WITH America leaving Afghanistan in free fall, India faces a catch-22 situation in more ways than one.
First, political realism could prompt New Delhi to engage with the Taliban and offer the badly needed development aid to establish India’s good intentions. But would Indian talks with the Taliban suffice to counter the older and stronger influence of an unfriendly China and Pakistan?
Second, India must strengthen security and economic ties with the democracies, especially the US, its main strategic partner, although America’s disastrous pullout from Afghanistan could exacerbate instability in South, West and Central Asia.
At another level, India should broaden its regional horizons and enhance its regional profile in Iran, Russia and Central Asian countries. They share its aim of countering the Taliban-Pakistan-fomented terrorism.
India was never a troop contributor to NATO, nor was it the strongest diplomatic and economic player in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. India’s soft power did result in a mutually beneficial, though limited relationship, symbolised by the building of a parliament in Kabul, strategically important roads, irrigation and health projects, and the popularity of Bollywood films.
It, therefore, wanted the US to stay the course, although it was clear after 2014 that the Obama, Biden and Trump administrations intended to withdraw US troops sooner rather than later.
The absence of a shared border with Afghanistan does not explain India’s weak Afghan card. For instance, Russia lacks a common frontier with Afghanistan and outlawed the Taliban in 2003. Yet, Moscow was on speaking terms with them and advised India to follow suit. Russia’s longstanding diplomacy could now influence a Taliban government.
A friendly Iran and hostile China and Pakistan share frontiers with Afghanistan. Like Russia, they excluded India from any parleys they initiated with the Taliban during the last decade. In contrast, India started talking to the Taliban only three years ago, when it became clear that they would play a part in a future political dispensation in Kabul.
But with America determined to quit, India has found it difficult to gain ground after nearly 20 years.
One problem is that India was inattentive to its place in the broader regional strategies of Russia and Iran while focusing mainly on bilateral ties with them. Apart from arms sales, Russia does not prioritise India as a strategic actor outside its immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood.
Additionally, the deficiencies in India’s economic and diplomatic strategies have resulted in China gaining ground in its vicinity by attracting India’s neighbours — all members of SAARC, of which India is the largest country — to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Unsurprisingly, Russia views South Asia’s balance of power as unfavourable to the US-friendly India, while criticising it for ganging up with America in the Indo-Pacific against an expansionist China.
Meanwhile, China has increased its political and economic influence in Tehran at India’s expense by disregarding US sanctions on Iran since 2006. Economically hurt by sanctions, Iran resents India’s growing closeness to America and has resumed oil supplies to ‘Taliban Afghanistan’. In July 2020, Iran cancelled an Indian rail project, aimed at connecting the Chabahar port to Zahedan on its Afghan border. And last May, Tehran showed India the door in the Farzad gas project. In both cases, Iran accused India of delaying the projects. India hardly seems to have had a strategy to counter China’s clout and increase its own in its not-too-distant broader regional neighbourhood.
America’s retreat leaves a power vacuum which the Taliban and their terrorist friends could exploit. Mindful of the defeat of the three great powers —Britain, the USSR and the US — in Afghanistan, China and Russia will not intervene militarily.
Indeed, the fears of India, Russia and China that the Taliban rule could facilitate terrorist activities are supported by the UN Security Council, which reported in April that the ISIS-Khorasan, al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) were dispersed across Afghanistan and had Taliban links.
Significantly, China wants the Taliban to cut ties with all extremist cohorts, especially ETIM, because it fears that the group could export terrorism and instigate secession in its northwestern Xinjiang province, which borders Afghanistan.
Whether China can persuade its all-weather friend and extremist trainer Pakistan to stop terrorist exports is the big question. China could offer the Taliban economic carrots, but it gives both carrots and arms to Pakistan. It will not dispense with the military stick, given that it wants arms buyers. The US did not quash Pakistan’s terrorist training for two decades. Whether China will achieve that, even as extremists attack Chinese citizens working on BRI projects in Pakistan, is uncertain.
Meanwhile, China could expand its economic influence, and Pakistan its military footprint in Afghanistan, where India had amicable ties with non-Taliban political leaders.
On another plane, New Delhi must accelerate the economic pace. China’s progress, power and knowhow in promoting regional connectivity have given it a vantage point over the US and India in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia.
Last but not the least, India must turn outwards regionally and strengthen its security engagement against cross-border terrorism with friendly countries. They include Iran, Russia and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — which share India’s concern that South-West and Central Asia could become terrorist arenas.
India should build strategic and economic ties with them. By joining forces with friends to counter terrorism, it could improve its standing in its broader regional neighbourhood and help make it a safer place.
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