Taliban Surge in Afghanistan: Calibrating Indian Response
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 04 Aug , 2021

The US draw down from Afghanistan has opened up political space for grabs resulting in unprecedented violence by Taliban to seize power. They are obviously not confident of their popularity to form a government through electoral process.Taliban, accordingly, seem to be following a familiar Afghan pattern to edge out central governments through militant fundamentalists and armed warlords. It was practiced by Northern Alliance in the aftermath of Russian withdrawal, and later by Taliban in mid 90s. So there is nothing new in what is unfolding in Afghanistan and it may not be the last such episode in deeply fragmented Afghan patriarchal society with deeply medieval mind set.

The precedence also suggests a pattern of convergence amongst political groups after each violent power shift accommodating larger representation in ruling establishment. It is likely to happen again once the notion of Taliban victory tapers down and reality strikes with the enormity of responsibility of governance with dismal resources.Political pressure from the world powers is also expected to push all the parties concerned to agree to power sharing. A recent Taliban statement of their desire for a political settlement during ongoing talks with the Afghan government in Qatar is may be a sign towards this end. It is a different matter that after every national government formed through consensus, or electoral process, has not survived for long.

A Taliban take over is not considered as a good sign as the fundamentals to provide social harmony as tenets of human rights, rights of women and girl child seem to be missing from their political narrative. Taliban have chosen religious discourse as a façade to suppress the political expression and individual freedom especially the women and children. Their propensity for coercive culture as political mechanism and lack of desire to modernize is the biggest bane of Taliban psyche. The social audit would always put them in the category of arrogant selfcentric fanatics who believe in cult of pushing Afghanistan back into medieval times for their vested interests.

Afghanistan has been central to dominate the energy rich Central Asian Republics (CAR) and West Asia  which prompted military intrusions  by Russia in 1979 and later by US in 2001.The US seem to be  looking at Indo-Pacific now to counter China which is emerging as a challenge to their global dominance.This geo -political reality when hyphenated with US draw down suggests devaluation of Afghanistan in Western political matrix.Therefore, Afghanistan in new tranche of Taliban takeover would be much different than what it was three decades earlier.

Afghanistan is awar ravaged land locked country with limited connectivity, shattered economy, weak institutions and disturbed social fabric sans national unity.Therefore, who so ever comes to power in Afghanistan has to rebuild the nation literally from scratch. It would require building instutions, grass-root level administration, finances, communication, connectivity, technical expertise and skilled manpower forcing them to reach out to other nations.  Afghanistan, in return, has nothing much to offer leaving her open to political exploitation. Afghanistan, accordingly, would continue to be a political play ground and that’s where the vows of Afghanistan are unlikely to be over, ever.

While US  is unlikely to get involved directly hereafter, they have intentions  to continue their political dominance of the region by installing a pro US government.The US has promised an annual aid of $ 4 billion till 2024 which obviously would have political strings attached. The US would expect the new regime to follow their dictates and take care of their strategic interests heretofore. The US is also known to be scouting for military bases in close vicinity of Afghanistan to take care of contingencies impacting US interests. The rest of the Western world would also likely to keep a diplomatically convenient stance as they are also not on friendly play list of Afghan people.

Pakistan, with known complicity with the Taliban is seen to be positioning themselves as a facilitator with an eye to dominate Afghan affairs.The Pakistani doctrine of‘ Strategic Depth’ against arch rival India is central to their political thought. Taliban, in Pakistan narrative, are viewed as strategic assets to replicate 1990 model to give a boost to insurgency in J&K .Therefore, it is in Pakistani interests to dissuade Taliban not to get cosy with India in their strategic calculus.

The reported infusion of 10000 Pakistani( JeM & LeT) fighters to support Taliban appears to be part of their sinister design.Their sole objective seems to be to perpetuate terrorism and creating societal mayhem to ensure Afghanistan continues to be a weak state serving their political purposes. Pakistan is already bankrupt and continues to be in grey list of FATF for her terrorism connects. Pakistan,therefore, does not have capacity to help Afghanistan in its rehabilitation and economic development.

Russia is interested to check spread of ISIS and Al Qaida in the Afghanistan as it would impact on security matrix of Russia and her Central Asian allies. A secure Afghanistan also fits into their prospects of occupying the strategic space being vacated by the US in the Central, South as well as West Asia. This strategic notion when hyphenated with their foot prints in Syria would help to facilitate ‘’Bear hug from Mediterranean to Indian Ocean’’ an ambition since Czarist era.

China is supporting the peace initiatives as they see huge economic opportunities in post reconciliation period within as well as beyond Afghanistan.China is looking at pushing her BRI project to connect Eurasia and West Asia, besides access to$ 3 trillion worth of rare mineral wealth of Afghanistan. Taliban in return may be looking at financial and material help from China is fully seized with the pattern of their debt diplomacy. It, obviously, would be at the cost of compromises on basic politico-religious prudence that they profess. In that, China may be expecting Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan does not become centre of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) under their rule.

Recent pro China sound bites by the Taliban leadership are indicative of their appeasement mode. The top leadership of Taliban was hosted by China recently which is indicative of emerging Sino-Taliban political convergence of convenience. Pakistan and China combine are seen to be shaping environment to increase   economic dependence of Afghanistan on China and strategic isolation Of India, being a competitor and a political rival.China accordingly, would be averse to Indian foot prints in Afghanistan in post reconciliation phase for obvious reasons.

Iran  has been traditionally hostile towards Taliban due to sectarian issues impacting Shia fraternity and patronage to  Al Qaida and ISIS  groups. Iran, as on date, is  deeply involved in their own existential issues concerning their political agenda in West Asia, economic sanctions and nuclear calculus. Iranian bail out from economic stress is contingent on fructification of $ 400 billion deal with China and return of refugees which would be possible only when Afghanistan gets stabilized.

Iran is also looking at increasing her politico- economic turf by providing access to Indian Ocean to Afghanistan, CAR and Eurasia through their geographical space. These political realities have prompted  Iran to take a fresh look at her policy concerning Taliban. The Iranian  Foreign Minister Javed Zarif is reported to have said : “ It would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for Taliban”. It is reflective of new political equations in making which needs to be observed.

Turkey had tried to be a mediator to bring the top leadership of Taliban and Afghan government to work out a reconciliation deal at Istanbul. However, this meeting had to be postponed due to refusal of Taliban to participate. Turkey has also offered protection of certain key installations including Kabul airport as part of their reach out. Turkey seems to be looking at the opportunity to enhance her credentials as the leader of Muslim countries. They are also seen to be getting closer to China by targeting Uighur Muslims within Turkey in the name of security.

India has a record of helping out Afghanistan with her policy to foster good relations with all nations on her periphery.Indian interest lies in regional stability and access to CAR and further into Eurasia for trade and commerce.India has invested $ 3 billion in various projects to support the elected government in Afghanistan all through their bad times. Chabahar port in Iran has been designed to provide an alternate axis to Afghanistan and CAR for their connectivity to Indian Ocean. India is also involved in human resource development and capability building through training and material support.

Taliban being a terrorist organization with Pakistani connections has been opposed by India all this time. Now that they are likely to be major share holders in power, India has to take a call as regards to future relationship with them.On holistic plane Indian approach should be continuation of historical and cultural linkages with Afghan people. At the same time, there is a need to neutralize inimical Pakistani designs to manipulate Taliban to facilitate their anti India agenda.There are unconfirmed reports of some diplomatic initiative in this regards to open up channels of communications with Taliban along side other influential political groups.

We need to carry out introspection of ‘Return on Investment’ by India having deployed such a large financial and political capital so far.A regional‘Troika’ group consisting of Russia, China and Pakistan with leaning towards Taliban seem to have reservations in participation of  India in reconciliation exercise. There are reports of US, Pakistan, China and Russia scheduled to meet in Doha soon to work out a mechanism so that Afghanistan does not slip into a civil war. India, despite being a regional power with positive credentials has not been made part of reconciliation process except as an observer in selected forums.Even Taliban don’t feel the need of India, since China has deep pockets and will be ever-willing to extend the BRI into Afghanistan via Pakistan and thence to Iran!

India has to understand one thing very clearly that a political dispensation that believes in primacy of religion over political rationality is to be handled with utmost caution.India with her religious mix is unlikely to be a priority and in sync with Taliban political thought.This psyche of Taliban is reflective in their actions of destruction of non Islamic historical monuments, Indian built Salma dam and regular harassment of non Islamic citizen. The Afghan society under Taliban is expected to get further radicalize with Wahabi culture prompting such tendencies to increase.

It goes to show that $ 3 billion of Indian investment and work force  has not yielded the desired political dividends.As regards to fears of Taliban supporting insurgency in J&K, we are well prepared as on date unlike in 90s to deal with any such contingency. Yes, if there is a way to reduce such a threat, it would certainly help in stabilizing the J&K furthering national interests. There is a strong pro India lobby in Afghanistan that appreciates the Indian contribution in infrastructure development and political linkages. Indian should work through such political entities to engage with Afghanistan to take care of her interests.

The Indian take  in case of Afghanistan should be to engage with the government of the day irrespective of its composition. Our treatment should be same with no bias or inclination for elected or selected government reflecting continuity of our policy of ‘neighbours first’. At the same time, India should not go over board to reach out to Taliban to give them a feel that they are entitled for Indian support. Now it should be left to the new political set up to take the relationship forward by reciprocating appropriately with a nation that has always stood by them.

India is an emerging economic power with strong political fundamentals which need to be factored in by the new Afghan regime. It is Afghanistan that needs India more than what India can benefit from Afghanistan. Therefore,India needs to engage Afghanistan from position of strength and evolve her policies a fresh in the back drop of emerging geo-political synthesis in post US draw down.

Let Afghanistan stabilize and evolve a responsible political dispensation which can be trusted to take care of Indian interests.The emerging synergy amongst China, Pakistan and Taliban needs to be watched closely being a vector with inimical strains. The span and scope of Indian investment should be calibrated accordingly in the new tranche of Indo-Afghan political matrix.

‘Wait and watch’ would be an appropriate approach for India in the given circumstances. Afghanistan under Taliban need to be extended Indian support for capacity building based on merits of their political conduct and demonstrative sincerity of purpose.Let there be no hurry this time to display Indian benevolence as soft power has little space amongst perpetuators of terror who believe in hard power as their political philosophy.It would be their loss if they do not value selfless Indian contribution towards Afghan people and prospects of ushering in good times once again. Taliban have to take a call.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav

Former Director General Infantry, Indian Army.

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3 thoughts on “Taliban Surge in Afghanistan: Calibrating Indian Response

  1. The key Indian interest is to avoid a situation like the late 1980s, early 1990s when Afghan jihadis ended up creating trouble for us in Kashmir. In order to pursue this interest, we need to make two things clear to the Taliban:

    a) Any attempt to interfere in Kashmir will lead to direct retaliation – not just on their bases in Pakistan, but even on their forces in Afghanistan. India is not to be trifled with.

    b) Any effort by them to gain power in Pakistan will not be opposed by New Delhi.

    The second point is very important. After their victory in Afghanistan, if the Taliban direct their attention to Pakistan, it is all to the good.

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