years after it began a war on terrorism in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, is being viewed as an “exit” deal for Washington. Under the terms of the pact, the US vacated the sprawling Bagram airbase just north of Kabul, which had served as the nerve centre of all US military operations since 2001. The last of the troops are to exit Afghanistan by 31 August.

“The agreement was weighted heavily in the Taliban’s favour and in hindsight looks more like a US withdrawal, not a peace agreement. Even the so-called ‘counterterrorism guarantees’ by the Taliban in the Doha agreement are not holding up,” said Lisa Curtis, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

After the exit, some 650 US soldiers will be present in Afghanistan, just enough to guard the US embassy and the Kabul airport. Weary of its two-decades-long stay, the loss of 2,500 US soldiers and an estimated $2 trillion investment in the Afghan war and reconstruction, Washington had been planning its pull out since 2018. Under US President Joe Biden, the plans have been quickly implemented.

The chief reason: the challenges to the US from Russia and China need more attention than Afghanistan, a position rued by many quarters within the US and outside as short-sighted. “Now that US forces are departing, the US has little leverage to convince the Taliban to agree to a negotiated settlement,” Curtis said in comments shared via e-mail.

In lieu of the high level of violence, some US estimates suggest the Ghani government could collapse in six months, or a year—something Afghan officials refute.

“The morale of the Afghan security forces is high. The people are determined to defend their villages and towns,” said Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan’s ambassador to New Delhi. “We don’t expect the US to fight our war for us. What we expect the US to do is to assist us where we require assistance, particularly in providing military hardware,” he said.

The US has promised to provide helicopters and aircraft for the newly trained Afghan pilots. However, news reports indicated that the Taliban is picking out and assassinating off-duty Afghan pilots to ensure Afghan ground troops do not get crucial air support in their battles.

According to experts, the greatest weakness in Afghanistan is the disunity among several non-Taliban factions and power brokers. The rivalry between various warlords and tribal chiefs has been the bane of Afghan society.

“The only hope for fending off further Taliban advances is for president Ghani to reach out and work with local leaders and unite them around a common goal of defending the country against the Taliban,” Curtis said.

India’s stakes

Nazir Ahmed, an Afghan student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says Afghans regard India as a “good friend” for historical reasons as well as for the help the country has received in the past 20 years.

“One of the major influences has been Bollywood—actors such as Dilip Kumar, Kader Khan and even Shahrukh Khan trace their ancestry to Afghanistan,” the 35-year-old said. Then, there is the Indian healthcare system that attracts many Afghans to the country for treatment.

“There is education, too. So many Afghans come here to study. Since 2006, we have had 60,000 Afghan students in India and currently, we have 19,000 students,” Ahmed said.

While India has built up goodwill at the people-level, its political leverage in the country has been limited, relative to Afghanistan’s strategic importance. The country has always been considered key for India’s security from the British period onwards. The two countries established diplomatic ties in 1950 with the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused a rupture given that New Delhi was seen as closely aligned with Moscow during the Cold War years. The Soviet Union’s Red Army withdrew in 1989 and a period of instability followed with different Afghan factions fighting each other. In 1996, Kabul was overrun by the hardline Sunni Taliban, just two years after their emergence.

“When the Taliban was last in power—between 1996 to 2001—it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India,” said security analyst Brahma Chellaney, in an essay in Project Syndicate. “Its return could open a new front for terrorism against India which would then have to shift its focus from intensifying military standoffs with China,” Chellaney said.

The highjack of an Indian aircraft, IC 814, to Kandahar in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in December 1999 showed the close links between the Taliban and Pakistan, besides displaying how the interlinkages were to the detriment of India. Bereft of any leverage, India had to release three pro-Pakistan Kashmiri terrorists to ensure the safe return of more than 160 passengers held hostage by the terrorists.

For now, Taliban’s spokesman based in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, is making all the right statements. “On the basis of the Doha Agreement, we have commitment not to allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any other country. We have announced this from time to time.”

Experts like Avinash Paliwal of the SOAS University, however, remain sceptical. He said that not just India, even Pakistan cannot be sure about promises made by the Taliban at this point in time. “This is a movement that is experiencing quick and consequential battlefield successes in the wake of the US withdrawal that even they didn’t expect till a few months back. If the Taliban comes to power in Kabul using force, they will assert their policy autonomy and independence in ways that are difficult to gauge at the moment,” he said.

However, India in 2021 holds more cards than it did during 1996-2001. “India has come a long way from that moment. The mid-1990s were politically and economically turbulent for India. Today, despite India’s ongoing economic woes, it is much more capable of manoeuvring in Afghanistan’s conflict landscape and working with regional allies such as Iran. India’s recent outreach to select Taliban factions is a sign of change in New Delhi’s approach towards Afghanistan,” Paliwal said.

Some news reports indicated that India is engaging sections of the Taliban–something that New Delhi has not confirmed though it admits to being engaged with “various stakeholders”. Shaheen, however, said he was unaware of any contacts between New Delhi and his group. “As far as I know, these have not happened.”

India, he said, was welcome to continue with rebuilding activities in Afghanistan but New Delhi must remain neutral. “India should remain neutral and should not support the current Kabul administration with military hardware, which are ultimately used against the people of Afghanistan and destruction of the country. This is not good for their image and people’s perception of them,” Shaheen said.

The way forward

The Afghan security forces seem to be holding off the Taliban for now, but the endgame is hardly clear.

New Delhi is hoping that ordinary Afghans will resist a Taliban takeover, should it come to that. In recent years, the Afghan youth have enjoyed television and the internet. Women have had the freedom to study and hold jobs. Taliban is opposed to all of this and favours the imposition of a strict Shariah law.

According to Harsh V. Pant of King’s College, despite Taliban’s promises to Russia, Iran and China, none of the three countries can be sure of the group. And that’s because ideologies of the kind that the Taliban propagates cannot be contained within geographical boundaries.

“I think there will be opportunities for India as the churn takes place,” Pant said, pointing out that the concerns of the three countries on terrorism were similar to that of India’s. “India could tap into that anxiety,” he said.

However, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Gautam Mukhopadhaya, believes that the Taliban may have the backing of Pakistan and China given the strong ties between Islamabad and Beijing. “Iran and Russia are likely to turn away from their tactical dealings with the Taliban,” he said, pointing to the possibility of India teaming up with Iran and Russia in an anti-Taliban front once again.

A third option is a direct channel of communication between India and the Taliban, which Pakistan will obstruct.

“New Delhi needs to know what the Taliban is thinking, anticipate how it may act, and perhaps shape its decision-making in real-time in India’s favour,” suggested Paliwal. “For now, the Taliban has indicated a desire for autonomy from Pakistan, and an independent bilateral relationship with India. For them to implement this in practice would require India to have a channel with them,” he added.

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