(Editor’s Note: The views expressed are that of the authors. For the writer’s other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)
By Dr Jagmeet Bawa
The demise of democratically elected government in Afghanistan and the rise of theocratic Taliban is a major national security challenge and a foreign policy setback for India.
In the wake of it, the China–Pakistan nexus against India will be bolstered. Afghanistan has a unique strategical location, and it is at the crossroads of South Asian, Central Asian, and South-West Asian Regions.
The rise of Taliban is a game-changing movement for international politics. Certainly, US President Joe Biden’s hasty pull-out from Afghanistan not only enabled the Taliban to capture Afghanistan in no time but also led to global American humiliation.
Most surprisingly, the United States was not having any domestic or strategic necessity for the withdrawal of its remaining soldiers. This American blunder is going to have long lasting implications for the United States, India, and the world.
The United States’ 20-year war against terror in Afghanistan is the longest it has fought, and America has faced defeat once again after the Vietnam war. But Vietnam war had its implications for America and South-East Asia alone.
But the recent defeat in Afghanistan for the US will have global implications and certainly, the present victory of Taliban is a booster shot for the global Jihadi forces.
The saga of United States’ infidelity
United States started writing the script of Taliban rise from the Doha Agreement, where it gave equal status to democratically elected Afghan government and the Taliban.
The world knows about the Doha Agreement, but no one knows if America has any deal with the Taliban beyond Doha Agreement. Even American Administration forced the Afghan government to release five thousand jailed Taliban terrorists. America ditched the Afghan fighters in the same way it dumped the Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai tried his level best to delay the signing of Bilateral Security Agreement, in the last months of his tenure. But in Sep. 2014 America managed to get through this agreement by Ashraf Ghani and in Dec. 2014 NATO forces halted their all combating operations and reduced the deployment of forces to 13,000.
Since then, Afghani forces were on the fore front and NATO forces has a secondary role to play. After 2014 less than 100 NATO soldiers lost their lives comparing to more than 45,000 of Afghan security forces.
Moreover, NATO soldiers have not lost their lives in the direct gunfights, almost all the casualties were accidental. That’s why experts say that there is no need to pull-out the remaining 2,500 soldiers from Afghanistan.
The presence of NATO forces means a lot for Taliban and the entire region, and their departure paved the way for Taliban to capture the entire country swiftly.
An Opportunist Nexus in the Making
A coalition of regional powers such as China, Russia, and Pakistan have already started its efforts to fill the geopolitical power vacuum in Afghanistan, created by the US withdrawal.
Primarily, China seems to be the real beneficiary of the situation. China wants to use Afghanistan for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has its eye on the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, which is worth $2 trillion.
China is all set to increase its footprints in Afghanistan and China will materialise its plans through Pakistan, as it has only 76 km of common border with Afghanistan, and that too, is almost impossible hilly topography.
Apart from fulfilling its economic interests, China has an opportunity to encompass India strategically and geographically with its like-minded anti-India forces. This situation will enhance China’s bargaining capacity while discussing the Line of Actual Control issues with India.
Even Russia has wasted no time to recapture its old stance in the region. But China is dominating the centre stage and Russia is forced to settle down as a junior partner to the dragon, as it occurred in Russia’s own backyard, the Central Asia.
Taliban Led Kabul: An Ordeal for India
Experts are predicting that after the Afghani nationals, India is going to be the second biggest loser of American betrayal, after the Afghanistan government. International presence in the region and active role played by the Financial Action Task Force helped in putting an effective check on the terrorists’ activities in the region and India was the only beneficiary of this pleasant situation.
Now, with Taliban in the driving seat, there is no denial of the fact that there will be rise in terrorist activities and India will be the first and foremost target.
India has played a key role in Afghanistan’s rebuilding and has invested more than $3 billion in over 400 infrastructure and strategic projects in Afghanistan. These projects earned India enough of good will and India is the most loved country among the Afghans.
India has high hopes from Afghanistan and looked at it as a gateway to Central Asian Republics. India has invested $8 billion on the Chabahar port in Iran with an ambition to approach Central Asian Region through Iran and Afghanistan.
Indian legacy of the diplomatic blunders
This time, India seems very tactful and cautious while taking any decision, before and after the fall of Kabul. India needs to learn from its previous blunders, which hampered its ties with friendly nations badly.
In the early 1990s, after the disintegration of the USSR, Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai’s last hope was India. Even Russia wanted India to take the driving seat, but India failed to address Najibullah’s call for providing arms and money.
It was a time when Indian economy was in a very bad shape and under American pressure, India decided not to provide any help to Najibullah. History has seen the fall of Najibullah, and which gave birth to the rise of Taliban and India has been criticised for playing its part in the rise of Taliban.
Though India provided shelter to Najibullah’s wife and daughters but could not save him from the execution. Apart from American pressure, India did not want to offend Mujaheddins.
But Afghan rebels has never showed any decency to India in history and went on to provide its mountains to Pakistan to train anti-India terrorists and facilitating the IC 814 flight hijacking in Dec. 1998.
In 2019, In another similar incident, America levied sanctions on Iran unilaterally and India yielded to these sanctions and stopped buying oil from Iran. Iran offered the same oil to China on huge discounts.
China took no time in cashing on the discounted oil and successfully managed to bring Iran to its own camp. Again, under American pressure, India not only lost the much-needed cheaper oil but also an ally, which is India’s only passage to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
It was, thereafter, Iran started ignoring India bluntly and dropped India from the 628-km long Chabahar-Zahedan railway project. Iran blamed India for the delay in the projects and scarcity of funds, but Iran took this extreme step after confirming a colossal 25-year $400 billion strategic partnership with China.
Even critics are not happy on India’s acceptance of the US-Taliban peace deal in Doha. Though India made it clear right in the beginning that it is in favour of “Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” peace process, but accepted the deal, which clearly was against Indian interests.
Through this deal, Taliban promised not to attack America and its allies. India is now left out of ‘Non-attacking Zone’ because India is not an ally of America, but only a strategic partner.
In Jul. 2021, the US formed a quadrilateral diplomatic platform along with Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with the objective of increasing regional connectivity. The US came up with this platform to counter the Chinese BRI.
But in the changed situation, China will be the new regional leader and remaining all three partners will not take any risk to be a partner of America, at least in this region.
India’s Immediate Priority in the Transitional Phase
India has done well in the first phase, by carrying out its evacuation process from Afghanistan. It has rescued most of its nationals from Kabul in the initial few days and now it is trying to rescue persecuted Hindus and Sikhs from Kabul along with its own citizens.
New Delhi has started an online service to apply for Indian citizenship and on day one, more than 1,000 people have applied for Indian citizenship. India had vacated its Herat and Jalalabad missions in Apr. 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic. Indian consulates in Mazar and Kandahar were closed in Jul. 2021 and only Kabul office was functional.
India needs to address the safety issues of those Afghans and other nationals, who were working with India on different developmental projects in Afghanistan.
India should create international public opinion for the safety of foreign nationals, minority groups, and even the local citizens in Afghanistan, by using its position as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
India needs to make the best use of its membership to Taliban Sanctions Committee of the UNSC to bring out the plight of common people, during these turbulent times under Taliban in Afghanistan.
India has no other way to stretch its diplomatic outreach to counter the Pakistani aggression after the rise of Taliban before it turns to Kashmir to destabilise the situation. It is evident from the history that Kabul under Taliban contributed to the rise of militancy in Kashmir.
India has very high hopes from Central Asia, and it has showed its desires through the Connect Central Asia Policy. Expecting too much from a region without a geographical proximity becomes very tough and in such a situation role of Afghanistan and Iran becomes very important.
But, if India could not succeed when Iran was trusting India blindly and Afghanistan was having a democratically elected India-inclined government, it will be close to impossible to achieve the objectives of Connect Central Asia Policy when Iran has opted to enter a long time, high investment pact with China and Taliban leads the government in Afghanistan.
Since 2020, New Delhi is having tough times at Line of Actual Control with China, and it has a long history of bitter trials at Line of Control with Pakistan. Having a hostile leadership in Kabul is going to add sleepless nights for the Indian foreign policy makers and leave them with very few strategic options.
The biggest worry for India is now terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, having their training camps on Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Not only these terrorist groups, but Pakistan Army and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) will have an advantage in Afghanistan.
Islamic groups will try their best to use this opportunity for Islamic radicalisation around Indian borders. Last time, when the USSR quit Afghanistan, the world saw the rise of Islamic militant groups in Afghanistan and those groups created problems for the entire region and operated trans-regional terrorist activities.
Remaining Indian Options
India has always favoured a democratically elected government in Afghanistan and till now India has not shown any signs to recognise the Taliban regime directly or indirectly.
Even in case India wants to coordinate with Taliban, the other regional powers have left very less scope for India in Kabul. Rather, they don’t want Indian footprints in Kabul in any form.
New Delhi can continue its support to Afghan National Defence and Security Force (ANDSF). Taliban is aware of this Indian option, and one of their spokesmen warned India about it.
The best option is to wait for some time and let the dust settle down, before taking any concrete step. No doubt, this will decrease India’s status in the region, but Pakistan and China are working hard to leave India without options.
This was visible during the ‘Regional Talks’ in Doha, where India was invited by Qatar and Indian delegation felt neglected. Even India has not been invited for Troika-Plus talks, which was led by Russia and included US, China, and Pakistan.
At the same time, Moscow has not given the weightage to New Delhi, surely because of latter’s closeness to Washington DC. Russia feels that India can play as an American proxy in the Kabul.
India needs to maintain a stand of strategic autonomy and should immediately explore to engage with Russia and try to recapture the trust of Iran. These are the only options that India has.
Problem for India is that almost all other stakeholders are very receptive towards Taliban, including the US. The US administration has given legitimacy to the Taliban by inviting it to the talks.
In the next few months, India must pay the price for its proximity with the US. Americans have lost a front in Kabul, but not the war. It has a very big global alliance base and India can still rope in the US and its allies, especially in the Indo-Pacific to counter China.
Moreover, this is a time for America to strengthen its partner, as Taliban’s growth can escalate the problem of international terrorism. Taliban, an ISI proxy, is going to feed the global terror network and there are number of terror outfits, which are devoured by both ISI and Taliban.
No wonder, if we see Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists, it will be a serious threat for humans. Taliban upsurge will provide an opportunity to the terrorist groups to strengthen their support base, recruit and developing a global terror network.
Just like the western liberal world, India has one more hope from Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the ‘Legitimate Caretaker President’ of Afghanistan. He is holding tight his Panjshir territories, a landscape which Taliban could never claim.
But, even Saleh has very dim chances, as all the old allies — Moscow, Washington, Tehran, and New Delhi — have said nothing confirmatory yet. Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his Germany visit, indirectly showed his solidarity with the Taliban.
In the meantime, Russian foreign minister said that Taliban is not controlling the entire Afghanistan territory and gave an indication to other old allies of Northern Alliance. But Northern Alliance could not hold its fortress long without external support.
India needs to bring the real facts of Kabul invasion of ‘Pakistan-Taliban’ out to the global spotlight. A group of media in the West called it, ‘Pakistan’s Afghan invasion in the guise of Taliban’. Taliban is not only Pakistan’s creation but is also trained by them to be deadly. Pakistan still controls the Taliban, which is being directed by Pakistan’s army and ISI.
Media reports claimed army vehicles along with military equipment, moving back into Pakistan from Afghanistan, mission completed, on Aug. 15. Pakistan has mastery in double crossing.
In 2011, when American army raided Osama bin Laden’s residence in Pakistan, one of America’s stealth helicopters crashed. Before leaving Pakistani territory, the US Army soldiers destroyed the crashed chopper. But its tail remained intact, and ISI immediately invited the Chinese expert to examine the wreckage of the stealth helicopter.
Pakistan cannot run away from charges of foul play, which it had played against the democratically elected Afghan government. A single helicopter attracted a lot of media reports, but now one can imagine the seriousness of the situation, when Taliban has in its possession the entire US weaponry, vehicles, night vision devices, even helicopters and much more.
Global Concerns of Taliban Soar
After taking control of Kabul, Taliban spokesman said the group will not permit Opium farming. But it is difficult to believe this claim, as a major chunk of Taliban’s income comes from the drug industry.
Almost 90 per cent of world’s heroin is produced in the Taliban controlled areas. According to reports, Taliban is controlling the drug producing factories. It now has even the state machinery to back its operations. A bigger geographical landscape will help Taliban to increase the drug production and its supply to all the corners of the world. The world community must keep a vigil and come up with strict anti-drug trafficking policies in the future.
Indian leadership has a real test on its hands now, as Taliban cannot be taken lightly, especially when it is backed by China and Pakistan. India cannot trust Taliban’s commitment that it will not allow anybody to use its land for terrorist activities.
India has created a wider goodwill for itself in Afghanistan. Indian infrastructure projects fulfilled basic needs of Afghan people. India needs to push hard for a decisive role in the region and should use its contacts and leadership to expand its diplomatic base in and around Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific region.
New Delhi needs to work on its new allies, should not allow smaller neighbours joining Chinese camp, and try to regain the trust of old friends like Russia and Iran. India needs to prioritise its own strategic and diplomatic needs vis-à-vis the South Asian region and the Indo-Pacific region.
(The writer is Head and Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science at the Central University of Himachal Pradesh)