Two decades of US presence in Afghanistan may have ended with the return of the Taliban after a disastrous troop withdrawal, but it can’t be denied that it created at least some aspirations about gender rights and dignity among Afghans that the Taliban won’t be able to entirely suppress now, however brutally they may attempt it. This is small consolation, no doubt, but it is not nothing.
For India, one of the more unfortunate aspects of the recent developments is that it once again illustrates New Delhi’s lack of much influence in Afghanistan. Indians, including former and current officials, can claim that because India was not involved, this was not India’s defeat, there are two problems with that reasoning.
The first is: why was India not involved? It doesn’t say much about India’s strategy or power if it does not have any influence in its own region. New Delhi has been a passive bystander because it has not acted to shape the environment, leaving Rawalpindi to do so. Now India should assess why it was so bereft of options in its own neighbourhood and what it must do to prevent this from happening in the future. New Delhi was possibly too receptive to American reflections of Pakistan’s concerns about India’s role in Afghanistan. But equally, this might have been because it fit with India’s ‘soft-power’ approach, whose primary attraction was that it was politically risk-free. India’s geographic isolation from Afghanistan, which New Delhi has done little to correct, is the key here, and something that still needs to be addressed.
The second problem is the idea that such sophistry matters. This was always a problem in Indian foreign policy, where we think that (half) clever arguments can mask reality. India spent a great deal on Afghanistan, investing billions on various ‘soft power’ projects, including the roads on which the Taliban cruised to Kabul. Moreover, it has consistently been an Indian policy objective to play a role in Afghanistan and curtail Pakistan’s. There can be little doubt that this was an Indian defeat too, even if it’s not comparable to the magnitude of the US disaster. Surely, it’s foolish to claim that what’s happened is somehow something desirable for India, even if the negative consequences need not be exaggerated. Living in denial may be an artifact of Indian strategic culture, but it is costly.
US hands not tied anymore
More positively, the withdrawal from Afghanistan should make the US less of a hostage to Pakistan. Until now, the US had some justification to claim that the requirements of the war in Afghanistan tied its hands in dealing with Pakistan. This was never entirely true, and a good argument could be made that the US could have pushed Pakistan more and that Washington gave up too much for too little in its bargain with Islamabad. Nevertheless, the US had at least some justification in asking for Indian forbearance with Washington’s policy, and asking New Delhi to keep in mind the larger common objective of countering China.
This justification no longer exists. If the US continues to mollycoddle Pakistan, it would be Washington that would be inexcusably putting the larger goals of the Indo-Pacific partnership in danger. Arguments such as the need for access to Pakistan in order to monitor and counter terrorism from Af-Pak would be a poor excuse, though Islamabad will continue to play skillfully its last remaining card. Thankfully, there is now near-universal recognition in the US of Pakistan’s perfidy and wider calls for punishing it.
On the other hand, it is also foolish to anticipate that the US will give up pushing liberal democracy because of this disaster. Expecting the US to do that would be mistaking what the US mission in Afghanistan was about: counterterrorism. Democracy-promotion was both a tactic and a justification, but not the primary objective. The ideology of democracy remains necessary because most states most times need larger, general principles to justify their behaviour. The US is not peculiar in this respect. Moreover, China is bent on making the emerging great power competition about ideology, which means the US cannot entirely avoid it either.
India missing crucial traits
In a professional sense, it is difficult not to admire how Pakistan has played the only card it has, its location, into a winning hand over and over. It took singularity of purpose and, equally, determination and guts, to play the way Rawalpindi has. These traits are missing in Indian strategy, which has had the power to take away Pakistan’s card but neither the determination nor the guts. Unfortunately, despite some early promise, the Narendra Modi government is only marginally different.
Even though the Modi government has responded with military force to Pakistan’s terrorist provocations, a big improvement from previous governments, this was done quite hesitantly and half-heartedly. More importantly, it is still only reacting to Pakistan, rather than seeking to shape events. Rawalpindi may well be tempted to attempt to use its triumph in Afghanistan to needle India in Kashmir, hoping that the surgical strike and Balakot were exceptions.
New Delhi’s challenge is to demonstrate, with sufficient determination and clarity, that they were not. This is not difficult if Indian decisionmakers see any future major terrorist attack against India not as a challenge but as an opportunity, especially to rectify some of India’s geographical disadvantages that are so glaringly visible. But that requires foresight, planning, and preparation. Above all, it requires a capacity to have Rawalpindi’s singularity of purpose, determination and guts, which the Modi government, like others before it, lacks.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)