The evolving geopolitical situation in Afghanistan has left India to reconsider its interactions with the Taliban.
The ties between the sovereign nation-states India and Afghanistan go back to 1950, when a ‘Treaty of Friendship’ gave a concrete political shape to their “civilisational” relationship.Where does all this leave a country like India that has not been particularly “pally” with the Taliban for strategic and ideological reasons? As the largest South Asian donor to Afghanistan and its trusted ‘developmental and strategic partner’, it is only incumbent upon India to ensure that its infrastructural investments and support to the Afghan civil society help restrain the Taliban’s free run.
India has extended aid worth US $3 billion to Afghanistan in the last 20 years, making it the fifth-largest donor to Afghanistan in the world.To this effect, India had often sought to strengthen the institutional capacities of Afghanistan by promoting knowledge exchanges and transfers through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), by training administrative and defence personnel at elite institutes like the National Defence Academy (NDA), and by providing infrastructural support in the form of dams, hospitals, electricity grids, amongst other iniatives. While these developmental offerings were coloured partly by India’s geopolitical constraints, including its lack of direct access to Afghanistan, they were not incidental to the redevelopment of this war-torn nation. In fact, the nature of India’s assistance to Afghanistan has been acknowledged for providing a “better value for money than (the) aid from traditional donors”. However, with the recent turn of events that have re-installed the Taliban in Kabul, the Indian government has reasons to be worried about its infrastructural assets in Afghanistan, which have time and again been targetted by this insurgent group. From attacking the Salma Dam in Herat province to its alleged seizure of Indian MI-24 attack helicopters, the Taliban has not exhibited a friendly approach towards India. In fact, a combination of its ideological disposition and its strategic ties with the Pakistani deep state are likely to hold this insurgent group back from offering an olive branch to India. For that matter, as the recent reports indicate, the Taliban has been blowing hot and cold vis-á-vis its engagement with India. It is most likely a result of Pakistani arm-twisting in addition to the Taliban’s own interests, which it believes will be served better by warming up to India’s regional adversaries, such as China, instead.
With the recent turn of events that have re-installed the Taliban in Kabul, the Indian government has reasons to be worried about its infrastructural assets in Afghanistan, which have time and again been targetted by this insurgent group.But does that mean India should choose to look the other way until the Taliban begins to play by the rulebook? No, it will be imprudent to leave the evolving Afghan situation to its fate, especially when the other regional players involved in the process are not particularly friendly towards India. For that matter, India must keep a foot in the door for its own sake and for the well-being of the larger Afghan nation, which has often looked to it for support. Currently, the Indian engagement with the Taliban is being channelled through the latter’s political office in Doha. Talking to what India may have once implied to be the “nationalist Taliban”, the recent meeting between the Indian Ambassador to Qatar and the head of Taliban’s political office appears to be its attempt to salvage whatever that is left of a fledgling Afghan nation-state. But then, its engagement with the Taliban ought not be viewed as an acceptance of the Taliban regime as Afghanistan's legitimate political leadership. Instead, it must be seen as an attempt to deal with a government that lacks the administrative and political wherewithal to run a country in the long run. Thus, while the Taliban may currently be having a field day in Afghanistan because of its so-called military victory against the US, this insurgent group is likely to run into governance-related troubles sooner than later, further aggravating the fault lines within Afghan society. With Afghanistan’s coffers drying up and civic resistance becoming bolder by the day, the Taliban seems to be aware that its supposedly reincarnated self is dealing with a well-networked Afghanistan of the 21st century, which is markedly different from the one it had controlled in the 1990s. The use of the term ‘interim’ for their regime, then, is telling insofar as it may allow this militant group to call the shots in the short-term without necessarily bearing the burden of accountability in the decades to come. Given these ground realities, India must not dither on engaging with the Taliban because it may not have much to gain out of this engagement besides ensuring safer evacuation of its remaining citizens and guarantees to keep its infrastructural offerings intact. In fact, it must engage with the Taliban because it may have much to lose if it shuts its door on Afghanistan in the hope of forcing a change from above.
India can and must step up to ensure that the provisional nature of the present regime in Afghanistan ends up being just that—brief and temporary.We must recognise that today’s geopolitical and geoeconomic realities are far more complex and fast-paced, which have come to change the texture of the larger Afghan scene. For instance, the expanding geoeconomic footprint of China is likely to allow it to play a more significant role in Afghanistan without necessarily bogging it down with nuances of regime change. On the other hand, for a country like Russia, its ongoing engagement with the Taliban is shaped more by “pragmatic” realities than by a long-term plan that may have warranted a more deft diplomatic treatment. This is not to suggest that these countries lack a larger strategic agenda. Rather, they are prioritising their tactical requirements over a long-term vision that is bound to change once the interim regime under the Taliban gives way to something more permanent. In these circumstances, it is critical for India to also approach the evolving situation in Afghanistan in a manner that is both mindful of the ephemeral nature of the Taliban's interim regime and does not dismiss it as inconsequential. For that matter, India can and must step up to ensure that the provisional nature of the present regime in Afghanistan ends up being just that—brief and temporary. In doing so, India must continue to engage with the Taliban to prevent further implosions within the Afghan society by standing as a bulwark of those ideas and ideals that an entire generation of Afghans has grown up believing. The need of the hour is to ensure that the humanitarian crisis, which is desperately begging for international attention, is addressed with utmost care. With more than 4 million internally displaced persons thronging different parts of Afghanistan, India must consider ramping up its support to organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that are trying to assist the displaced Afghans to meet the basic requirements of life including food and (makeshift) shelters. Furthermore, India can also mobilise regional and extra-regional support at platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to discuss and take action on the brewing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan in addition to the issues of radicalism and terrorism. Thus, while it may be difficult and even improbable for India to directly lend a helping hand to Afghans under the present Taliban regime, it can put its existing infrastructural contributions, like the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul, to use by assisting them to double up sites that provide basic facilities to this war-torn nation in these moments of crisis.
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Chayanika Saxena holds a PhD from the University of Singapore and advises corporate institutions on geopolitical risks. ...Read More +