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Did India rely too much on US? Taliban siege of Kabul is affecting our regional power status

Americans betrayed Afghanistan. And Afghans betrayed themselves. This round in the Great Game went to Pakistan as India watched.

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Soon after former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul Sunday evening, even as the Taliban walked into the city — he has since reached Oman, via Uzbekistan, after his escape plane was refused landing rights in Tajikistan — Russian embassy spokesperson Nikita Ishenko in Kabul described the scene thus to Russian news agency Sputnik:

“As for the collapse of the regime, it is most eloquently characterised by the way Ghani fled from Afghanistan: four cars were full of money, they tried to put part of the money into a helicopter, but everything did not fit. And some of the money was left on the runway.”

It may be that the Russians had something to do with the Tajik refusal to let Ghani’s plane land in Dushanbe, considering the influence they wield on that Central Asian nation’s security (the Russians help guard the Afghan-Tajik border with their troops); besides, of course, their keenness to ingratiate themselves with the new power in Kabul. It is expected that Ghani will soon wend his way to the US – he is rumoured to have a Green Card.

Travelling with Ghani was the powerful Fazel Fazly, the director of his office and his National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, who recently accused the Pakistan military establishment of being the equivalent of “Heera Mandi,” a red-light area in Lahore, insinuating that the Pakistanis will sell themselves to the highest bidder, in this case, the Taliban. Mohib has a British passport.

But what is equally interesting is the special flight Monday evening carrying several Afghan leaders to Rawalpindi – men like former Speaker Younis Qanooni, brother of the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad Zia Massoud, Hazara leaders like Ustad Mohaqiq and Karim Khalili, former foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani and current Speaker Rahman Rahmani — even as the Taliban walked into the presidential palace in Kabul and took pictures of themselves sitting on Ghani’s chair.

Several of these men, like Qanooni and Massoud, had once been vocal about Pakistan’s role in arming and instigating the Taliban insurgency; they now seemed to be handing themselves over to their former enemy for protection.

And so on 15 August, as India celebrated the 75th anniversary of its Independence, a friend, ally and South Asian nation fell to the hands of the Taliban. The event sent shock waves through the region. India was supposed to be the big power in the subcontinent, but it had lost this round to a militia that has been armed, weaponised and supported by Pakistan next door.

Now, Ashraf Ghani has released his first video on Facebook since landing in UAE, saying he did not take cash and was forced to leave to prevent bloodshed. Ghani also said he was “in talks” to return to Afghanistan.

As Indian diplomats evacuate out of Kabul, shutting down the embassy as they did in 1996 when the Taliban first took Afghanistan, another chapter in the Great Game in inner Asia has come to an end.


Also read: Afghanistan is a hard country and India has focussed more on soft power


Three roads to disaster

So what went wrong? How did this come to pass? What does this event do to India’s image as a regional power? And how does it change global politics?

First, the Americans betrayed Afghanistan. Much has been written about US President Joe Biden’s determination to go ahead and exit from the “forever war,” but as US South Asia expert Christine Fair writes, Biden benefited from a “raft of experts” when he served on the Obama administration as to how “Pakistan, which benefitted handsomely from U.S. emoluments, aided and abetted the Taliban and undermined U.S. efforts.”

Not only did Biden ignore the advice, he kept Zalmay Khalilzad on as special envoy and underwrote the pact that Khalilzad had signed with the Taliban. The Taliban never kept their side of the bargain to end the violence; Khalilzad never called their bluff, but repeatedly agreed to their enhanced demands.

Second, the Afghans betrayed themselves. Several Afghan leaders in Kabul, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that even as the Taliban waited at the gates of Kabul Sunday evening, their leaders in Doha could still have been persuaded to form an interim government – with former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali as a compromise presidential candidate – but Ashraf Ghani knocked the bottom out of the plan by quitting and escaping with his two key aides.

As Kabul fell to the Taliban, panic set in. Ghani’s key aides knew they were marked and would be lynched by the Taliban if they had decided to stay. Even as I write this, many are trying to make their way to Istanbul or Tashkent. The media is being especially targeted, being told to fall in line, or else. Journalists are destroying papers, and stories, just in case incriminating notes fall into the hands of the Taliban. Fear rules the city.

Third, did India begin to lean too much in favour of the US and thereby its view on Afghanistan? Some analysts have quaintly described this point of view as “India putting most of her eggs in the US basket,” but since foreign policy is not a chicken coop or an aviary, it’s worthwhile to look at what India’s options could have been.


Also read: In Afghanistan, Pakistan is the naked aggressor. There is case for UNSC sanctions


What could India do?

With the Russians and the Chinese becoming much closer to Pakistan, in order to gain leverage over the Taliban, it has been difficult over the years for India to play a greater role beyond the developmental one. Remember, too, that the Russians have never totally forgiven the US for helping break up the Soviet Union – the bloody nose they received at the hands of the Afghans, courtesy Pakistan and the US, went a long way in destroying the USSR.

And so as the US began to get more and more bogged down in Afghanistan, and Russia, China and Pakistan simply waited.

The US sought to compensate for its travails by allowing the Pakistanis to play a greater role in Afghanistan’s future. It believed that would assuage Rawalpindi. In any case, the US knew they wouldn’t be able to get out of Afghanistan if the Pakistanis didn’t give it safe passage. The Americans may have gnashed their teeth at Pakistani duplicity, but they also knew they had little option.

Meanwhile, India’s options began to narrow as well. With the Chinese in Ladakh and a sluggish economy still emerging from Covid, New Delhi, perhaps, began to believe in the need for a greater partnership with the US. At the 28 July joint press conference with Blinken, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said: “I would say rather than look at what is the convergence and what is the divergence, if the Secretary doesn’t contradict me, I would say there was much more convergence… as an immediate neighbour with a historical connection, we do feel that the way we are looking at it, the way we see the challenges ahead, what needs to be done, I would say our views were quite similar. I think that would be a fair description.”

Blinken replied: “I think we largely see Afghanistan in the same light.”

Some of this close attention has since paid off. The evacuation of Indian diplomats and other nationals from Kabul on Tuesday morning could only have been done with the US on board – the Americans control the airport for the time being.

So what happens now? Fact is, too much has happened these last few days and so quickly that it will take some time for Indian officials to catch their breath. To be able to fight another day, they will need time to hunker down and analyse what exactly happened. For the moment at least, the future must wait.

The author is a senior consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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