India post-Taliban takeover in Afghanistan assessing the risks

Updated: August 16, 2021 2:45 PM

The modern state of Afghanistan began with the Hotak and Durrani dynasties of the 18th century but unfortunately very soon became the buffer state in the "Great Game" between British India and the Russian Empire.

taliban in afghanThe Taliban and their several allied militant groups began their offensive on 01 May 2021, simultaneous with the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

By Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan

Afghanistan is an ancient mountainous landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia and is surrounded by Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and China to the northeast. Its location along the Silk Road connected it to the cultures of both the Middle East and other parts of Asia and has historically remained in strife and violence since the military campaigns of Alexander, the Mauryas, the Arabs, Mongols, British, Soviets, and in 2001 by the United States with NATO-allied countries. It has been called “unconquerable” and nicknamed the “graveyard of empires,” though it has been occupied during several different stages of its history.

The modern state of Afghanistan began with the Hotak and Durrani dynasties of the 18th century but unfortunately very soon became the buffer state in the “Great Game” between British India and the Russian Empire. Its border with British India, the Durand Line, was formed in 1893 but is not recognized by the Afghan government and it has led to strained relations with Pakistan since the latter’s independence in 1947. Following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, the country became a monarchy under King Amanullah, until almost 50 years later, when Zahir Shah was overthrown and a republic was established.

In 1978, after a second coup, Afghanistan became a Soviet Union protectorate. This provoked the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s against mujahideen rebels and by 1996, most of Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban, who were removed from power after the US invasion in 2001 post 9/11. This 20 year war has finally drawn to a close on 15 August 2021, with Taliban once again sweeping across Afghanistan and the resultant fall of Kabul.

The Taliban and their several allied militant groups began their offensive on 01 May 2021, simultaneous with the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Following the reportedly 300000 strong Afghan National Army’s rapid defeat across the country, only two units remained operational by mid-August, the 201st Corps and 111th Division, both based in Kabul. The capital city itself was left encircled after Taliban forces captured Mihtarlam, Sharana, Gardez, Asadabad, and other cities as well as districts in the east.In the days preceding the fall, the projection for the situation of Kabul rapidly worsened and the U.S. officials brought a forecast in early August that Kabul could hold out for several months, but the week of the fall brought more grim forecasting; five days before the Taliban reached Kabul, expectations were degraded and analysis suggested the capital would last “30 to 90 days”, and within two days, officials were suggesting the city would fall within the week.

What Changes for India in Afghanistan

Afghanistan and India have remained strong and friendly over the decades. They had been historical neighbours, and shared deep historical and cultural ties. India was also the only South Asian country to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1980s, though relations diminished during the 1990s Afghan civil war and the subsequent take-over of a government. India is the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to the present day Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and even till today are engaged in various construction projects, as part of India’s rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan alleges the Indian intelligence agency R&AW is working in cover to malign Pakistan and train and support insurgents, a claim rejected strongly by India.

India is recognised by most Afghans as the “most cherished partner of Afghanistan” and  is the largest regional donor with over $3 billion in assistance. It has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over 1,000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students.In the aftermath of the 2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul, the Afghan Foreign Ministry quoted India as a “brother country” and the relationship between the two as one which “no enemy can hamper”. Relations between Afghanistan and India received a major boost in 2011 with the signing of a strategic partnership agreement, Afghanistan’s first since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

A major shift in India’s political position on the Afghan Taliban was reported by a Qatar official in June 2021, who confirmed that an Indian delegation had quietly visited Doha to meet Taliban’s leadership. This is a major shift.The Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. The cost to India of remaining distant from the ongoing attempts at reconciliation especially since it has thus far nurtured a relationship mainly with the Afghan government would likely be much higher than the cost of being involved in them. Being more engaged in international negotiations, and even agreeing to talk to certain sections of the Taliban as part of a broader diplomatic initiative, are options that India can no longer afford to disregard.

Leaving the reconciliation process primarily to an unstable administration in Kabul will do little for India’s long-term interests in Afghanistan. Repositioning Indian imperatives means also remaining ever-connected with the deep ties that India has nurtured with Afghanistan over the ages and India must be willing to pivot to the changed realities in Afghanistan and being much more involved in conversations on and around reconciliation than ever before.

With this in mind, Indian officials and representatives need to urgently answer two questions: first, what are the greatest risks to India given this change, and second, how best to mitigate these risks?

Increase of Support for Terrorism inside India

Assessing risks is a risky business but what is clear is that India’s aim should be to continue to have the ability to be represented in Afghanistan as much as possible. The first set of risks to Indiahas to do with the possibility of the increase in the support of terrorism within Kashmir and other parts of India by the Taliban regime. One of the four guiding principles mentioned in the joint declaration between the United States and the Afghan government included “guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals against the security of the United States and its allies.” However well-intentioned these words might be, there is little clarity on how these guarantees will be upheld. After all, the factions to be reconciled will also include those elements who have fronted the ISI’s war against India from within Afghanistan. The Haqqani group, which continues to be the best armed and trained Taliban faction, has engineered and carried out attacks against Indian assets, including the Indian embassy in Kabul. Given the close connections between the ISI and the Haqqani leadership, it is unlikely that a reconciled Haqqani group will stop its anti-India agenda. Those who have studied the Haqqani group confirm, the relationship between the group and the ISI is “still strong.”Lastly, the security vacuum created by the U.S.-led drawdown of forces has resulted in the rise of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), a branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State operating in South Asia and Central Asia. This group’s ability to attract radicalized individuals, including from India, and recruit well-trained defectors from Taliban and Pakistani militant groups is a very real threat to India’s future in Afghanistan and the region more broadly.

 Increased Pakistani Influence

ISI’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. The nexus between the Taliban (especially the Haqqani group) and the ISI underscores Pakistan’s increasing influence within the country and while the Taliban leadership may not always see eye to eye with the Pakistani state and the ISI, but the ISI’s influence over the Taliban is undeniable. “They are our powerful watchmen” is how one former founding member of the Taliban summarized his relationship with the ISI.

Unstable Afghan Government

The third risk has to do with the perpetually unstable Afghan government. India will need to identify its own strategic actions and not rely on an Afghan-led approach on reconciliation, which carries the risk of disintegrating because of the sharply competing politics and the outsized battle of egos among Afghanistan’s leaders.

No doubt, the idea of dealing directly with the Taliban is a bitter one for Indian officials and the larger Indian population, and for good reason. This was the group that escorted terrorists into Pakistan following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999. As Arun Singh, the former Indian ambassador to the United States, recollects, during the hijacking, “it was painfully revealed to us that India had no outreach to the structures dominating Afghanistan then.” After all, the Taliban, supported by the Pakistani state, remained antagonistic to India throughout their time in power between 1996 and 2001. Equally, for Indian officials, there was little or no merit in engaging directly with the Taliban because of their close ties to the ISI. Further, one key Taliban faction, the Haqqani group, remains firmly anti-Indian. Supported by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, they have done the bidding of the ISI for a very long time. They, without a doubt, represent the best bet the Pakistani establishment has of playing a significant role in the future of an as-yet indeterminate Afghan state.

India needs a long-term strategic approach towards Afghanistan that weaves political, economic, military and diplomatic dimensions into a coherent whole within the framework of a grand strategy. India’s Afghan policy must be based on a clear-cut understanding of India’s strategic goals in the region, and the regional and global strategic environment. Though it is a bit late, yet India has taken the right decision by engaging a section of the Afghan Taliban.

The creation of Pakistan had left India with an unrelenting violent conflict with the former and separated it geographically from Afghanistan and Iran. Currently, there are two wars in Afghanistan: One inside Afghanistan that has gone on against foreign intervention for the last four decades, and the other against the Afghan government from Pakistani soil causing a parallel internal disturbance. Since Pakistan’s key policy objective has been to establish its hegemony in Afghanistan, it views an independent Afghanistan that has a vibrant relationship with India as the main hurdle in the achievement of its hegemonic ambitions. However, an Afghanistan deprived of Indian presence would be nothing but another hapless province of Pakistan to be ruled by movers and shakers from Rawalpindi, and to be exploited by China through the Belt and Road Initiative. More problematically, this will not only compound the humiliating experiences of the Afghan people by way of rollback of their basic freedoms, but also create a breeding ground for various fundamentalist organisations, ready to escalate religious and sectarian conflicts across the region. Thus, the more Afghans come to believe that they deserve a dignified life defined in terms of rights to freedom, education and safety, the more they will become critical of Pakistan’s attempts to marginalise India from their socio-political life and finally push for an inclusion of India. Only Time can tell what actually happens in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. Whatever be the final truth, India must engage with the Taliban leadership, leverage our support amongst the people, build our resources to deal with any surge in terrorism within our borders and keep our powder dry.

(The author, a veteran soldier, is a second generation officer of the 11th Gorkha Rifles, and has served in the Indian Army for almost 40 years. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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