India in Afghanistan: Regaining ‘Influence’ Is Far From New Delhi’s Goals

No one is likely to become a dominant ally within Kabul’s uncertain politics anytime soon – no one really wants to.

6 min read
Hindi Female

It’s all getting very interesting with shades of spooks and diplomacy merging together to form India’s new outreach to Afghanistan. Recently, a delegation from the Ministry of External Affairs was in Kabul, meeting with Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, among others.

At around the same time, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in Dushanbe, declaring that India would remain an important stakeholder in Afghanistan and calling for assistance to bolster Kabul’s ability to counter terrorism.

That shouldn’t be a moment too soon. UN reports are already warning of the existence of several terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan.


And Then There’s the Taliban and the Taliban

The Taliban – in this context that means those in Kabul, and not Mullah Haibatullah Akundzada and his clerical clique in Kandahar – have publicly appreciated the aid, but that doesn’t mean much.

The World Bank notes an economic collapse driven by sharp declines in international grants, loss of access to central bank assets, disruption to international banking relationships, the collapse of investment, and even agriculture hit by drought. In simple words, no one is that interested.

So, if India chooses to restart its several hundred projects – spread across almost every province – it would be quite literally a shot in the arm for everyone concerned right down the line.

India is now in the unaccustomed role of a donor country, in the fifth place before the Taliban took over, behind the US, the UK, Japan and Germany. Now, it has probably gone a couple of notches higher.

Though the Afghan Foreign Ministry clearly sees the re-starting of projects as a priority, with Deputy Foreign Minister Stanekzai saying as much, the re-opening of the embassy will depend on the security that the Taliban can provide. Then there’s the reported statement from Mullah Yakub, son of Mullah Omar and who is a power to reckon with, that Kabul would be willing to send Afghan army personnel to India for training. That’s quite a statement of trust.

But then, the Taliban is far from being one cohesive entity. The sudden ‘U-turn’ recently after secondary girls’ schools were shut within hours of reopening seems to have been on the orders of the clerics around Haibatullah, in a bid to win back power. Then there is his sudden decision to ban narcotics, which is a source of finance for much of the Taliban.

It’s worth noting also that those like Mottaqi, whom India is liaising with, have no access to the ‘great leader’. So, a decision by Kabul’s leaders may not be honoured at all. And then there are the others who may object even more violently, or even make a buck out of Indian or any foreign presence.


India Again in Afghanistan?

First, ‘la affaire MEA’ seems to have progressed smoothly.

The Ministry’s briefing played down the visit as only an attempt to ensure smooth humanitarian assistance, of which there is rather a lot. It includes the promised 50,000 tonnes of wheat, with a large part of this already delivered via Pakistan, 13 tonnes of medicines, half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and winter clothing.

As the spokesperson said, the embassy has only local staff, and even with a full complement, it hardly has the ability to oversee any aid distribution. Neither does anyone else. Everyone is providing aid through international organisations on the ground, such as the World Food Programme and others, which are long-established in the country.

The United Nations, while launching its single-largest aid appeal of $4.4 billion, specified carefully that this would ‘go directly’ to aid workers and others and not to the Taliban themselves. Given the collapse of banking systems, payments have to be done through ‘informal’ channels, and aid is still prone to local corruption and favouritism.

So, any quiet dabbling in direct aid to presumably friendly folks supporting the ‘National Resistance Front’ in Northern Panjshir would be not just counterproductive, but it simply can't be done.

What the visit aimed at seems to be precisely what was said: open up lines to the ‘government’ such as it is, and help out in the disaster close to home.

Those ‘Others’ in Afghanistan

The recent report of the UN Sanctions Monitoring team notes baldly that the al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Levant and Khorasan (ISIL-K) are both alive and well, with the former batting for the Taliban and the latter opposed to it.

Here, remember those most unusual of videos purportedly from Ayman al-Zawahiri, praising Muskan Khan from Karnataka who defied the hijab ban. That certainly shows the direction the al Qaeda is being pointed at.

Then there’s the ISIL, which has its tentacles deep in the south, where the National Investigation Agency (NIA) made its most recent arrest in Mangalore. That arrest is also one of the rare cases of a link up to Kashmir from the south.

Then there is the famed ‘Haqqani Network’, now a part of the government with its importance apparent from the fact that it was key to the usual Afghan trading that brought in district after district into the Taliban fold. Anas Haqqani, just 28 years old, is the public face and declared last year that the Network had no interest in Kashmir at all. But the Haqqanis, while keeping all the plum portfolios, are facing the heat themselves as competitors rise.

The Haqqanis' influence remains, however, evidenced by the fact that it recently mediated the resumption of a ceasefire with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been fighting Pakistan for years. Whether it holds is another matter, given that Sirajuddin Haqqani had earlier helped negotiations with the same group in 2010.

Any investment or instituting of projects will be encouraged by the Haqqanis, now sitting in the corridors of power. But even then, he’s not entirely capable of providing the security that’s necessary.

Kabul may soon receive some help in countering terrorism from other quarters. In Dushanbe, NSA Doval not only recalled the immense historical relationship with Afghanistan but also stated that it should receive all help from its neighbours in countering terrorist groups who pose a threat to ‘regional’ security.

This statement was made at the Fourth Regional Security Dialogue, in discussions with his counterparts from Tajikistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and China.


Unexpected Help?

Russia has long been satisfied with the Taliban's effectiveness in rooting out groups opposed to it like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

China’s Foreign Ministry made it clear that it would support an end to terrorism, and the others are likely to be on board for some stability on their borders. True, Cheng Guoping, External Security Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did reprise the Tunxin initiative that was made at a meeting of ‘neighbouring’ countries of Afghanistan, and where India was most certainly not invited. So, regional rivalries are far from over.

Delhi could, however, offer some hard support in countering terror, an assistance that the many actors in Kabul are unlikely to forget. It would be probably beneficial to all concerned.

Why Pakistan Shouldn’t Be Worried

Meanwhile, Pakistan is likely to watch these moves with great concern. It should not be unduly worried. At the moment, all that any other country – barring Islamabad itself – is capable of is providing just the aid that the people of Afghanistan need.

Pakistan itself desperately needs a stable Afghanistan that will not send in another flood of refugees into its own territory, which is also why it allowed Indian aid to flow through its territory. More Indian money going to schools and hospitals may certainly mean a greater Indian influence.

But if the old die-hards in Aabpara translate this into an idea of a Kabul ‘aligned’ to Delhi, that verges on hallucination. No one is likely to emerge dominant either within Afghanistan’s politics or as a reliable ally anytime in the near future. And the crux of it? No one really wants to. That’s the bottom line.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More