India’s hard-earned influence in Afghanistan at stake

Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch outside the Bagram Airfield. (Photo Courtesy: Voice of America)

Md Tauhid Nasir for BeyondHeadlines

In a dramatic development that likely to upset New Delhi concerning Afghan Peace Process, the quartet of the US, Russia, China and Pakistan in a meeting in Beijing last week have acknowledged that Pakistan is a significant and indispensable part of the Afghan peace process. In a press note, they further said that Pakistan is someone who can play an important role in facilitating peace in the war-ravaged country.

However, fact of the matter is ever since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistani agencies and Taliban were hands in gloves in keeping Afghan insurgency and resistance active even though it was a partner with the US in the war against terror. When the US-led coalition forces were hunting down Taliban fighters, ISI came to their rescue and provided them safe havens inside Pakistan where they got training, arms and ammunition to carry out counter attacks in Afghanistan and on coalition forces. Yet, Pakistan has been recognized by the world powers as the one who can facilitate peace in the war-torn country.

According to numerous international reports, Taliban has absolute control in at least 14 major districts including Kandahar, Ghazni, Jalalabad, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif and have a strong presence in over half of the country – thanks to the support of Pakistani agencies. In such a scenario, if any democratic political process takes place then the Taliban has strong possibilities to emerge as a major political force in Kabul which would change the dynamics in South Asia, particularly India.

Advantage China

China shares a tiny but strategic 50-mile border with Afghanistan at the Pamir Mountains. This mountainous strip connects Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province (Hindu Kush) with China’s Xinjiang region which is home to over 11 million Uyghur Muslims fighting for autonomy.

Several media reports suggest that Afghanistan has reached an agreement with China to train its soldiers on Chinese soil to counter ISIS and Al-Qaida. Not only that, once the US scales down its military presence in Afghanistan, Beijing will take over the charge and become the dominant foreign player in Afghanistan. The Islamist radical forces, who are planning to enter the restive Xinjiang to fight in solidarity with Uyghur Muslims for autonomy, may be forced to move somewhere else – maybe Kashmir.

On the economic front, Beijing is the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan and over the last three years, it has provided $70 million worth of military aid and $90 million worth of development assistance with special focus on Badakhshan province.

With the development of Gwadar port in Pakistan, China has already set up direct access to the east of the narrow Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf through which a good amount of oil and gas comes to India who imports over 80% of its energy consumption. The Strait of Hormuz is seen as a jugular vein of energy-starved India and dominance of China in the region is certainly a thing India won’t like to happen.

Now, after Afghanistan comes under the purview of China’s ambitious $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, the major sway of trade route in entire south-east Asia will fall under the Chinese influence.

What went wrong

Unlike India, the US, China, Pakistan, Iran and even Russia have had some sort of direct or indirect engagement with the Taliban over the years even though, except Pakistan, they were at war with the Taliban. They knew it to secure their specific interests, it was important to keep the window of negotiation open, but New Delhi probably didn’t realize the importance of it.

India, which helped overthrow the Taliban regime in 2001, never engaged with them and consistently maintained that “good terrorist or bad terrorist” is unacceptable to New Delhi. Now, the US Special Envoy to the region Zalmay Khalilzad has underscored the outcome of the Beijing meeting to kick-start intra-Afghan peace talks sooner so that they can get safe passage from Afghanistan, New Delhi has no option but to accept the harsh reality unfolding in the region.

India’s stake in Afghanistan is very high. It is the largest donor country, after China, in Asia in rebuilding Afghanistan and has pumped over $3 billion in the country since the Taliban regime was brought down. India is running over a hundred strategically important and high impact community developmental projects. Today, there is an unprecedented bilateral relation between New Delhi and Kabul. But once the Taliban comes at the centre stage in Kabul, how effective this relationship would remain is something New Delhi needs to ponder over.

Foreign policy in mess

Until the late 1990’s, India’s foreign policy concerning Afghanistan was in alliance with a common interest of the region’s other powers Russia and Iran. They unitedly coordinated with Northern Alliance against the Taliban and Islamic radicalization of the country. But after 9/11, the context has changed completely and Russia and Iran are no more on the same page with India’s interest in Afghanistan.

The US, which was frustrated with Pakistan’s dubious role in the war against terror, was scouting for a regional ally whom they can trust and take over the charge once they leave Afghanistan. In search of one, the US fantasized India of greener pasture with some significant bilateral deals and other goodies. President Trump once hailed the Modi government as the US’s number one partner in its South Asian strategy is one fine example.

Now, what is frustrating for New Delhi is it’s over-reliant on unpredictable US foreign policy that always revolves around “America First”. Anything that comes in their way have repercussions regardless of how important an ally is. From obstruction to Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline to sanctions on buying Iranian oil or S-400 defense equipment from Russia are case in points.

On the other hand, Russia and Pakistan, after decades of soar ties, joined hands for the development and access to Gwadar port. The two countries have also agreed to gradually boost defense cooperation. Thus, if India’s time-tested strategic partner Russia can shun the grudge of cold war it had with Pakistan and the Taliban, then why couldn’t India is beyond anyone’s comprehension.

New Delhi needs to understand that they can’t live in Rome and fight with the Pope. In a globalized world, neither friend nor enemy is permanent what is permanent is the nation’s interest. Being Asia’s second-largest economy, it was in India’s interest to partner with a regional giant to maintain its clout in the region else road ahead would become bumpy.

Way forward

It’s watersheds moment in India’s foreign policy and it needs to revisit the ground realities afresh. India also needs to rethink its geopolitical alignment with the US from scratch as the world is moving towards a multi-polarity with Asian giants China, Russia and many others in one pole. In such a polarized world, India must have to learn how to strike a balance of inter-dependency with its neighbours.

New Delhi, which is averse to have any engagement with the Taliban so far, needs to reassess its approach pertaining to Afghanistan. A divergent approach with a window of having a dialogue with whosoever is in Kabul is what best suits to safeguard the national interest else the hard-earned influence in Afghanistan would go up in smoke.

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