The withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan exposes India to enhanced security threats from China and Pakistan. Our point of vulnerability has always been Jammu and Kashmir, which has spaces contested both by China and Pakistan and whose collusion has always been an anticipated contingency. Let us sketch out a possible scenario in the wake of recent developments in Afghanistan.
Costs of empire
If Afghanistan achieves relative, if sullen, stability under the Taliban, it is China that will acquire greater strategic depth rather than Pakistan. It will help Beijing consolidate its primacy in Central Asia, succeeding to the mantle of Soviet Central Asia. This may provide, or so the Chinese hope, a protective shield for the vast territories of Xinjiang and Tibet, where ethnic and religious identities have not been extinguished and perceived dangers from both externally inspired and internally generated threats remain salient. There is likely to be a Chinese version of an Af-Pak strategy because the two theatres are now interlinked. The Pakistanis have ensured this. The prism through which China or other regional actors look at Afghanistan will now have an inseparable Pakistan dimension.
By projecting that it is the most influential actor in Kabul and its new rulers are its proteges, Pakistan may now have to own up to its responsibility for Afghan political stability and its cleansing of the country’s terror-making machines under different labels. Distancing itself from the ills of Taliban may no longer be possible.
China is already impatient with the failure of Pakistan to protect its personnel working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects. This impatience may soon extend to the security of its personnel in Afghanistan, where Beijing’s economic profile is bound to expand. The Russians and the Iranians as well as other Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan will have similar expectations since Pakistan is currently basking in its role as the sponsor and guarantor of Afghanistan under the new dispensation. It is in India’s interest to highlight rather than contest this self-assumed Pakistani role because eventually, instead of enhancing Pakistan’s influence in the region, it may well become a significant pressure point.
One doubts that Pakistan will be able to manage the complex and fractious polity and society in Afghanistan any more than it has been able to do within Pakistan itself. If China has to expand its role both within Pakistan and Afghanistan to compensate for the inability of Islamabad to safeguard Chinese interests, then the “graveyard of empires” may well haunt China. Not inevitable but possible.
The wages of extended empires are not confined to the Americans. The logic of extending empire, equally, is not an American or Western monopoly. So the Chinese will have to extend their empire into Afghanistan because it is in the logic of their expanded and expansive interests. If they are inhibited in this respect then the unravelling of ambitions may set in at some stage. There is no steady state possible in empire-building or in its unravelling. Each expanded set of commitments leads inevitably to another more ambitious set of commitments. It may well be cloaked in “Chinese characteristics”, but the substance will be what it has been throughout the history of empires.
A decoupling on Pakistan
A marker of the change in the geopolitical environment thrown up by the turn of events in Afghanistan is how the old China-US unwritten consensus on sustaining Pakistan as a key regional and even global actor, has severely weakened if not ended altogether. The importance of this change should be appreciated.
Since the 1960s, whatever acute differences divided China and the US, support to Pakistan was a shared objective. China never objected to American military support to Pakistan. In 1971, during the Bangladesh war, it forged a virtual alliance with the US to safeguard undivided Pakistan. This joint commitment to Pakistan’s security and economic viability continued thereafter, though it may have started diminishing during the past decade. Joe Biden, President of the US, has yet to take a call from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. China may now have sole ownership over Pakistan and that may prove to be a mixed blessing. Instead of having to face an enduring US-China compact on Pakistan, at least the US component may have been detached and this is to India’s advantage. This takes the decoupling of India from Pakistan to US-Pakistan decoupling, and the last thing we should do is to revive the India-Pakistan “coupling” because of domestic political calculations.
Looked at in this longer-term perspective, the outlook for India may not be as bleak as it may seem now. Rather than contesting Pakistani entanglement with Afghanistan, it may well be worthwhile to emphasise its symbiotic relationship with Taliban, leverage its own claim to be the most influential actor in Kabul. India should hold Pakistan responsible for the good conduct of its proteges, preventing the country from becoming a haven for a variety of Islamic jihadi groups and their threats to its neighbours. And, in turn, hold the Chinese responsible for the good behaviour of their “iron brothers”.
Wait it out
India is currently in a vulnerable situation. There is likely to be an uptick in cross-border terrorism as various jihadi groups receive a psychological boost from the Taliban triumph in Afghanistan. We must expand resources devoted to our defence and counter-terrorism capabilities. Acknowledging that Jammu and Kashmir is likely to become the frontline in this altered security environment, there is urgent need to restore the democratic political process in the union territory, address the alienation among its youth and revive its battered economy.
There is no hurry to decide on our posture towards the new dispensation in Kabul. Let us sit back and wait for the very fluid situation in that country to evolve towards some degree of clarity and stability. We should let regional heavyweights like Iran, Russia and China acknowledge Pakistan’s central role in bringing the Taliban to power. Our diplomacy should be geared towards bringing the spotlight squarely on Pakistan’s responsibility in keeping Afghanistan free from terrorist camps and sanctuaries and, by extension, the responsibility of the Chinese for the conduct of the Pakistani elite. Rather than accept, as some have, that the Taliban have nationalist credentials, we should do the opposite. And wait for the turn of the tortoise.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal.