Reality strikes: India’s options after withdrawal of US from Afghanistan

New Delhi is shedding the hesitations of history and looking to deal with the inevitable situation, in which the Taliban will emerge as a very important stakeholder, perhaps the most important one, in the country 

The recent Taliban offensive has led to its forces claiming control over 80 per cent of Afghan territory ahead of the US military withdrawal | File Photo

Reports about Taliban and Pakistani fighters specifically targeting India-funded development projects in Afghanistan has triggered much apprehension in Delhi’s corridors of power.

Congress MP and former junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor has even expressed worries that India’s $3 billion development assistance to Afghanistan, pumped into dams and other community or infrastructure projects, may go down the drain.

India had strongly supported the US-driven NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan right from the time the post-9/11 military intervention drove the Taliban out of power.

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For Delhi, the foreign military intervention led by the Bush Administration helped save Afghanistan from becoming the hub of radical Islamist terrorism on the strategic link zone of South and Central Asia.

Since most of these radical Islamist forces were proxies of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, India had sought to built a counterweight by developing close links with anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan groups within the Afghan resistance since the late 1980s when Soviet withdrawal became imminent.

Indian military and intelligence advisers were deployed in great secrecy to support the forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud, one of the three Afghan warlords said to have been recruited by India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW).

Also read: What India can learn from Bangladesh’s fight against terrorism

In fact, these warlords later formed the Northern Alliance backed by the US and NATO as it sought to drive the Taliban out of power and move strongly against Al Qaeda bases inside Afghanistan.

If India’s covert and then overt intervention in East Pakistan in 1971 had led to the emergence of Bangladesh as a friendly nation to ease Delhi’s security concerns in the East, its covert intervention in Afghanistan began much before the western forces landed in Kabul.

It was designed for both defensive and offensive purposes to secure its western frontiers by ensuring the defeat of the pro-Pakistan radical forces in Afghanistan and create an India-friendly government with Afghan nationalists (or with at least anti-Pakistan warlords) so that they could not be used to boost the separatist campaign in Kashmir in India.

Aiding and abetting local nationalisms (Bengali, Baloch, Sindhi and Pashtun) against radical Islam has been part of India’s post-colonial strategy to undercut Pakistan, which was created by the vivisection of Britain’s India Empire on religious lines as a “homeland for Indian Muslims”.

No wonder, India felt defeated when Pakistan successfully managed to bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

Those fears have expectedly resurfaced after the recent Taliban offensive that has led to its forces claiming control over 80 per cent of Afghan territory ahead of the US military withdrawal. Even last year, India had announced about 150 projects worth $80 million (about 592 crore) in the conflict-ridden country.

Also read: Why India must not miss lessons from China’s woes in Myanmar

New Delhi also committed to build a new dam, which will provide drinking water to 2 million residents of Kabul. “There is no part of Afghanistan today untouched by our 400-plus projects, spread across all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan,” Foreign Minister S Jaishankar recently said.

Since 2002, India has committed $3 billion (about 2,200 crore) towards rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan.

India’s current development programmes in the country are centred around five pillars: large infrastructure projects; human resource development and capacity building; humanitarian assistance; high-impact community development projects; and enhancing trade and investment through air and land connectivity.

Large infrastructure projects completed include construction of a 218-kilometre road from Delaram to Zaranj (on the Iranian border), which provides alternative connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran; Salma dam; and the Afghan parliament building, which was inaugurated in 2015.

More than 65,000 Afghan students have studied in India under various scholarship programmes and 15,000 students are presently studying here; 3,000 scholarships have so far been granted to young Afghan women to pursue higher studies in India.

Going beyond basic education, India also provided vocational training to a large number of women in Afghanistan. Jaishankar also said that Afghanistan’s growth has been constrained by its landlocked geography and “we need to address that” — an oblique reference to Pakistan blocking transit access.

“Through Chabahar Port [in southeastern Iran, on the Gulf of Oman] we have provided an alternate connectivity to Afghanistan that has helped transport 75,000 tonnes of wheat during the COVID pandemic. We were also able to send more than 20 tonnes of life-saving medicines and other equipment to address the COVID-19 challenge,” Jaishankar said.

While India did not invest in Afghanistan during the Taliban years from 1996 to 2001, the government’s decision now to invest in Afghanistan’s future, where Taliban is set to play a dominant role, is being seen as a major departure from the past.

Also read: Bengali confrontationist persona and contemporary realities

It signals that India is finally shedding the hesitations of history and looking to deal with the inevitable situation, in which the Taliban will emerge as a very important stakeholder, perhaps the most important one.

The February 2020 agreement [the Trump administration’s commitment to withdrawing military forces by May 2021] is seen in India’s policymaking circles not only as a hasty act of US withdrawal, but one taken without any consideration for the interests of strategic partners like India.

India has not agreed to US proposals that it “puts boots on ground” in the shape of combat formations and Jaishankar had flagged India’s concerns in Afghanistan .

But having to deal with the inevitable, and in a carefully calibrated shift in its position, New Delhi had participated in the commencement ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks in Doha on September 12, 2020 .

Indian attendance at the Doha event, where a 21-member Taliban team was present, reflects South Block’s realisation of ground realities and shifting sands in Kabul’s power structure.

That was significant because it signalled an Indian desire to come to terms with reality and seek to maintain its presence in Afghanistan even after the US-NATO military withdrawal.

Meanwhile, India’s intelligence has successfully reached out to elements within the Afghan Taliban, including one of its top leaders and founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to secure Indian interests, specially the continuity of its development outreach and to ensure that in a post-US Afghanistan, India’s traditional allies are represented in a possible national government and not marginalised as pro-Soviet leaders like Najibullah had been after the Russian withdrawal.

Indian intelligence officers involved in Afghan operations, on condition of strict anonymity, have told this writer that the silent outreach will  focus on the ‘nationalist elements’ within the Afghan Taliban.

Mullah Baradar suffered eight years in a Pakistan prison (2010-18) because the ISI saw him as dangerous for Pakistani interests. He was actually released, according to media reports, on solicitation by the Qatar government, which wanted to facilitate and carry to desired conclusion the talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban.

Mutlaq Bin Majed Al Qahtani, Qatari foreign minister’s special envoy in the Afghan peace process, confirmed during a webinar on 21 June, 2021, that India was “quietly engaged with the Taliban”. “I believe India was engaging the Taliban not because they might take over the country but because they are an important part of the new power structure, the emerging political set-up there,” the envoy said.

This author has personal knowledge of the Taliban outreach, which is led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Indian intelligence agencies reporting to him. The Ministry of External Affairs is in the picture, with its spokesman Arindam Bagchi admitting: “We are in touch with various stakeholders, as I said, in pursuance of our long term commitments towards development and reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

Jaishankar’s two back-to-back visits to Qatar, the venue of the peace talks, in June 2021 is evidence of a dual strategy.

In the first place, Delhi seems to be using its influence as a top US strategic partner to slow down the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, stretching it beyond the September 2021 deadline. For this, India is playing on fears in the US strategic community over huge gains made by the Taliban through their recent violent campaign, which it has intensified even while it remained engaged in the Doha peace process. US envoys in Afghanistan have already gone public over Taliban’s aggression, which is seen as violating the terms of the 2020 agreement.

India itself is playing up the Taliban aggression, with Jaishankar flagging the need for “enduring double peace” in Afghanistan during his address to the UN Security Council on UN assistance to Afghanistan.

Jaishankar’s “harmonising the interests of one and all” quote points to Delhi reconciling with the fact that Taliban is part of the future Afghan power structure. But his insistence on “zero tolerance to terrorism” emphasises India’s core concern over possible export of Islamist radical terror to Kashmir, where the Modi government is involved in fresh political engineering through a possible restoration of statehood nullified two years ago.

It also points to a quiet India diplomatic effort with Russia, Iran and the US to ensure India’s friends get a good share in government and Indian projects continue. The Taliban assurance on continued Indian development projects, though laced with a warning that Delhi should not militarily assist the Ashraf Ghani government, may be seen as a ray of hope.

That the Taliban have now emphasised on national reconciliation through negotiations and avoid continued strife after their recent military reverses in northern Afghanistan helps Delhi’s cause and that of its friends in the existing government.

(Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts.)

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