India Should Not Panic about Afghanistan. By Manish Rai
17 Mar 2020
United States and Taliban have entered into an agreement in Qatari capital Doha which will pave way for US forces to leave war torn Afghanistan. Under the Doha agreement, the US has committed to reduce its force level to 8,600 from 13,000 soldiers in the next three to four months, with the remaining forces withdrawing over the next 14 months. In return Taliban has committed to ensure that Afghan soil is not used to plot attacks on the United States or its allies. But this agreement has already raised temperature in New Delhi as many experts and analysts are anxious that the Taliban’s return to power may jeopardise India’s $3 billion worth of investments and strategic interests. Moreover, with Taliban return to power influence of Pakistan will drastically increase which will be a nightmare for Indian geopolitical interests in the region. But a wait and watch approach will be the most appropriate for India to pursue at this point in time. As lot of things has been changed in Afghan political landscape since 2001. Islamabad has long sought a subdued government in Kabul to push its strategic depth policy as we witness this when Taliban was ruling Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. That time Taliban was a rag tag militia with no strategic thinking hence was playing in the hand of Pakistani deep state. But today’s Taliban are shrewd politicians it won’t be a cake walk for Pakistan to use them at will.
India was never averse to Kabul reconciling with the Taliban as far as New Delhi is concerned, the Taliban is not the central problem. Pakistan’s overwhelming influence on the Taliban and the latter’s inability to liberate itself from such influence is the main issue. Taliban is not a regional player they don’t aspire like Al-Qaida or ISIS to promote global jihad. Taliban insurgency in last 18 years has been focused only in Afghanistan but that doesn’t mean that Talibs will make good friends for India. I interviewed Wakeel Ahmad Muttawakil Taliban Ex-Foreign minister and a close confident of Mulla Omar in 2014 while on my assignment in Afghanistan. Muttawakil told me that Taliban has changed as they now have more mature political thinking. He also said that it was mistake on India’s part that it didn’t recognise Taliban regime in 1996 and also didn’t open any channel of communication with them. But now New Delhi understands it clearly that Taliban can’t be totally ignored as under any circumstances they will be a significant player in Afghanistan. Taliban also realises that India has played a major constructive role in Afghanistan. India is playing a significant developmental role in Afghanistan as one of the largest bilateral donors. Since the fall of the Taliban, India has strengthened Afghan trade ties and provided more than $3 billion in reconstruction assistance.
It’s a hard truth that as its principal sponsor, Pakistan has considerable influence over the Taliban. But India has what Pakistan does not have that is economic clout to assist Afghanistan. Economic aid never fails to produce influence. New Delhi aid must not only continue but increase with firm commitments over the next decade. For India amount like $1 billion a year is a small price to pay for establishing its influence in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders know very well that Pakistan itself is in deep economic crisis it simply doesn’t have muscles to provide any significant economic assistance. Also, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be its vassal state and Taliban as their mere proxies. Taliban will definitely look for sovereignty and economic independence from Pakistan once they get politically settled. For them that time India will be a very viable option. Indian policy makers should pay adequate attention on a strategy to make the Afghan Taliban relatively independent of Pakistan.
So, there is nothing to panic for India as of now in Afghanistan. But definitely India has to be very caution and plan its move well in advance. In addition to this India will not only be left with just one option of establishing communication with Taliban. There are number of other options too. Like if Taliban is not responding then India can increase its support to non-Pashtuns groups which are fiercely opposed to Taliban. India’s has its old friends in the north the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks which it has always supported. It should be noted that this agreement in Doha is not a peace deal it’s just a managed United States exist. It won’t be possible for Taliban to take over the whole country without indulging in intra Afghan peace deal which results in some sort of power sharing. Between different ethnicities of Afghan society. Hence it will be wrong to jump to the conclusion that India can’t do much in Afghanistan and it’s a time to pack bags and leave for home. New Delhi just have to be more watchful and chalk out a new strategy at an appropriate time but now it’s best to observe the developments and let things unfold.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)