A million-dollar question that stares at mandarins in India’s external affairs ministry is how to salvage its interests in Afghanistan once the Taliban returns to power. The reality is daunting. The Taliban has never had any love for New Delhi and, to make it worse, is the creation of India’s forever feuding neighbour, Pakistan.
The impending return of the Taliban, scheduled any time after September 11, is proving to be a reality check for India. Though in recent times, New Delhi has seen its influence slipping away in its own neighbourhood, the re-emergence of the radical Islamic group in Afghanistan will test the scope and depth of India’s foreign policy strategists like never before.
India, today, is firmly with the United States and increasingly dependent on Washington’s support to achieve its foreign policy objectives. For example, its presence in the Quad group of nations is hoped to keep China at bay. New Delhi’s proximity to the US has also been leveraged to put pressure on Pakistan to keep on leash groups based in that country like the Lashkar and Hizbul from stoking violence within Kashmir.
However, the issue in Afghanistan is that the US simply cannot help India in any way. After all the US itself is, in a manner of speaking, running away from Kabul leaving that country in a mess. If India today has a problem vis-a-vis Afghanistan, the US is the key reason for it.
The only other country that India can turn to is Russia, its erstwhile closest ally (as part of the Soviet Union). External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is in Moscow talking to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in an attempt to figure out a way to control the narrative in Kabul.
India, in reality, is seeking solace and strategic support from Russia – a country that is primarily responsible for the current mess in Afghanistan, following the Soviet invasion in 1979. Russia’s manoeuvring ability in Afghanistan is limited as the Taliban itself emerged when the Mujahidin rose against the occupation in the 1980s, until the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
The lesson that Afghanistan has taught the two super-powers, one still incumbent and one erstwhile, is that no outside power however big can hope to occupy the country. The British, in colonial times, was the first to learn that lesson.
India has really no one it can turn to for help. It has no option but to negotiate directly with the Taliban and figure out a way of assuaging the radical Islamic group and work out at least a functioning relationship with it. Recently, Indian government officials did meet Taliban officials in the Qatari capital Doha, but that doesn’t seem to have resulted in any major breakthrough except for a conciliatory statement from a Taliban spokesperson.
On the ground, the stakes for India in Afghanistan are high. Since the US invaded the country in October 2001, India has invested around $3 billion in that country in various sectors, primarily in infrastructure. It has consulates in at least three different cities, including the capital Kabul. Though the number of Indian workers on project sites is estimated at just around 3,000, the desi footprint is much larger.
For India, the change of guard in Kabul 20 years ago was an unexpected bonanza. The then Taliban government had been openly hostile to it and there was no truck with New Delhi. Its role in giving logistical support to the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane in 1999 which landed at Kandahar is an example of this. Having been incubated by Pakistan under guidance and help from Saudi Arabia and the United States, the Taliban was bred to dislike India.
Once the Taliban was ousted by the US-led international coalition force, India was back in favour in Kabul. Pakistan found itself out in the cold as the US had turned against the Taliban. Since then, Pakistan has waited for an opportunity to return in full flow into Afghanistan. Now that the tide is turning, Islamabad is gearing itself to utilise the situation. Though the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is somewhat strained, their relationship is too deep and is bound to weather any difficulty.
For India’s foreign policymakers in South Block, dealing with the Taliban 2.0 will also mean having to indirectly negotiate with Pakistan and come to some sort of understanding that will allow New Delhi some space in Afghanistan. Given the hostile relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad, that is no mean challenge, if not impossible.
India can console itself on the perception that China too may not fancy the Taliban though its problems are not as severe or similar to New Delhi’s. China fears a rise in Islamic radicalism in the region once the Taliban returns to power, and this may boost the morale of Muslim separatists in the Xinjiang region. Already, a paranoid China has reportedly imprisoned thousands of Muslim Uyghurs on the suspicion they are working against the government in Beijing.
Given India’s own problematic relationship with China in recent times, marked by the Galwan clashes and the ongoing tiff along the border in the Ladakh region, any hope of a New Delhi-Beijing axis against the Taliban seems remote. Unless India is able to convince Beijing that on the issue of Afghanistan both stand to lose if the Taliban works against their interests.
Another country that India could have worked with is Shia-ruled Iran, the western neighbour of Afghanistan, which, too, is wary of the Taliban as the group represents Sunni interests. However, in recent years, India has moved farther and farther away from Iran following pressure from the United States, in the process losing out and/or abandoning strategic projects it was invested within that country.
The end result is that India is pretty much on its own as far as Afghanistan is concerned. It cannot count on the US. Russia itself is not in a position to do much, so too China as both have their own problems with the Taliban.
Ideally, a more assertive New Delhi could have worked out its own private arrangement with the Taliban that could ensure India’s interests are not affected in Afghanistan. But, Jaishankar in Moscow, among other things, said that in case the Taliban returned to power violently, that would lack legitimacy. This stand, needless at this stage, however, indicates that India is nowhere near striking any deal with the Taliban.
Meanwhile, time is running out. If the Narendra Modi government’s recent history of foreign policy snafus in its neighbourhood is any indication, India needs to brace itself for the worst in Afghanistan.