The utterly convoluted nature of the crisis in Afghanistan compounded with vulnerable diplomatic baggage of India had altogether and “all of a sudden” infused a perilous complexity to India’s strategic environment. India waking up to the vanity of its political demarches and economic developments in a country that was no longer ago its trusted “contiguous neighbor” and “equal partner” speak volumes about a crisis in the making that we have comfortably side stepped: a passive and blind belief in the US-led political and security architecture in Afghanistan. Once the evanescence of this fleeting architecture has become pronounced, India found itself in a catch-22 situation: a theocratic and fanatic Taliban government it was not in speaking terms because it was willingly excluded by its neighbors from parleys they initiated with this power in the last decades. And to make the matters worse, a hostile Pakistan and a bulging China upped their ante in the economical and security vacuum produced by this collective cock-up.
As Ian Hall has perceptively noted, India had traditionally trodden a non-interventionist path in Kabul, choosing not to impose itself from outside and not play overtly hardcore diplomacy for the fear of getting drawn into the vicious cycle of Afghanistan vortex. While this has the benefit of prioritizing economic and developmental assistance in a country sustaining itself on international dole amounting to 42 percent of Gross Domestic Product and bolstering rule-based discourse and liberal credentials through collaborative efforts, it was certainly imprudent to leave one of the most insecure and unstable terrains in the neighborhood without deft diplomatic treatment. For India, keeping a hands-off approach at Taliban-led government in particular and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence’s protruding arms in Afghanistan means knowingly staring at the prospect of Pakistan-Taliban fomented terrorism spilling over into already brewing Jammu & Kashmir. India’s profound fears of Taliban regime as a breeding ground for radical ideologies and extremist dynamics fueling regional insurgency has received global consensus with Security Council’s April report already hinting at terrorist outfits like ISIS Khorasan, al-Qaeda and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) saturating Afghanistan landscape. As much as they have cross-border links, these groups, especially the ISKP which has pitched yet another marauding spree in Afghanistan, are very much the product of this region’s long standing political instability, economic insecurity and popular discontent and not wholly detached from Taliban’s own history.
What about India’s neighborhood?
The resultant conundrum is not unique to India, as Beijing despite the euphoric narrative of great rival America receiving its comeuppance and a bigger wiggle room for Chinese interests in the region, have to simultaneously grapple with insurgency spilling over into Xinjiang province. China would not be in a hurry to take up the Counter-terrorism (CT) and nation building responsibility into its hands, especially considering the risk of operating on its northern front besides the already tumultuous atmosphere in South China Sea. Further, the bitter consequences of past invasions by its global counterparts will haunt Chinese decisions to venture openly into Afghanistan, a terrain it has no prior experience of dealing with. China however has the leverage to play carrot and stick policy with Taliban as it provides them with much needed foreign economic-infrastructural assistance to run the country and render desperate international legitimacy to the group by pressurizing global powers to follow suit. Much of this seems to be driven not by synergy in those tries, but contingent upon the agility of Taliban to control illicit activities across Wakhan corridor, severing whatsoever links it has with ETIM and providing a safe haven for BRI initiatives. Beijing courted the Taliban during its previous stint, namely the economic cooperation agreement in 1999 and its pact to train Taliban pilots were sought for similar reasons. This time, however, China has expressed hope to extend its multi-million-dollar Belt and Road Initiative and has outlined plans for CPEC by incorporating the resource-rich Afghanistan with large reserves of copper, gold, bauxite, rare earths, iron ore, gemstones, marble and lead etc. The natural result of the initiative will include that trade under a Taliban regime will be via Karachi and Gwadar, rather than Chabahar, creating Indian fears of a Pakistan-China-Taliban pact.
For Pakistan, Taliban 1.0 being a wholly subsidiary under it doesn’t afford to be complacent about the present Taliban regime as they face the cussed question of Tahreek-e Taliban looming dangerous in Pakistan’s tribal belt, all the more with Kabul playing the master mediator role in Pakistan-TTP deals. Besides what is seen as reinvigoration of jihadi elements in the domestic arena, Pakistan will have a hard time defending its borders against foreign militants like ISKP who have set their eye on the whole subcontinent. The Taliban surge in Afghanistan is thought to have freed more than 1400 ISKP militants hailing from more than 13 countries imprisoned across Afghanistan during the previous regime. Further, even though Pakistan’s conceptualization of Afghanistan as a security buffer is greatly enhanced by longtime ISI comrade-in-hands Haqqanis taking up domineering position in Taliban government, issues like those surrounding the fencing of Durand line will continue to be a bone of contention between the two regimes. With Pakistan-US relations having taken a hit following Taliban ascendence, it is yet to be seen how Pakistan will consolidate its role as strategic player in Kabul in particular and sub-continent in general.
Treading the newer reality
While India may not have the requisite sticks to tailor Taliban as much as suitors from Islamabad and Beijing, Delhi’s loyal and impeccable deterrent against those radical elements extending ties in mainland comes from domestic religious narratives and plural discourses undoing mounting majoritarianism and political polarization. Policy makers in the country will have to be wary of equating the Sharia law or the religious seminaries in the first place with the group’s legal dogmatism and militancy. Once this deterrent falls out of favor and plural India relapses into despair, IS and al-Qaeda finding ideological and strategic space in the country cannot be outrightly rejected. As far as Jammu & Kashmir is considered, India will more often have to face the prospect of it descending into internecine fighting within terrorist camps than a more coordinated radical platform against the government. This is because the transnational outfits like the so-called ISIS Hind and al-Qaeda don’t always sit comfortably with relatively entrenched regional camps like Hizbul Mujahideen.
Outside the country’s legitimate boundary, Indian assets in Afghanistan, including the Afghan-India Friendship Dam will continue to be a speck in the eyes of extremist elements vengeful of ‘imperial modern establishments’ even if Taliban take a graduated and cautious retreat for fear of International backlash. As it was obvious during the 1990s when India actively supported Northern Alliance under late Ahmed Shah Massoud and when Taliban-regime was a breeding ground for anti-Indian activities such as Kandahar hijack and bleed-soaked attack on Indian Embassy, India as an arch-rival of Taliban has been the norm. However, the Indian government in the recent turn of events, if not because of it, had abstained from supporting the Panjshir Valley resistance and had taken a wait and see tactic to see the Taliban-led regime socialized into rule-based international order. The fact that America’s twenty years stint failed to tame insurgency elements would certainly cast into sharp relief the staggering foundations of India’s minimal efforts or even China’s outreach in this quest. At the same time, India could hardly leave the job to Beijing and Pakistan as an Afghanistan-Pakistan-China axis with strategic and intelligence coordination would be foreboding for India’s northern border. There is every possibility that China will replicate its Myanmar policy with Afghanistan in no distant future: exporting arms to India’s neighboring regimes even if they are illegitimate military juntas or militias. While Afghanistan’s drug money would be potentially used in exchange of arms, it is not clear whether Taliban could pose any direct threat to India in the foreseeable future as it is currently engaged with domestic instability and internal integration. In every sense, it is clear that the immediate threat to the country comes not directly from Taliban, but the presence of Taliban that leaves space for various extremist and transnational entities.
Conceptualizing the regional solution
As John Maynard Keynes has casually remarked, altered realities call for more refined conceptualization of the situation. While it’s obvious that contacts with the Taliban is all-the-more necessary, India is aware that it should not do it in isolation. Though Afghanistan is a member of SAARC forum, negotiations through this forum are hardly effective to pressurize the Taliban. There is no chance that India could threaten to suspend Afghanistan from this forum as every decision in SAARC will have to follow unanimity principle. Considering that Pakistan will make use of all its diplomatic baggage to foil any move by India, anything in the interest of India will be unattainable with the presence of Pakistan. It is thus clear that Indian desire to lead the engagements with Taliban regime in these sterile waters will depend upon how India defines its new role in Afghanistan and strategically embolden its venerable stand among like-minded players like Russia, Iran and Central Asian countries in Afghanistan’s extended neighborhood. India’s tripartite diplomacy with Russia and Iran in Afghanistan goes well beyond the American stint following the 9/11 attacks. Iran is cognizant of the fluid border between those countries and is concerned about the rights of Hazara Shia community who are already left out of representation in the Taliban regime. Russia shares similar concerns of drug trafficking, arms proliferation and radicalism, but it will also have to come to terms with its increased role as a security provider of Central Asian Republics. Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan would only increase in the near future at a time America’s role as dependable security provider and partner of regional players has taken a big hit, not to mention how such a poor understanding of regional politics has highlighted shortcomings in America’s brand-new Indian-Ocean strategy and left its potential allies in doubt. When it comes to Central Asian Republics, lately, Delhi hosted a series of dialogue between foreign ministers of India and CARs on the issue of Afghanistan which was well received. They are well aware that an unstable Afghanistan will seriously hinder the already tenuous connectivity and trade between Central Asia and South Asia which amounts to just 2 billion. These eight countries, varying as they are in their engagement with Taliban, are bend together by a common recognition of the cross-border terrorist and radical ideological threats emanating from Afghanistan. The possibility of these countries checking the Taliban on its western front will be a big blessing for India to secure its antagonistic northern and western borders.
However, India will forever have to take to account the fact that despite the country’s amicable ties with those countries, India was inattentive to their regional strategies that are now more than ever shaped by pragmatic tactics than any long-term vision India could identify with. It’s pretty clear how lack of diplomatic mobility has costed India its big-brother status among SAARC countries as more and more neighboring countries are joining China’s BRI initiative and replacing India as the lead developmental partner. Similarly, many of the CAR countries have a whooping high trade relationship with China. As is the case with SAARC countries, the situation should not deter India from reaching out to these countries by emphasizing values like transparency, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for sovereignty that at the best contrast with Chinese raison d’etre.
The ordinary Afghans and the impact on Taliban 2.0
Forging long-term partnerships with ordinary and young Afghans aspiring for “a peaceful, indivisible and independent” Afghanistan through developmental, human resource and technical assistance will slowly but surely have bearing on not just the future generations of this landlocked country, but also the Taliban 2.0. India could well make use of the country’s historical friendship with Afghanistan, which in the words of the Afghan ambassador is based on “people-to-people contact”. The Afghan civil society has transformed to a great extent since the first Taliban regime. The twenty years interlude has certainly produced a class of Afghans conscious of their presence in the globalized world and receptive to India’s progressive outreach. India could thus still look at former Afghan ruling class who are not yet disowned by Taliban and even Taliban representatives who have historical relations with India as mediators for negotiations and reconciliations. One of the first engagements the country had with the Taliban in fact came with Ambassador Deepak Mittal meeting with Sher Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban deputy foreign minister who had a history of training in the Indian Military Academy during the early 1980s.
India’s attempt thus doesn’t seem to make a watertight distinction between Taliban and the Afghan people. As if that is what India wanted, the authorities would have taken an earnest and bigger step to evacuate Afghans well before the Taliban took over. Except for the severely limited Operation Devi Shakti through which a handful of Indians, Hindu and Sikh Afghans were bought, the Indian attempt was at best mediocre. It in fact had canceled visa-free entry for Afghan diplomatic passport holders at the height of the crisis when they were seeking a way out. India’s long-term tactic thus lingers around using a combination of public diplomacy, people-to-people contact and various regional mechanisms to pressurize the Taliban to form an inclusive and participatory government and respecting human rights and regional order. India’s approach thus closely aligns with the two-track approach adopted by a number of international players who had a history of engagement in Afghanistan. Though India could employ various tools to pressurize Taliban into rule-based international order, it will have to make sure that pressurizing does not result in increased political uncertainty and economic insecurity, as such a condition will provide fertile ground for more radical elements to expand their presence and will haunt the country in return.
The other question that will engage Indian policy experts will be around whether the Taliban is ever capable of forming a stable administration to control the whole of Afghanistan for a considerable period of time. It was the loose and decentralized structure of Taliban with no straightforward chains of command that facilitated this militia to survive even during full-fledged counter-terrorism operations under NATO. Taliban is thus a complex web of several leaders and factions ranking equally in influence and having their own militia, resources, foreign ties enough to lead another insurgency on their own. With such a fragile connecting thread between those factions, it’s hard to see the Taliban having effective and stable control over this rugged terrain for a longer time. Nevertheless, India as a perennial regional player can seldom take this for granted to wait until the Taliban loses its control. The country should be more proactive in addressing the Afghanistan question through its cherished multilateral initiatives, keeping both the status quo and political future of Afghanistan and its people. Nominating a special envoy with considerable experience in Afghanistan affairs to carry out the dialogue in Afghanistan will greatly invigorate this process as this will require India to assert much more on any regional and global efforts to solve the Afghanistan problem.