With India currently besieged by Covid-19, few of us can afford to spare thought about geo-political machinations taking place abroad. Yet as the peace process in Afghanistan between the United States and the Taliban reaches a precarious position, with the Taliban having ramped up their attacks against the Afghan government despite the recent spread of coronavirus in the country, it is imperative India takes stock of the situation. Whilst it still might be many months before the US finally exits Afghanistan, especially with the virus complicating prisoner exchange and the negotiations itself now, the South Asian security matrix is going to undertake a paradigm shift once all American military operations come to their inevitable end. India must aim to use this transition to secure its regional security interests.
The conflict in Afghanistan can at one level be understood as being between the majority Pashtuns mostly concentrated in Southern and Central Afghanistan (and across the Durand Line in Pakistan), who the Taliban claim to represent, fighting against the empowerment of ethnic minorities from northern Afghanistan such as the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks by successive democratically elected governments. Whilst both the past and present presidents of Afghanistan—Karzai and Ghani—are Pashtun, they have been seen as leaders propped up by the West and being overly-sympathetic with ethnic minorities. Moreover, many state institutions are dominated by ethnic minorities and see a lack of representation from the Pashtuns.
However, the conflict in Afghanistan has also been considered as a continuation of the proxy-war between India and Pakistan. It is no secret that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has deep ties with the Taliban and has continued to back extremist groups in Afghanistan, even whilst calling itself an ‘ally’ of the US in its War on Terror. That the Pakistani military establishment has supported the Taliban and allied extremist groups is a known fact. A recent example of this was the attack on a Gurudwara in Kabul on March 25th. Whilst at prima facie it was thought to be an attack carried out solely by the Islamic State, further investigations carried out by Afghan authorities found direct links between the attackers and the ISI. A report produced by the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) further substantiated these links. India on its part has been a staunch supporter of the democratic Afghan state. This link has existed since pre- 9/11, when India supplied military equipment and humanitarian support to the Northern Alliance in its effort to topple the brutal Taliban regime. The Northern Alliance later went on to form the Afghan government, and many of its leaders, such as General Dostum, are now key members of the present government. William Darlyample’s Brookings Essay ‘A Deadly Triangle’ published in 2013 presents and explains this tacit conflict cogently.
With America having now committed to leaving, the weakest entity in this entire sum seems to be the Afghan government. With the steady decrease in Western military support, the Taliban have made steady gains and now control over a third of the country. The Afghan National Army has been unable to establish itself as an effective fighting force. Moreover, the recent election results have been heavily disputed and both leading candidates, incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his opponent Abdullah Abdullah, have sworn themselves in as president in March of this year. A divided civilian leadership, a weak military establishment, and with American support nearing its expiry date, the Afghan government now finds itself in a bleak spot.
This situation has been further exacerbated by the US negotiating for a peace deal directly with the Taliban without the Afghan government. Regardless of how these negotiations ultimately pan out, any form of eventual peace will need the integration of the Taliban into the governing state— a realisation that made the US finally reach the negotiation table. As it stands presently, the Taliban has been able to keep its sphere of influence strong enough to make America realise that trying to govern Afghanistan as a whole, in a state of peace and stability, would be impossible without their corporation. The American war aim of completely eradicating the Taliban and making the majority ethnic group, the Pashtuns, co-opt into a democratic system dominated by minority ethnic groups was near impossible. Ghani and Abdullah both need to realise this, if they have not already done so.
So where does India find itself at this threshold of a new phase in Afghanistan? The resurgence of the Taliban has obviously worried New Delhi. A key interest of India, if not its main, is to ensure that the Afghan state does not eventually consist of elements that would support extremist groups functioning in Kashmir. In the past, the Taliban has been known to have warm relations with Lakshar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Extremist networks based in Kashmir, with the backing of the ISI, have been known previously to have auxiliary bases functioning freely across Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the Taliban now seems to be willing to leave behind its extremist inclinations if allowed to integrate into the Afghan state. They have repeatedly claimed that they have now cut former ties and will not allow terror groups to function in Afghanistan if allowed to form government.
Recently, during an online conference hosted by the Delhi based think-tank Global Counter-terrorism Council, Taliban spokesperson Mohammad Shaheen stated that “We will never want any foreign organisation using Afghan soil to target another country. We will bring a law to stop any such activity”. More pertinently, Shaheen also claimed that the Taliban would be more than willing to engage with neighbouring countries “on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests”.
While the solidity of these sentiments will only be seen in the time to come, India must now aim to establish some sort of ties with the Taliban. Till now, it has been openly hostile to the negotiations undertaken by the US and has repeatedly tried to lobby for their termination. Continuing such aggressive posturing against the Taliban is folly if India wants to have substantial influence in a post-America Afghanistan. At a time when the Taliban themselves are re-evaluating their relations with their Pakistani allies, and are realising the spectre of extremism and lawlessness that ISI activity brings, India must aim to provide them with an alternate regional option. Some analysts, such as veteran journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, have even gone on to claim that the Taliban would prefer closer relations with India now. In contrast to Pakistan, which has backed terror groups that have only brought destruction and devastation upon the country, India has immense soft power in Afghanistan.
Holding back from military intervention, while continuing to support Afghanistan economically with Indian aid totalling more than 3 billion dollars now, has been an effective geo-political move. Further strengthening this commitment, the Indian government in mid-April sent medical and food supplies to aid the Afghan government in tackling Covid-19. If relations with the Taliban are not established in this new chapter of Afghanistan, which will most likely see them play a pivotal role, India will risk squandering its influence.
Simultaneously though, India must also continue its engagement with the democratic regime and the northern ethnic minorities. It is equally important to remember that a situation resembling the Afghan civil war of the late nineties, between the Taliban and the erstwhile Northern Alliance, is still very much a possibility. In a situation of an all-out military campaign, where the Taliban might have an inclination to fall back on Pakistan for assistance, India must be ready to engage this situation with equivalent assistance in the form of economic and humanitarian aid to the entities that will safeguard its interests. Some hawkish voices have even called out for Indian boots on ground in an effort to fill the void that will be left by the US. Yet if history has taught us anything, after the British, Soviet and now American misadventure to stabilise Afghanistan, it would be a terrible mistake to do so. It is important to remember that much of the goodwill harboured by the Afghans towards India has been due to our ability to help them without intervening militarily, an action which will be perceived as hostile by many. No nation appreciates the idea of a foreign army on its soil— especially not Afghanistan.
In a situation which is constantly developing and has the possibility of multifarious outcomes, India must constantly try to pre-empt the status quo and build ties that will help assert its geo-political interests. A stable and peaceful regime in Afghanistan, which censures terror activity, is vital to India’s security interests. Deeming Afghanistan to be irrelevant, as some have, will only result in the weakening of India’s position in South Asia.