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India alone on Afghan chessboard as US, Russia pick Pakistan. Here’s what Delhi can do

The 1996 India-Iran-Russia effort to contain the Taliban cannot be replicated in 2021;like Washington, Moscow has its own interests and so does Tehran.

Jyoti Malhotra
(File image) Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar (left) meets Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (right) in Dushanbe, on 29 March 2021 | Twitter
File photo | Union Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar (left) meets Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (right) in Dushanbe, on 29 March 2021 | Twitter

At the ‘Wounds of War’ poetry and literature festival in Kabul last week, as the Taliban were knocking on the doors of Kandahar, and hours before photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed in Spin Boldak on the Afghan-Pakistan border, poet and writer Kawah Jibran exhorted his fellow citizens thus:

“Your pen is your weapon, you must defend all human values, it is not like the Taliban who sing the story of a massacre,” Jibran said. Elsewhere, Afghan information and culture minister Qasim Wafaeezada warned that trafficking in ancient cultural sites, especially under Taliban influence in Kandahar, Samangan and Balkh, had begun. The stunning blue-tile Abu Nasr Parsa mosque in Balkh, built in 1598 in memory of a saint of the Naqshbandi order, he said, has already been partially damaged.

These lamentations have come in the wake of a busy week in Afghanistan. On the battlefield, it has been a see-saw of claims and reverses — Afghan security forces have retaken districts in Kandahar, Parwan and Ghazni, killing 967 Talibs in the bargain. But Chakhansur district in Nimroz has fallen again to the Taliban. Meanwhile, in the wake of his outburst in Tashkent, where he accused the Pakistani establishment of sending “10,000 Taliban” fighters over the border to fight against Afghan forces, President Ashraf Ghani has recalled the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Najibullah Alikhil, over the kidnapping and torture of his daughter in Islamabad.


Also read: On Afghanistan, China should join India — for a change


Big powers and their Afghan strategy

The manner in which the big powers and neighbours are trying to set the stage in Afghanistan is most interesting – each nation wants a slice of the Afghan naan so they can continue to assert influence. The US troop withdrawal is fully on schedule and yet the country has partnered with Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to promote economic activity that would connect land-locked Central Asia to the Arabian Sea; the US has also promised $3.3 billion annually to help the Afghan defence forces fight the Taliban.

You would think the Americans would know better than to partner with Pakistan, a nation which has not only undermined its Afghan effort for 20 years, but is bound to leverage its close relationship with China to expand influence in a post-US Afghanistan.

You might ask: Isn’t the US involved in a blood feud with China, which is well on its way to dislodge America from World Number One status? And if India and the US are partners in the Quad, which is meant to be aimed at China in the Indo-Pacific, how come the US is partnering with Pakistan in Afghanistan?

Then there is Russia – the inheritor country of the Soviet Union, whose disintegration in 1991 is directly linked to its Afghan escapade from 1979-89 – whose President Vladimir Putin is said to have offered his US counterpart the use of Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Joe Biden may even be tempted – remember that Pakistan has refused to give access to its bases so far, Iran is unlikely to offer any, Qatar is too far and an aircraft carrier in the Gulf is still eight hours away.

Meanwhile, Russia has signed an agreement to build an 1100-km-long gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore – with majority stakes held by the Pakistanis so that it doesn’t attract US sanctions.

You might wonder: How is Russia, supposed to be India’s fast friend, pouring money into a high stakes infrastructure project with Pakistan?

Welcome to a brave new world where answers are neither black nor white.

First, the 1996 India-Iran-Russia effort to contain the Taliban cannot be replicated in 2021; like the US, Russia has its own interests and so does Iran. (The US-Iran relationship isn’t getting any better and India-Iran hardly have the potential to do anything on their own.) Second, the penny must be dropping in New Delhi this week as the Narendra Modi government realises that the big powers have held their nose and picked Pakistan, not India – because of Pakistan’s geostrategic location and despite the Pakistan military establishment’s cultivation of terrorists as an instrument of power.

It hurts that India, which clawed back influence in 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, is out in the cold. Delhi could have learnt from the US and Russia, and not shut down its conversation with Pakistan – everyone knows there is no real love lost between Washington DC, Moscow and Islamabad, and that each of these capitals are making themselves useful, so each has a foot in the door if and when things fall apart.


Also read: Iran and Russia’s anxiety over surging Taliban will be key to India’s new Afghan policy


India’s options

Certainly, all is not lost, but it’s time to smell the coffee. India is alone on the Afghan chessboard – with one big exception, Afghanistan itself. And that is the best asset any country can hope to have as it sets about carving its own strategy.

Fact is, neither the US nor Russia, nor China, nor NATO and the European Union — and certainly not Pakistan — has Afghanistan’s primary interests at heart. After 20 years, the big powers want to return home. Allowing a Pakistani veto on Afghanistan’s future is part of the US-led withdrawal strategy. The Afghans have had little option but to acquiesce.

India has two choices ahead.

First, it must assist Afghanistan in all the ways Kabul wants – there is the blueprint of the 2011 defence and strategic partnership at hand. Second, India must help Kabul create a broad-based leadership coalition and invest it with the power it needs to make the best decisions about its future; at the very least, this means that the infighting, between Ashraf Ghani, an increasingly unpopular leader, and the High Peace Council leader Abdullah Abdullah, must end.

This means India has its work cut out. If Delhi can show that it is able to manoeuvre and negotiate between ambitious nations and their leaders while remaining focussed on the goal of a stable, secure and sovereign Afghanistan, then Quad or not, it is on the right path.

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

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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