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3 choices for India in Afghanistan – walking away is the easiest one but not the best

It is up to China to persuade Islamabad that Indian aid in Afghanistan will only help stabilise a country that could quickly wreak havoc within Pakistan itself.

India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar | File photo: ANI
File photo of India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar | ANI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to the G-20, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has spoken to nearly everyone, Indian officials are travelling to attend the Moscow meeting, and a conference on Afghanistan is due to be held in Delhi soon, probably with China and Pakistan participating. All of this follows the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States, and the arrival of US and Russian security officials earlier, all seemingly intent on getting India’s ‘views’ on Afghanistan.

With all this, and more, it seems India has decided to formally step up to the table, after years of sitting quietly on the sidelines. Yet, a conference is not a commitment, and a speech not an endorsement of the Taliban. As violence scales up in Afghanistan and a severe humanitarian crisis looms, there are choices to be made in New Delhi. None of them is great. But there’s opportunity.

Choice No 1: Tell them to deal with the mess they created

In the 40 years of war that has gone past in Afghanistan, with two superpowers involved aided and abetted by a noxious neighbour, the reality is that India kept to its traditional stance, by backing the elected government, by providing development where needed, flatly refusing to get involved in internal matters, and not impinging on the sovereignty of the country in any way. Pakistan will insist otherwise, but that is the truth for much of this period. This template was followed with all neighbours, barring the odd and disastrous deviations such as the intervention in Sri Lanka.

Given this history of non-intervention, we have the choice of just walking away from the whole sordid mess, and tell the main actors, including the UK and sundry others, to deal with it themselves. After all, Delhi was kept out of the dialogue processes because of its refusal to deal with the Taliban, and therefore could not ‘contribute’ to the displacement of a legitimate government, which is what the Doha Agreement of 2020 actually amounted to.

Walking away is the easiest option, though it does mean writing off some $3 billion in aid.

But here’s the trouble. India could afford to stay aloof from the mess, precisely because it had the confidence of the Ashraf Ghani government including its interior ministry and Intelligence agencies. Cooperation meant that any serious threat emerging against India would be brought to the attention of Delhi and vice versa. This was not always smooth. For instance, Delhi was never given access to Aslam Farooqi, accused of the March 2020 attack against a Kabul gurdwara. He was the head of the Islamic State of Khorasan, the avowed Afghanistan chapter of the dreaded Syria-based group, besides being associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

That lack of cooperation was President Ghani trying to do a little regional balancing. Now the interior ministry and its intelligence agency, together with their extensive records, are in the hands of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a terrorist who is Pakistan’s ‘A team’ and who has been at the core of almost every attack against India in Afghanistan. India can’t afford to sit idly by while Afghanistan is turned into a base for a ‘Kashmir force’. Many would say that Pakistan can do it anyway, without using Afghanistan at all. But Islamabad is under tremendous pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that is holding its tottering economy by the throat. So, Afghan soil will be used, whether or not the Taliban like it. That’s the bottom line. There is also the more remote possibility of a Chinese ‘occupation’ of strategic parts of Afghanistan. But that’s still distant. The other could happen almost immediately.

Also read: Pakistan wants an Afghanistan acceptable to the West — Islam plus democracy

Choice No 2: Full on strategy under Chapter VII of the UN 

Given the implications of the first choice, India could consider joining rising calls for a UN-mandated peacekeeping force for Afghanistan, made up of ‘like-minded’ countries with a more combative mandate than the  existing UNAMA (UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan). Now consider that its mandate has been renewed as recently as 17 September 2021 by a Security Council resolution that talks all about terrorism etc., but does not change the original 2002 mandate, which calls for provision of its ‘good offices’, protection of human rights, gender equality, coordination and facilitation of humanitarian assistance; and budget execution among other things.

That mandate itself arose out of the 2001 Bonn Agreement. A UN force with a mandate for full-fledged peacekeeping, with a combat element will require not just full Security Council support – China abstained even from the milk and water Resolution 2593 of August 2021, which merely demanded UN access – but also Taliban agreement. The latter may well happen if the situation turns dire. But putting together a force of well-armed troops will take months of UN wrangling, besides deciding on the key question of just who are the ‘like-minded’ countries who will contribute to a force that will certainly come under attack from diverse sources, including criminals looking for easy ransom money. Russia or the US are highly unlikely candidates.

An Islamic peacekeeping force could, in theory, be led by Saudi Arabia, but would be primarily staffed by Pakistan which defeats the whole purpose. Traditionally large troop contributing countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal and other smaller countries could go in under Indian command. But an Indian presence in Afghanistan would be the ultimate gift card to Pakistan. One can almost see ISI officers falling off their desks with delight. Most difficult of all is to decide what the actual mandate of this force would be. Protect the Taliban ’government’ or impose its will on it? Protect civilians? Protect UN assistance forces? Remember that the original mandate of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) was “to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment”. Look where that eventually landed up. Mandates tend to open up in a most disconcerting way.

Also read: Pakistan & China among invitees as India looks to host NSA meet on Afghanistan next month

Halfway house – the UN and assistance

The third option is apparent in the speech by Prime Minister Modi to the G-20,  which bases itself on Resolution 2593. That Resolution makes no mention whatsoever of any armed intervention of any kind. Instead, it calls for “unhindered access for the United Nations, its specialized agencies and implementing partners, and other agencies”. It also ‘demands’ that the Taliban not allow Afghan soil to be used by any terrorist entity listed under Resolution 1267 which include the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. It also calls for an inclusive government, ‘including women and minorities’. And critically, this option will provide UNAMA with the central role it deserves, which was set aside when the muscular US-led force went in. This gives major donors and aid providers like India a hand to influence the trajectory towards stability. If China seeks to contribute, so be it.

Such is going to be the message of the upcoming international conference in Delhi, and perhaps in Moscow. Russia’s version of ‘inclusivity’ may be nuanced differently, even as China bends over backwards not to alienate the Taliban.  But the bottom line is that everyone wants their particular proteges within the Afghan government to ensure that their particular bugbears are kept out. That means watering down a Taliban-dominated cabinet. The Taliban will resist, but the tagline at the end is possible recognition of a government that is at present too brutal, too shaky, and much too prone to violence to be worthy of recognition. The Taliban have to change, and UNAMA and its funding is critical to that.

The real problem is not the Taliban. It is, as always, Pakistan. Rawalpindi had ‘won’ its 50-year war (which began in the mid-1970s) and paid the cost in blood and money. It has kept its pace steady despite threatened sanctions, air attacks and near economic collapse. It’s not likely to allow its detractors (read India) any space that may more profitably be occupied by itself and its backers.

It is up to China, with its investments in Pakistan, to persuade Islamabad that Indian aid will only help stabilise a country that could quickly lose its moorings and wreak havoc within Pakistan itself. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa needs to put his vision of connectivity into action by allowing Indian food aid to go across Pakistan into Afghanistan. That is an important first step not only for Afghanistan, but for the region as a whole. If wisdom dawns, it’s that vision that the Pakistan NSA should bring to the table should he decide to attend.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)