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Time for India to rethink its role in Afghanistan & the region

Air Marshal Shahid Akhtar Alvi (Retd) delineates how India managed to ingrain its foothold in Afghanistan by playing the double game. He explains how India strengthened its relationship with Afghanistan after independence and exercised its clout in the country by supporting Afghan government against Pakistan after 9/11. However, tables turned on India when the US decided to end its 20 years war in Afghanistan by striking a peace deal. With the recent Taliban takeover, would India still be in the game or its a final nail in the coffin for it?

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Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul caught the world by surprise. It has now left the international community with no option but to wait and watch whether the now dubbed ‘Taliban 2.0’ meet the promises made in their August 17th international press conference. So far, most world capitals have resisted the temptation of issuing a decree. More than that, the changing dynamics of Afghan politics after the Taliban takeover have left India to rethink its role in Afghanistan & the region.

However, the Indian media and its think-tank community have reacted quite strongly in a propaganda blitz against the Taliban. From doctoring and streaming misleading old videos with current news, linking the takeover with the freedom movement in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK) to accusing the West and the United States (US) of acquiescing to Taliban, Indian media outlets, government officials and agencies are leaving no stone unturned to incite the Afghan public towards chaos by instilling fear.

In an interview to Karan Thapar, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran argued that the takeover of Afghanistan was a Taliban invasion sponsored and abetted by Pakistan. To add fuel to fire, RSS’ ideological warrior and senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted that after a year Taliban, Pakistan and China would attack India.

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India’s double role has a historical basis

This extreme line taken by India is not surprising for those who have closely watched Indo-Afghan politics since partition of the subcontinent. For the younger generation to understand India’s double game, it is vital to examine the country’s past and present role in Afghanistan, besides analyzing New Delhi’s treacherous and deceptive plans to mislead the Afghan public, the US, and its allies, and even pull wool over the eyes of its own citizenry.

Post-independence, India enjoyed cordial relations with the Afghan government. This cozy relationship between the two governments was devoid of any significant people-to-people contact since the welfare and well-being of the Afghan people was never part of India’s agenda. On the contrary, Afghans were always portrayed as callous invaders who repeatedly attacked India and dishonored their deities. In fact, this was taught to Indian children as part of their history lessons.

Read more: Op-ed: India one of the major players in Afghanistan’s domestic and foreign affairs

India working secretly to prepare hostile elements in Pakistan

India’s real policy objective has always been to prepare a breeding ground for elements hostile to Pakistan, a fact recently acknowledged by the country’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. This duplicitous Indian approach was evident during the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet Union in 1979 when she silently watched the plight of Afghan people in a decade-long war.

During the first spell of the Taliban government (1996-2001), India became an active supporter of the Northern Alliance through their logistical supply line via Ayni Air Force Base, also known as Gissar Air Base at Tajikistan, with the sole purpose of keeping Afghanistan in a perpetual state of civil war, in accordance with her state policy objectives.

Then, there was its alliance with the US. First the Clinton administration, and then subsequent American Presidents’ warm embrace of India led to signing important security agreements for technology transfer like COMCASA and BECA.

The two sides had common interests – keeping a check on rising China. The Indian caucus in Washington grew to enormous proportions and served as a key source of influence on Congressional policymaking.

Read more: How India’s double game in Afghanistan is damaging peace

India’s policy objectives vis-à-vis Pakistan post 9/11 

Post-9/11 when the world was mired in fast-changing melodramas centered around al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Weapons of Mass Destruction, etc., India adroitly secured two additional and vital policy objectives. The first was related to her role in restructuring Afghanistan, and the second, was her influence to keep the US engaged in a protracted war.

The Indian establishment cleverly clubbed the freedom struggle of Kashmiris with terrorism, while simultaneously restoring their old ties with the Northern Alliance, who offered them, on a platter, an opportunity to boldly undertake espionage and terrorist activities against Pakistan. Policymakers in New Delhi accurately assessed that their sinister designs would escape the international community’s attention as it was narrowly focused on the War against Terror (WoT).

Read more: Unmasking India’s policies on Afghanistan

New Delhi’s playbook in the 1990s

This was New Delhi’s playbook in the late nineties when it fermented infighting within Afghan factions without any regard for the loss of innocent lives. The added bonanza this time was its physical presence, feet on the ground, a luxury that was denied earlier.

Within ten years, India had a solid foothold and felt confident of meeting its objectives of keeping Pakistan’s military engaged on the western front to combat the RAW-abetted Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist network.

Simultaneously (under US patronage), the Indian state worked to decelerate the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through terrorist activities in Balochistan with RAW operatives like Kulbhushan Jadhav, an active-duty military officer.

Read more: India and Afghanistan united against Pakistan?

US-Taliban Peace talks jeopardizing India’s nefarious designs

Events took a sudden turn when the unpredictable Trump administration felt the uselessness of its pointless war in Afghanistan. The US, perhaps, was in search of a new enemy or new ‘threat to its national security’ to satiate the hunger of her expanding Military-Industrial Complex. This coincided with another landmark event where the Indian military faced humiliation at the hands of the Chinese Army at Leh. An urgent sense of insecurity forced India to quickly join the US-formed Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) under the assumption of securing more leverage with the Americans.

When the Taliban were quietly capturing territories, India was reeling under the dual pressure of farmers’ protests and a fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, Trump’s announcement of a deal with the Taliban could not have come at a worse time for India. During peace negotiations with the Taliban, India was purposely kept in the dark as the US administration rightly sensed that New Delhi’s involvement carried the risk of sabotaging the process.

The US withdrawal; the final nail in the coffin for India

And then came the final nail in the coffin for India – the US announcement of troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. Different firefighting strategies were suggested by think- tanks in India except engaging with the Taliban. Most were focused on strengthening the military prowess of the Afghan government.

This lack of insight is hardly surprising given the fact that the strategic community in India has lately faltered on countless accounts like Pulwama, Leh debacle, revoking occupied Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, and last but not least, blindly supporting Prime Minister Modi’s economic policies that have turned out to be disastrous for the country.

Interestingly, in a June 2020 assessment by Carnegie India, the government was advised to ‘urgently reposition its priorities.’ The authors identified the risks to India’s continued presence in Afghanistan and recommended strategies to mitigate them, including the need ‘to broaden its engagements with Iran and Russia, explore opportunities for cooperation (as limited as they might be) with China, and find common ground with the United States on Afghanistan’s future.’

Ironically, while the same report feebly suggested reaching out to ‘certain Taliban representatives’, the BJP-led government opted to follow Ajit Doval’s advice of increased assistance to Ghani’s government and providing enhanced military training to Afghan security forces.

Read more: The Changing Afghan chessboard: Is it up for grabs again?

Taliban takeover of Kabul: a fiasco for India

Fast forward to August 15, 2021, when the entire Indian population was enthralled in patriotic fervor being played out by their media channels, the side screens of their tv sets started to show Kabul’s takeover by Taliban forces in an organized and peaceful way. Indians immediately felt a sense of grave loss and the same media was let loose to start a malicious campaign against Taliban and Pakistan.

So much so that former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was compelled to say on August 23rd that ‘India should refrain from using Afghan soil against Pakistan to take revenge for Kashmiris’ struggle in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir.’ Further adding that ‘India should focus on its internal issues instead of issuing statements regarding the future of Afghanistan.’

Read more: Hekmatyar warns India against its role in Afghanistan

In a flurry of articles, Indian commentators are now questioning their own policymakers and squarely apportioned blame on their National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s policies. They have lamented that India had been reduced to a mere regional power – a sharp fall for aspiring world power. They are now bemoaning why it did not occur to them to distance themselves from the Americans and act as intermediaries.

They mourn the evaporation of Indian influence in Kabul and support of anti-state elements, i.e., TTP, Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) etc. They feel dejected on the imminent closure of social media houses and limiting fake / false trends and posts.

They are equally disheartened to see how India’s connectivity projects across the region have blown off, while on the horizon, the bright prospects for CPEC and opening of trade routes to Central Asia are clearly visible under a new regional order in which Pakistan is likely to emerge as an important country.

Thus, the bottom line looks like Afghanistan has turned out to be a fiasco for the Americans, but no less so for the Indians.

Likely options for India to remain in the game

So, what are the likely options left with India? Their first attempt would be to forestall the likely public debate on how New Delhi, despite her tall claims of being Washington’s ally, has been pursuing a double game that served its own national security interest by keeping the Americans mired in a two-decade-long futile war effort. Indian duplicity could become a new theme in world capitals.

According to Indian strategists, after complete US withdrawal, there will be infighting and Afghanistan would be divided into two groups. One would control the Northern part, while the Taliban the rest of the country, and India would support the North. However, now there is no Northern Alliance to support, and cobbling together an anti-Taliban coalition will not be free of costs. Now, the Taliban include representatives of different communities and a working relationship with the Northern Alliance. Moreover, their quest for an all-inclusive government also limits New Delhi’s options.

Indians are, thus, in a state of flux, a quagmire so deep that without compromising on their characteristic arrogance, they would find it difficult to charter a respectable course. They have already made the initial mistake of closing their embassy, but perhaps keeping the identity of RAW operatives was their first concern. Reopening would amount to acknowledging Taliban rule and ending support to Panjshir Valley, something Ajit Doval would be tempted to continue.

Meanwhile, the future economic map of the region is not likely to escape the attention of India’s business community. Whereas the whole region will be integrated into a seamless network from China and Russia, through Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Gwadar, a passage of nearly 1/3rd of world trade, India would remain mired in the endless uncertainties of QUAD.

To sum it up, the Indian reaction towards the newly formed set-up in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban is that of a grudging adversary rather than a country that has been trumpeting its commitments towards the well-being of Afghani masses. Even those countries that have been very critical in the past about the Taliban’s approach of running the country are keeping their fingers crossed as it is unusual to see a victor showing such magnanimity.

It is only India that is trying to act as a show spoiler. Since RSS and Hindutva-inspired activists are already having apprehensions about the Taliban and their natural sympathy for the persecuted Muslims in India and occupied Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps it is high time for the Indian leadership to rethink its policy of interference in neighboring countries, and instead look inward to ward off insecurities within its own marginalized communities.

The author is Deputy President Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. He can be contacted at: alvishahid@hotmail.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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