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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

What after Taliban?


India’s future in Afghanistan is linked to withdrawal of ISAF and a pact with Pakistan
Tags : Afghanistan | National security | Pranab Mukherjee | TAPI | ISAF | Raja Mohan | ISI | |

India is one of the first countries to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. Its attention on Afghanistan is based in strategic reasoning – in the main with national security issues. Currently India is one the biggest donors in Afghanistan as it strives to beset a certain position in Kabul by investing into the Afghan economy. Afghanistan also serves as a gate to Central Asia which is energy rich. Therefore, one of India’s main objectives is to stabalise the war-torn country in order to get an access to bigger markets, particularly in energy.

Recently, President of India Pranab Mukherjee has said that India will participate in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI)  project due to its energy deficit. In order to achieve this goal, India has engaged thousands of workers and dozens of companies to take part in this rebuilding of Afghanistan. Today, there are more than 4,000 Indian nationals working on various projects; they train the Afghan police and contribute to the improvement of education, health care, infrastructure as well as telecommunications systems. Despite these efforts, the main question is whether India’s endeavors will bear fruit after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan? According to Indian experts like Raja Mohan, the US pullout means that New Delhi will have to take responsibility for its own security. As a matter of fact, the presence of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan has helped many countries, including India. Apart from eliminating the Taliban , ISAF have spent money in combating other fundamentalist networks. India’s main advantage therefore is that it has managed to get involved in a wide range of humanitarian projects, collaborate with the Afghan security forces and provide training, thus sidelining Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. This one factor has certainly sowed the seed of irritants in US-Pakistan relations.

Nonetheless, India has not able to protect itself entirely from terror attacks. In 2008, the Indian embassy in Kabul was attacked which resulted in the death of 41 people and a similar hit in 2009 killed 17. While the Taliban accepted responsibility, many experts say it was backed by Pakistan’s ISI. During that period, there were many incidents resulting in the killing of Indian workers in Afghanistan.

Domestically too, India has suffered from several deadly bombings committed by `relatively small’ terror groups that have emerged from Afghanistan. What is noteworthy, however, is that almost all of them were based in Pakistan’s troubled areas. Hence, the logic behind India’s involvement in Afghanistan is a prevention from larger attacks.

India has to also contend with geo-political developments post-2014. In recent months, there have been several US gestures towards Pakistan which suggests a change in attitude. Senior US officials are inclined to reconcile with Taliban and here the role of Pakistan, who has influence with them, will be crucial. In the view of M Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, “the US was India’s closest partner on Afghanistan until very recently, but Washington has lately started began making overtures to Pakistan to putting together a new regional condominium”.

This implies that with Taliban’s comeback after the withdrawal, India may face serious security threats because the US will talk to Taliban only via Pakistan. As Henry Kissinger said, “in many respects, India will be the most affected country if jihadist Islamism gains impetus in Afghanistan”.

It would appear that the US has come to an understanding that they cannot leave Afghanistan without cooperating with Pakistan, especially if the withdrawal is going to take place through its territory. Such rapprochement with Pakistan brings India’s problems back on the table because Islamabad is likely to support the Afghan Taliban and at the same time, push India out of Afghanistan.

Geopolitical factors will dictate the presence of powerful players like  Russia, China and Iran who are likely to play their own game and promote their own strategies of containment within Afghanistan. India should therefore think of a specific plan to deal with Afghanistan. Signing of dozens of cooperation and strategic partnership agreements, investments in Afghan infrastructure, as well as repeated visits of Afghan officials to India may become a thing of the past when Taliban eventually returns. To some extent, its ‘soft power’ objectives have been successful because public opinion towards India is positive. Indian products and its film industry are very popular among Afghans. But the situation may drastically with the arrival of Taliban who in the past have imposed strict rules on foreign activities within its area of influence. By now, key players of the region have understood that Pakistan is the only guarantor of relative stability in Afghanistan. Without an agreement with Pakistan, India’s economic ambitions and its soft-power mechanisms in Afghanistan may not be realize.

(Views expressed by the author are personal)

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017