India’s Afghanistan quandary
2 Aug 2021|

America has cut and run. Pakistan and China are rubbing their hands in glee waiting to move in to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan left by the United States. Russia and Iran, although wary of the Taliban, are happy that the US has been shown up as a colossus with feet of clay despite the gloss being put by Washington on what amounts to a humiliating retreat. The only country with a major stake in the future of Afghanistan that is unhappy with the American decision is India—and for very good reasons. India has already pumped US$3 billion since 2001 in developmental assistance into Afghanistan in order to prevent the exact scenario that is emerging now.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to India tried to paper over the cracks between American and Indian perceptions of the future of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was at the top of the agenda during Blinken’s talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, which ended with the bland statement that India and the US ‘largely see Afghanistan in the same light. We’re both committed to the proposition that there is no military solution to the conflict that afflicts Afghanistan.’ This meaningless declaration ignores the fact that after withdrawal neither Washington nor New Delhi has any means of preventing a power grab in Afghanistan or a takeover of the country by the Taliban.

The reasons why New Delhi agreed to put up a brave front by endorsing the American formulation used as a fig leaf to hide the harsh reality of a Vietnam-like retreat and the expected fall of the Kabul government as predicted by American intelligence agencies are not hard to fathom. First, the Indian government knows that the Biden administration’s decision to leave Afghanistan to its fate is irreversible and New Delhi doesn’t have sufficient leverage with Washington to force it to rethink its decision.

Second, India doesn’t want to create public acrimony on this issue because of its overriding interest in collaborating with the US bilaterally as well as through the medium of the Quad to contain the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.

Third, the Modi government didn’t want to add to the differences with the Biden administration on issues of human rights and freedom of expression already on display during Blinken’s visit, despite the secretary’s efforts to underplay American concerns on these issues in order not to annoy New Delhi and create a backlash.

However, all this fudging can’t hide the hard fact that India faces a quandary in terms of its policy towards Afghanistan. India was opposed to the Taliban regime in power in Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001 primarily because it saw it as a tool of Pakistani policy in two spheres. First, a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul was expected to provide Islamabad defence in depth in times of future conflict with India, thus to some extent neutralising India’s conventional-power superiority. Second, Afghanistan under the Taliban had become a safe haven for Pakistani and Pakistan-trained terrorists that Islamabad deployed on the Indian side of the Line of Control in Kashmir in an effort both to make the state of Jammu and Kashmir ungovernable and to divert substantial Indian military capabilities into fighting the insurgency and keeping order in Kashmir. This is why India supported and secretly armed the Northern Alliance that was fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

New Delhi is worried that if the Taliban return to power they will once again act as Pakistan’s proxy. Although Taliban 2.0 projects itself as being different from the original Taliban and its leaders have repeatedly stressed that it will not allow terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan, its current rhetoric is seen as mere dissimulation by the Indian government. This is why India has refused to have direct contact with the Taliban, despite the fact that all other interested powers, including China and Iran, have held negotiations with them in anticipation of their coming to power in Kabul. New Delhi has denied recent reports emanating from Qatar that its external affairs minister met with the Taliban leadership in Doha in June.

India is worried not only about Pakistan’s increasing clout in Afghanistan but also about potential moves by India’s other nemesis, China, in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, especially in light of Beijing’s interest in roping in Afghanistan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. A meeting between a Taliban delegation and the Chinese foreign minister on 28 July in China has heightened these concerns. In the meeting, Mullah Baradar, who led the Taliban delegation, called Beijing a ‘trustworthy friend’ and said that the group wouldn’t permit ‘anyone to use’ Afghanistan’s territory. The reference to ‘anyone’ was obviously meant to reassure China that the Taliban won’t allow insurgent Uyghur groups already active in Afghanistan to use the country to attack targets in China. Incidentally, this meeting followed a joint statement issued by the Pakistani and Chinese foreign ministers on 24 July that the two countries will coordinate their policies and closely cooperate on Afghanistan, further adding to Indian apprehensions.

New Delhi perceives these developments as potentially highly damaging to India’s interests in Afghanistan, especially since the American withdrawal has made it almost certain that the Taliban will play a major role in governing Afghanistan even if they are unable to capture power single-handedly. The military advances made by the Taliban as American and allied forces have withdrawn have added to Indian fears.

However, New Delhi isn’t in a position to affect the outcome on the ground primarily because it has no land borders with Afghanistan, unlike the other powers with stakes in the country. Furthermore, its major local ally, the Kabul government, appears to be on the brink of collapse because of endemic corruption, infighting and the steady disintegration of its armed forces.

The endgame in Afghanistan could, therefore, signal a major reversal for India. This is likely to embolden both Pakistan and China to adopt more aggressive postures in their relations with New Delhi, thus further worsening India’s security environment.