Delhi-Kabul Engagement

Afghan foreign students shout slogans during a demonstration against the Taliban and Pakistan in Bengaluru on Sept. 8. Manjunath Kiran/AFP Via Getty Images

Weeks after Taliban termed India-led regional meet on Afghanistan "in our better interest", New Delhi has secured Kabul pass with Islamabad’s nod prompting pundits to predict India’s current engagement with Taliban

By Shakoor Bashir & Muhammad Faisal 

ON August 31, 2021, with the complete withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan, as the Taliban took over the country’s capital and completed their takeover of Afghanistan, it marked the end of a 20-year-long war. Many queries were raised on the way the Afghan army gave up, and alliance forces withdrew from Kabul. Consequently, and to the surprise of many, the annexation of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan, except the Panjshir valley (previously a stronghold of a rebel leader Ahmad Shah Masood), took place with little violence and struggle unlike the Taliban’s takeover in the 1990s.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban is a defining moment in contemporary history that will have long-term implications on the prospects of the United States-led, two-decade ‘war on terror’ and the overall security situation in South Asia. Analysts, both from within and outside Afghanistan, are pondering over how the country will proceed under the Taliban’s rule, with the global community still considering whether to engage with or isolate the Taliban.

Among the many countries that are now faced with a daunting strategic challenge amidst the changing geopolitical situation is India, which is left with very few friends in Afghanistan. While much depends on the Taliban’s actual conduct both domestically as well as internationally, the Taliban are likely to continue as a ‘useful villain’ in the unfolding power competition. For India, the fall of Kabul is a moment of reckoning and it must reconsider its regional strategies and options available at its hands, which unfortunately in the current geopolitical context are very few.

On August 29, 2021, Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai through a statement asserted that the Taliban intends to maintain Afghanistan’s political, economic, and cultural ties with India. It was the first time a member of the Taliban’s top hierarchy has spoken on the issue since the takeover of Kabul but for India Kabul’s swift collapse and presence of an unfriendly Government in Kabul leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns and limited options in its engagement.

Power Vacuum in Afghanistan

For India, the coming of the Taliban has opened a Pandora's Box. The most alarming issue for India is the creation of a regional power vacuum in Afghanistan, generated by the random way in which the United States withdrew overnight. An alliance of regional powers such as China, Russia, Pakistan, and the Taliban, have by now, begun to fill this power vacuum, thereby defining the contours of the region’s geopolitics based on their individual and common interests. In this alliance system, Iran might also find its interests more secured with China, further restricting India’s engagement and closing the long-term access to Central Asia.

Encirclement by China

"China will be the major problem for India as far as the changes in Afghanistan are concerned," warns former ambassador Dr Jitendra Nath Misra. The power vacuum generated through American withdrawal in the region will be principally advantageous to China and its grand strategic plans for the region. China will further reinforce its efforts to bring every country in the region, except India, on the One Belt One Road Initiative, thereby shifting the geopolitical and geoeconomic foundations of the region. More so, the much-feared Chinese encirclement of India will become even more pronounced after being further emboldened by the U.S.’s withdrawal and in stamping its writ on the region. China has been working to make the best of a delicate situation. The Chinese have invested $62 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the single largest project of its transnational Belt and Road Initiative and are anxious that Taliban extremists do not jeopardize it, thus, to contain that scenario, Taliban – China alliance is evolving further.

Impact on Regional Interests

In his speech during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) meet on 17 September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi elucidated on how Central Asia had been a connecting bridge between different regional markets at several points in history. In his speech, the Prime Minister had also highlighted India's commitment to improving connectivity with landlocked Central Asia.

Since the Central Asian Republics became independent nations in the early 1990s, New Delhi has been attempting to develop relations and increase economic prospects with those countries. The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August has had a negative impact on India's Central Asian plans—at least for the time being. According to Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international affairs at King's College London, "India faces a difficult road ahead since connection with Central Asia has always been an issue that has not been readily handled, and India does not appear to have any significant leverage to get the connectivity projects with Central Asia going”.

The coming back of the Taliban to Kabul has effectively put down India’s ‘mission Central Asia’ to rest. If New Delhi could not find its way to Central Asia with promising associates such as Iran and the Hamid Karzai/Ashraf Ghani governments, the chance of New Delhi doing so now is next to nil.

Afghanistan as Centre of Extremism

A near-certain rise in terrorism and extremism in the region would be a worry for India in the future. According to the Monitoring Team's report from 2020, “Jaish-i-Mohammed [JeM] and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba [LeT] enable the trafficking of terrorist recruits into Afghanistan, wherein they operate as counsellors, trainers, and experts in improvised explosive devices”. While the neighbouring countries are also worried about terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, the reality is that they are busy making their own private deals with the Taliban to not host terror organisations targeting them e.g China, Russia & Iran. There is little interest within the countries of the region to vouch for a regional approach in curbing terrorism from a Taliban- led Afghanistan. This enables the Taliban to engage in a selective treatment towards terror outfits present there or they have relations with. It is unlikely that the Taliban will proactively export terror to other countries unless of course for tactical purposes by, say for instance, Pakistan against India. The real worry, however, is the motivation that disgruntled groups in the region will pull from the Taliban’s victory against the world’s sole superpower.

Political pundits are already speculating that Taliban’s Kabul exploits will make Kashmir its next target. Already, experts reckon, the Taliban-Pakistan move against India is in swing. In November, nine Indian soldiers lost their lives to “freshly infiltrated” groups. Anas Haqqani, the youngest son of the late Jalaluddin Haqqani and the brother of Taliban’s deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, has visited the tomb of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi. Haqqani called Ghaznavi “a renowned Muslim warrior and Mujahid of the 10th century”. Ghaznavi is seen as an iconoclast in India.

Haqqani’s tweet celebrated the warrior king “who established a strong Muslim rule in the region from Ghazni & smashed the idol of Somnath.” His brother is the interior minister of Afghanistan and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation still offers a reward of $10 million for his arrest. The Haqqani Network is responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks in Afghanistan. From their declarations and actions, many say, it is clear that their next target is jihad in Kashmir.

“Once the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, they sent jihadi fighters to Kashmir. Retired CIA officers remark that Muzaffarabad, the largest city in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, became the watering hole for the most hardened Islamists on their way to fight jihad against India,” argues analyst Rakesh Kaul. “To the west of Muzaffarabad lies Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Pashtun-dominated Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan. To its east lie the Kupwara and Baramulla districts of Indian Kashmir.”

Because of Kashmir, Kaul argues, Indian troops had extensive experience in counterinsurgency against militant jihadists from Afghanistan. “Yet the US neither sought nor heeded Indian advice on Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban are back in power, they will inevitably do what they did in the late 1990s: fight jihad in Kashmir.”

Even military veteran like Lt. Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda believes that following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would "certainly try and push men" into Kashmir, but it is too early to predict whether any incursion of fighters into Kashmir would be "in numbers that threaten the security situation" and drive the region into a military confrontation.

The Way Forward and Options for India

For India, Afghanistan’s engagement options are limited but with these limited options India still could carve out a space and secure its geopolitical interests. To put that in place, India should turn away from its policy of calculated indifference, embrace strategic engagement in an open-minded, constructive, and pragmatic manner. The first step on this front would be to assign a special envoy tasked only with dealing with the Taliban. Taking the advantage of its support established over the years with crucial stakeholders in the Middle East – e.g., Iran and Russia, India can step up to a greater role. It is in India’s, and the region’s interests at large, to have a seat at the table over Afghanistan’s future. None of this, however, should require India to commit to ideologically rooted and outdated positions that jeopardise its own interests.

Moreover, despite the increasingly strained ties that have characterised bilateral engagements with China in recent years, India should attempt to engage in areas of commonality and shared interests with China on the Afghan front. An unstable Afghanistan, rife with splinter cells and terrorist insurgencies, is also not in China's best interests. Afghanistan, a war-torn and conflict-ridden country, can pose a challenge to China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China also takes into account Pakistan's interests and concerns. Thus, there is a limited but critical space for strategic (re)alignment between India, China, and Pakistan.

India's response to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan must be comprehensive, multipronged, and intelligently balanced. Only then, will it be able to overcome the various challenges that lay ahead.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • Shakoor Bashir is a Research Scholar at Centre for Central Asian Studies (CCAS), University of Kashmir, Srinagar and Muhammad Faisal has done Masters in Anthropology and is currently working on the theme “Political variables & dimensions in the Conflict State”

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