India’s Options in
The US military has started its complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, marking what amounts to the beginning of the end of the United States’ nearly 20-year-old war in the country. But, as expected, this withdrawal is not smooth as fierce fighting between government forces and the Taliban erupted after the US military began withdrawing its remaining troops. Given this escalation, many analysts and thinkers around the world fear a Taliban takeover. Biden’s decision to withdraw in less than five months, no matter the conditions on the ground, makes a Taliban takeover or at least a massive civil war much more likely.
Most of the Western media coverage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has focused on discussing the historic moment in the light of American interests and possible security, economic and diplomatic implications for Washington and its transatlantic allies. But the real effects of the US departure and what it represents in a broader historical sense will be most acutely felt by Afghanistan and its neighbours. In the aftermath of the drawdown from Afghanistan, India has tremendous concerns on the resurgence of the Taliban.
Even the official announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan put India on edge, raising fears that a power vacuum could destabilise the region. The deadlocked peace process with the Taliban and the growing geo-political uncertainty in the region have set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi, where stability in Afghanistan is seen as crucial to the security of the Subcontinent.
New Delhi’s limited influence in Afghanistan, the country’s direct linkage with India’s internal security situation, and Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban are factors that remain at play even today. India is jittery with the situation as is evident form a statement by General Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of the Defence Staff, which says that India is highly concerned about a vacuum developing in Afghanistan following the proposed withdrawal of the United States and Nato forces from the country. India’s big worry is that instability in Afghanistan could spill over into Occupied Kashmir where it has been fighting for three decades. It is also concerned that Pakistan will gain a bigger hand in Afghanistan because of its long-standing ties with the Taliban, who are expected to play a dominant role once the United States leaves.
“Our concern is that the vacuum that will be created by the withdrawal of the United States and Nato should not create space for disruptors. There are many people looking for an opportunity to walk into the space being created,” Rawat said.
The Taliban influence has rapidly expanded from the countryside to urban centres. The emerging situation portends a reversal of the fragile gains of education, governance, healthcare, education and women’s empowerment made under Karzai and Ashraf Ghani dispensations’ tutelage. The 300,000-strong Afghan Army has heavily leaned on the US forces for omnibus support. Bereft of that umbrella, it is not expected to present a formidable bulwark against a Taliban rise for long.
What are, then, India’s options in these gloomy circumstances?
Alas, the US is in no position to give any assurances to India. After years of diligent coordination with the US policies in Afghanistan, India finds itself stranded. It faces acute isolation regionally too insofar as all major regional states — Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan — have put in place the underpinnings of security to cope with a future Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Their top priority is that the US should vacate its occupation, which they see as the root cause of instability. They all kept direct lines of communication with the Taliban whom they see as a legitimate participant in any enduring Afghan settlement. But India continued to brand the Taliban as a terror group and its tense relations with Pakistan clouded its judgement.
Interestingly, the following is the prognosis of the US intelligence agencies for India-Pakistan relations in the period ahead, as reflected in the DNI report: “Although a general war between India and Pakistan is unlikely, crises between the two are likely to become more intense, risking an escalatory cycle. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is more likely than in the past to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations, and heightened tensions raise the risk of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, with violent unrest in Kashmir or a militant attack in India being potential flashpoints.”
The scenario presents a debilitating shrinking of options for India. Over the past two decades, India has steadfastly opposed any parleys with the Taliban. Lately, it appears that the Indian foreign affairs establishment has re-adjusted its position to accommodate the new reality. Recently speaking in Tajikistan, the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar supported talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The benefit to India from such an interaction between the incumbent Afghan government and the Taliban is obvious. Successive Afghan governments have shown an affinity for India in sharp contrast to their orientation towards Pakistan. It is axiomatic that if the Afghan government arrives at a suitable arrangement with the Taliban for the post-American reality, India will continue to have a foot into the door to safeguard its interests.
The US viewpoint also favours India’s interests; it has recommended an UN-backed effort with multilateral participation of China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and the US. India has supported this approach. But as far as a relationship with the Taliban goes, India has been a backbencher. The US, China, Russia and Pakistan have all reached out to the Taliban with varying degrees of influence and success. The Europeans, too, have signalled interest. India has been dependent on the success of its ‘allies’ – the US and the current Afghan government. And needless to add, it faces formidable opposition from Pakistan.
India has a strategic stake in Afghanistan’s future. A friendly-to-neutral Afghanistan obviates the ‘strategic depth’ of the Pakistani military establishment’s dreams. Over the years, India has invested a great deal in infrastructure, education, power generation and irrigation development. These efforts were made at great human and economic sacrifice. India has the mandate to build the Shahtoot dam near Kabul. Afghanistan was among the first countries to receive the anti-Covid vaccine from India.
Yet, India’s strategic, security and economic interests appear to be at the mercy of unfolding events. Possible failures of the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the reneging of the terms of the Doha Accord by the Taliban, and the emergence of an Islamic Caliphate-style governments are not, to most Indian analysts, far-fetched doomsday scenarios. Each one of these is pregnant with dark possibilities for India’s interests.
Indian policymakers feel that in narrowing their options, an effort to engage the Taliban may be the only course that could protect Indian interests. That is the urgent demand for realpolitik, they say. Given the decades of Indian history – or the lack of it – with the Taliban, this path will never be easy to embark upon, much less succeed. It may also be too late to make that effort. And yet, even at this late stage, that may well be a door India aspires to knock at.