With India currently besieged by COVID-19, few of us can afford to spare a thought about geo-political machinations taking place abroad. Yet, as the peace process in Afghanistan between the United States and the Taliban reaches a precarious position, with the Taliban having ramped up their attacks against the Afghan government despite the recent spread of coronavirus in the country, it is imperative that India takes stock of the situation.
The US Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has now directly requested New Delhi to further its engagement in Afghanistan during this period of transition.
India, on Tuesday, 12 May, strongly condemned the terror attacks on a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, calling them “barbaric”. The Ministry of External Affairs in a statement said the “reprehensible” attacks, including on mothers, newborns, nurses and mourning families, “constitute crimes against humanity”.
However, in the paradigm shift that is about to take place, after American military operations come to their inevitable end, India must aim to use this transition to secure its regional security interests.
Understanding the Afghanistan Conflict
The conflict in Afghanistan can, at one level, be understood as being between the majority Pashtuns mostly concentrated in Southern and Central Afghanistan, who the Taliban claim to represent, fighting against the empowerment of ethnic minorities from northern Afghanistan by successive democratically-elected governments. Whilst both the past and present presidents of Afghanistan — Karzai and Ghani — are Pashtun, they have been seen as leaders propped up by the West and being overly-sympathetic with ethnic minorities. Moreover, many State institutions are dominated by ethnic minorities and see a lack of representation from the Pashtuns. However, the conflict in Afghanistan has also been considered as a continuation of the proxy-war between India and Pakistan.
It is no secret that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has deep ties with the Taliban.
That the Pakistani military establishment has supported the Taliban and allied extremist groups is a known fact. India, on its part, has been a staunch supporter of the democratic Afghan state. This link has existed since pre- 9/11, when India supplied military equipment and humanitarian support to the Northern Alliance in its effort to topple the brutal Taliban regime. The Northern Alliance later went on to form the Afghan government.
Resurgence of Taliban Is Worrying for New Delhi: What Should India Do Next?
With America having now committed to exiting, the weakest entity in this entire sum seems to be the Afghan government. With the steady decrease in Western military support, the Taliban now control over a third of the country. Moreover, the recent election results have been heavily disputed, and both leading candidates, incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his opponent Abdullah Abdullah, have sworn themselves in as president in March this year. With a divided civilian leadership and American support nearing its expiry date, the Afghan government now finds itself in a bleak spot.
This situation has been further exacerbated by the US negotiating for a peace deal directly with the Taliban without the Afghan government.
Regardless of how these negotiations ultimately pan out, any form of eventual peace will need the integration of the Taliban into the governing state. As it stands presently, the Taliban has been able to keep its sphere of influence strong enough to make America realise that trying to govern Afghanistan, in a state of peace and stability, would be impossible without their corporation.
So, where does India find itself at this threshold of a new phase in Afghanistan?
The resurgence of the Taliban has obviously worried New Delhi. A key interest of India, if not its main, is to ensure that the Afghan state does not eventually consist of elements that would support extremist groups functioning in Kashmir. In the past, the Taliban has been known to have warm relations with Lakshar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. However, the Taliban now seems to be willing to leave behind its extremist inclinations if allowed to integrate into the Afghan State.
India’s ‘Soft Power’ In Afghanistan
Recently, during an online conference hosted by the Global Counter-terrorism Council, Taliban spokesperson Mohammad Shaheen stated that: “We will never want any foreign organisation using Afghan soil to target another country. We will bring a law to stop any such activity”. More pertinently, Shaheen also claimed that the Taliban would be more than willing to engage with neighbouring countries “on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests”.
While the solidity of these sentiments will only be seen in the times to come, India must now aim to establish some sort of ties with the Taliban.
Till now, it has been openly hostile to the negotiations undertaken by the US and has repeatedly tried to lobby for their termination. Continuing such aggressive posturing against the Taliban is folly, if India wants to have substantial influence in a post-America Afghanistan. At a time when the Taliban themselves are re-evaluating their relations with their Pakistani allies, and are realising the spectre of extremism and lawlessness that ISI activity brings, India must aim to provide them with an alternate regional option.
In contrast to Pakistan, which has backed terror groups that have only brought destruction and devastation upon the country, India has immense soft power in Afghanistan.
Holding back from military intervention, while continuing to support Afghanistan economically with 3 billion dollars in aid, has been an effective geo-political move. Further strengthening this commitment, the Indian government has been sending medical and food supplies to aid the Afghan government in tackling COVID-19.
If relations with the Taliban are not established in this new chapter of Afghanistan, India will risk squandering its influence.
A Stable & Peaceful Regime in Afghanistan Is Key to India’s Security Interests
Simultaneously though, India must also continue its engagement with the democratic regime and the ethnic minorities. It is equally important to remember that a situation resembling the Afghan civil war of the late nineties, between the Taliban and the erstwhile Northern Alliance, is still very much a possibility.
In a situation of an all-out military campaign, where the Taliban might have an inclination to fall back on Pakistan for assistance, India must be ready to engage this situation with equivalent assistance in the form of economic and humanitarian aid to the entities that will safeguard its interests.
In a situation which is constantly developing and has the possibility of multifarious outcomes, India must constantly try to pre-empt the status quo and build ties that will help assert its geo-political interests.
A stable and peaceful regime in Afghanistan, which censures terror activity, is vital to India’s security interests. Deeming Afghanistan to be irrelevant, as some have, will only result in the weakening of India’s position in South Asia.
(Ranvijay Singh is currently an undergraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is a keen, albeit, amateur aficionado of Oropolitics, South Asian history, and mountaineering literature. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)