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

As India braces itself for a Taliban-dominated regime in Afghanistan, New Delhi’s role in Kabul’s strategic frame should outlive the Ashraf Ghani government.

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Deeply concerned about the unfavourable turn in Afghanistan, India is busy calibrating its response. That India will have to navigate difficult waters has become evident in its External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s recent visit to Iran and Russia. Since the Joe Biden administration’s announcement of complete drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, most of the Ministry of External Affairs’ time and energy seem to be necessarily consumed in complex diplomatic manoeuvres, attempting to explain to its allies and partners in Afghanistan the importance of the ‘legitimacy aspect’ of who decides the country’s destiny.

Anything ranging from a protracted civil war to a throwback to the past with armed conflict between militias is possible in Afghanistan. Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat have been closed for some time, and the deteriorating security situation has now forced India to pull out around 50 diplomats and security personnel from its consulate in Kandahar. The fate of its consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif will also be dictated by realities on the ground.

Ever since the Taliban was routed in late 2001, India has been dependent on the US security umbrella to secure its interests in Afghanistan. New Delhi’s local Afghan allies have also allowed it to expand its strategic footprints in Afghanistan. But things have taken a turn for the worse very fast; the Afghan institutions are hard pressed to mount a coherent resistance to the Taliban, which seem indifferent to military fatigue because they are able to gather the last atom of their physical energy.

Despite having better financial resources and modern training, the Afghan armed forces have failed to deter the Taliban from dominating the areas that have been traditionally anti-Taliban strongholds. The Taliban’s strategy has primarily focussed on controlling key highways and encircling strategic cities, and this has led to virtual meltdown of government forces with surrenders by demoralised soldiers in many parts of Afghanistan. It is only a matter of time when the Taliban mount an assault on Kabul.

Also read: American leaders were foolish to think they could remake Afghan society after invasion

US’ policy failure

The United States’ unilateral and abrupt withdrawal of troops is largely responsible for the swift transition the Afghan Taliban is making from being a disputed contender to the undisputed master of Afghanistan. This reality, however bitter, has led India to cautiously engage some amenable sections of the Pakistan-supported Taliban even though India officially claims to support “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace and reconciliation process” in Afghanistan.

American foreign policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region over the last two decades has proved to be a disaster. It was not that the United States had been unaware of the Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistani cities but given Washington’s need for Pakistan’s support in waging the directionless Afghan war, the American military commanders in Afghanistan invariably acted as a blind dog in a meat house – they could smell it, but could not find it; rather they did not have the permission to find it, and the result is before us.

Howsoever incredulous and bizarre it may seem, even sensible Pakistani scholars are conjuring up fanciful scenarios – forming a ‘counter-Quad’ arrangement comprising the Taliban-led Afghanistan, China, Iran and Pakistan, which would promote Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while countering the Quad grouping of India, US, Japan and Australia. Clearly, until there is a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s strategic thinking, reasonable and realistic words about the disastrous policy of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan will continue to fall on deaf ears. 

With the Taliban’s unstoppable rampage and growing battlefield advantages, Afghanistan has entered the most turbulent phase in recent years where a new kind of politics is being fashioned. It is vital that India comes to terms with its complex dynamics. Watching its Afghan allies being routed by the Taliban cannot be a pleasant sight for India. Therefore, the crucial elements of India’s Afghan policy are in the urgent need of being reshaped, particularly regarding the strategic balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fact that relations between Islamabad and Kabul are strained to the breaking point can no longer be a consolation for India, which is faced with an unprecedented geopolitical situation in its immediate vicinity.

Also read: To be or not to be in Afghanistan is not an easy question for India

New Delhi’s strategy

We are not aware of the diplomatic efforts being made, if any, to achieve a realistic exchange of views with Islamabad regarding the negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, but given Pakistan’s continued intransigence, there is a resounding agreement that Islamabad has no interest in discussing the Afghan problem with New Delhi.

As India braces itself for a Taliban-dominated regime in Afghanistan, New Delhi’s role in Kabul’s strategic frame should outlive the Ashraf Ghani government. But a big part of the challenge is that Pakistan is no longer the sole threat. As the Taliban are moving closer to Kabul, China’s next move is being watched very carefully by all those that have high stakes in Afghanistan. The Taliban have already hailed Beijing as a “friend,” which means that China-centric militants will be eliminated and China’s material interests will be protected by the Taliban. Can India afford to ignore this unfolding reality?

India will need to work on a two-pronged strategy. Despite complete withdrawal, the US is still one of the most important players in the Afghan drama. This makes Washington indispensable for New Delhi’s calculations. However, Indian strategy must also involve Iran and Russia. While circumstances are not ripe for creating another version of the erstwhile ‘Northern Alliance’ between India, Iran and Russia, New Delhi cannot surrender to Beijing’s desire for regional preponderance. Iran and Russia’s tactical embrace of China is surely a complicating factor for New Delhi, but there is no doubt that India, Iran and Russia share more convergence than divergence when it comes to who rules in Afghanistan.

Moscow and Tehran have tactically engaged the Taliban; they nonetheless find it hard to do business with those espousing hardcore Islamic beliefs. Both have been vocal critics of American troop presence, yet they seem to be gravely concerned and surprised with the swift advance of the Taliban. As the Taliban are seizing areas on the border with China, Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the Afghan government’s loosening grip over the country’s international borders must be sufficient reasons to make Tehran and Moscow anxious. This dynamic is what makes them indispensable allies for India. Since none of the three countries – India, Iran and Russia – have sufficient leverage individually, they should collectively deploy leverage to encourage all Afghan parties to work for relatively smooth transition to a neutral interim government. This is the only way to avoid a chaotic outcome.

The author is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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