In the last couple of weeks, a great deal has been written on Afghanistan. The American withdrawal, the Taliban offensive, Antony Blinken’s visit to New Delhi, have all shifted our minds to the developments there. The Afghan army chief, who was scheduled to visit, cancelled at the last minute, given the situation back home.
The Blinken visit would have seen intense discussions on the subject of Afghanistan. And no doubt, the theme would be the kind of role India can play in shoring up the Afghan government.
India should not see itself as a major actor, and play at best, a carefully limited role in the unfolding events in the country. We can provide technical backing to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), perhaps some financial aid to the Kabul government, that’s all. In no way should we see, or allow ourselves to be set up, as competitors against Pakistan and China. That is something that geography decided, and politics, in the form of Pakistan, has confirmed. We have no land access to the country. Our limited access through Chabahar has been hampered by the state of poor relations between the US and Iran.
Estrangement with Iran and Russia has also limited American options to dependence on Pakistan for any viable Afghanistan policy. Given our own problems with Islamabad, this limits our room for manoeuvre. Washington may be working towards shaping some kind of entente between India and Pakistan, but this remains, as always, a work in progress. Any potential role India can play now is hampered by our increased closeness to Washington which impedes our ability to work in tandem with Iran and Russia to shape a common policy on Afghanistan.
There is a great deal of talk about how the Taliban have changed and how they could be brought into the governance system in the country and tamed. That is delusional. The Taliban are an ideological force who are unlikely to dilute their beliefs and ideas. It is simply not possible to fit them into the framework of a democratic government, which, for all its faults, the current government of Afghanistan is. As for their casual savagery, it is evident from reports that Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui was either tortured to death or his remains deliberately mutilated. Either way, it provides little comfort for the unfolding future.
The Taliban have learnt their lessons in their long exile. Their diplomacy is more subtle and hence the outreach to China whose working principle is ‘non interference’ in the internal affairs of any country. The only thing Beijing is focused on is self-interest, which in this case is the need to insulate Xinjiang from Islamist radicalism. The Taliban may have tolerated radical movements like the al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Liberation Front, the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, or even the LeT and the JeM, but they have little interest in spreading their own ideas abroad, simply because those have emerged from the unique Pakhtun tribal culture.
Actually, the main reason why India should avoid any major commitment in that region is that there are greater priorities and challenges back home in the subcontinent. Primarily, they relate to the Chinese assertiveness on the borders. Even if we are able to achieve a status quo ante, as of April 2020 on the Line of Actual Control with China, things are not going to be the same again. The CBM regime built up so patiently between 1993-2012 is broken and is not likely to be restored soon.
In the meantime, Beijing has made important inroads into South Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. The case of Sri Lanka is well known. But Bangladesh, too, appears to be developing denser ties with China.
In a recent paper for ORF, Sumanth Samsani has noted that net FDI from China has zoomed from $68 million in 2017, $506 million in 2018, to $1.159 billion in 2019. China has been particularly active in the country’s energy sector and has built several coal-based power plants, as well as bought three natural gas fields in the country. It is also financing the construction of the Payra Deep Sea port at a cost of $10-15 billion. Among the other infrastructure projects are the eight Bangladesh-China friendship bridges, an under-river tunnel, expansion of the Sylhet airport, and various highways and rail links, including that over the Padma river. And it is, by far, the largest supplier of defence equipment to the country.
At the end of April, China’s Defence Minister Gen Wei Fenghe toured Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In the remarks in the Dhaka leg of his visit, there was a warning on the importance of countries in the neighbourhood resisting ‘powers from outside the region setting up military alliances in South Asia.’ This was shortly after the first Quad summit that was held through a teleconference.
Because of its weak economy and defence industry, India has not been able to convert its geographic and economic dominance in the subcontinent into political primacy, where in the words of Ashley Tellis, India ‘commands the consent, if not obedience, of its smaller neighbours.’ The state of our relationships with them still depends on who is ruling the country.
In these circumstances, instead of distant Afghanistan and Central Asia, India needs to focus sharply on its ability to shape, by coercion or economic attraction, the policies of its immediate South Asian neighbours. And we are not even talking about Pakistan.
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