- In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic agreement, putting an end to the longest-running conflict in American.
- Consequently, President Biden announced the decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021.
- Pakistan has supported the principle of responsible troop withdrawal.
- In anticipation of the US withdrawal, old regional rivalries — such as between India and Pakistan — mean that states are preparing once again to ensure their interests survive a potential civil war
- While the Taliban have historically enjoyed Pakistani patronage, India has empowered alternative factions and now lends support to the fledgling Afghan democracy project.
How Pakistan has indulged itself in Afghanistan?
- Pakistan shares a treacherous, 2,670-kilometer border with Afghanistan.
- The mountainous border region has long served as a safe haven for many militant groups including the Afghan Taliban.
- The group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and offered sanctuaries to al-Qaeda.
- Since the early 1990s, Pakistan has supported the Taliban in Afghanistan in an attempt to push its regional security interests.
- Pakistan was one of the few countries that established diplomatic relations when the Taliban’s government came to power in Kabul.
- While the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 may have forced the Taliban out of power, the group has fought to expel international troops from Afghanistan in a bid to return to power, something that Pakistan has always wanted and supported despite international backlash.
- For decades, Pakistan has supported militant groups in Afghanistan rather than elected governments.
- This policy choice has created an image problem for Pakistan in Afghanistan and elsewhere, making Pakistan part of the problem rather than a solution.
- Arguably, U.S. forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan offers Pakistan an opportunity to reorient its international image by playing a key role in encouraging regional cooperation to ensure stability in Afghanistan.
- The development offers Pakistan an opening to demonstrate to the international community that the country has made a clean break from its previous pattern of supporting militant groups in Afghanistan.
The changing role of India in Afghanistan
- Back in the 1990s, India and China were together in the anti-Taliban alliance.
- Today, China has an outreach programme for the Taliban, while India was largely absent from the peace negotiations.
- That is not to say India has had no role in the country.
- India has helped rebuild Afghanistan with roads, dams, a parliament building, a cricket stadium, scholarships, capacity building, and a lot more.
How India has been involved in Afghanistan?
Historically, India has been involved in peacemaking in Afghanistan.
- In the 1980s, under the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, India undertook a series of efforts to “restore peace in Afghanistan”.
- The Afghan people have benefited a lot from India’s assistance in the past two decades.
- India has a commitment to Afghanistan and therewith, expanding its engagement with the Afghan people is highly desirable.
- In the 1980s and ’90s, in order to contain Pakistan’s influence on Afghan affairs, India supported some Afghan groups.
Why Pakistan wants India out of Afghanistan?
- Currently, there are two wars in Afghanistan:
- One inside Afghanistan that has gone on against foreign intervention for the last four decades.
- 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.
Why Afghanistan assumes significance for India?
- Gateway to Central Asia: In terms of India’s outreach to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and as a counterbalance to Pakistan and China, Afghanistan is of vital importance.
- The country has the Central Asian Republics to the North, Pakistan to its East, and through Iran and Pakistan the Indian Ocean deeper south.
- Easy flow of trade: For Indian trade with the Central Asian Republics, the flow could be through the sea lanes of communications of Indian Ocean to Gwadar port, and thereafter by land astride the Delaram highway that India has built-in Afghanistan, to destinations in CAR states.
- The route also competes with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and given a boost and necessary political stability along its length, work as an alternative to the BRI.
- Security: Also, Afghanistan is important in a security sense because there's always been anxiety in Delhi about a Pakistan-friendly government or entity rising to power in Kabul.
- Energy ambitions: Peaceful Afghan is essential to address the energy needs of India. This is evident by Afghanistan’s essential position in the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) pipeline.
India’s projects in Afghanistan
- India has also invested much in terms of peace-building in the post-2001 phase.
- India has made investments of more than $3 billion in Afghanistan in various infrastructure projects. In November 2020, India announced 100 projects worth $80 million.
- It built the 202-km Phul-e-Khumri transmission line that provided electricity to Kabul city.
- India had concluded with Afghanistan an agreement for the construction of the Shatoot dam, which would provide safe drinking water to 2 million residents of Kabul city.
India’s current motto for Afghanistan
- The official Indian position on reconciliation supports “an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process for enduring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.”
- India, which has played a key role in rebuilding Afghanistan, has called for a United Nations-led “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” in Afghanistan.
What should be India’s toolbox for Afghanistan?
- Rethinking the regional policy: In today’s Afghanistan, from east to west and from south to north, Afghans see India as their friend and ally. Any Indian policy for Afghanistan should be focused on the entire Afghan polity, not particular groups.
- Long-term strategic approach: India needs is 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.
- Military trainings: India should provide more military training to Afghan security forces and invest in longer-term capacity-building programs.
- Focused engagement with Taliban: In today’s India-friendly Afghanistan, the Taliban are a reality. They are getting support and attention from different quarters and they are showing their willingness to be part of the wider world. Therefore, it is time for India to openly engage with the Taliban leaders.
Why reaching Taliban is a concern for India?
India reaching out the Taliban has the following concerns.
- Security concerns: One is whether negotiations with the Taliban would protect India’s interests in Afghanistan.
- Taliban taking over Afghanistan or establishing its dominance in any manner would have security concerns for India.
- Apart from the diplomatic presence, India is involved in a number of infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Increasing violence would not only disrupt the progress of these projects, it would also put the life of the Indians working there at risk.
- Terrorism promotion: Two, India is rightfully concerned about the spillover of the Taliban takeover in Jammu and Kashmir.
- With Indian forces combating terrorism and radicalization in Jammu and Kashmir, the rise of the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, could spell further challenges to India’s national security.
- It is imperative for India that the talks should result in preventing the Taliban from supporting and promoting terrorism in India.
The China factor
- The US withdrawal is likely to pave way for China to occupy the vacant strategic space in Afghanistan.
- While not totally uninterested in Afghanistan’s affairs, China had a very limited strategic interaction with Afghanistan for a long time.
- China’s principal interests in Afghanistan have been economic. The stakes for China are high due to its investments Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries.
Importance of Afghanistan for China
- Resources: Afghanistan is a resource rich country having deposits of copper, gold, iron ore and lithium.
- Gateway to South Asia and West Asia: Also the geographical location of Afghanistan gives China an opening in South Asia and West Asia.
- Addition to BRI: A continental Afghanistan would be an important addition to China’s BRI.
- Dominant power: The US withdrawal is an opportune moment for China to strengthen its foothold in Afghanistan. China’s clout in the region would increase considerably by establishing itself as a dominant power in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
- Increasing influence at global level: Afghanistan would prove to be an important milestone for China in its efforts to increase its influence at global level.
It is important for India to continue to emphasise its own red lines in its engagements with the Taliban. The Taliban’s role as an autonomous political actor outside the influence of the Pakistani military-intelligence complex will also depend on how far it is able to engage actors like India as it seeks a more central role for itself in Afghan governance structure. If the Taliban need some legitimacy and longevity in governing Afghanistan, New Delhi’s role will continue to be a critical one. This fundamental reality no one can ignore.