On the political front India has not only refrained from dealing with Taliban but on the contrary worked with US in preventing the Taliban from gaining influence even at the cost of retribution from Taliban, the most severe instance of which was the Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul in 2008. India has been very active in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The total aid committed by India, amounts to over 2 billion USD. India has constructed a 220 km long highway connecting the Afghan Iran border city of Zaranj to Delaram in Nimroz province of Afghanistan. This highway will eventually connect the Iranian port of Chabahar to Central Asia, thus providing shorter access to port and boosting the trade through Afghanistan.
India has emerged as the closest ally of the Hamid Karzai government. In 2011, India signed a strategic partnership agreement and the key element of this involves training of Afghan security forces. Hamid Karzai during his last visit to India in May this year had requested India to provide artillery, transport aircraft, and bridge laying equipment etc. but India has turned down the request for supplies of lethal equipment. Over the years Afghanistan has been persuading India to increase its security foot print by way of increased involvement in military and police training, but India’s response has been wisely restrained and is limited to training the Afghan Police, and the Afghan National Army.
On the other hand the Afghan regime’s principal adversary the Taliban have not only endured the huge presence of NATO troops, but also have been steadily regaining their influence. Thus large parts of Afghanistan are falling to the Taliban.
Therefore a dispassionate analysis of Taliban’s prospects in post 2014 Afghanistan is indispensable. The impending transition in Afghanistan could have significant consequences for Indian interests not only in Afghanistan, but there is a high likelihood of a significant spurt in militant activity in Kashmir, since the departure of NATO troops will free up large number of not only LeT militants but also Punjabi Taliban militants.
Taliban’s viewpoint on the current Indo Afghan relationships is quite ominously portrayed in Taliban’s website: “When the Kabul admin saw their doomsday inevitable and it became evident for them that they cannot sustain their life without the presence and support of their crusader lords, they tried to come under the protection of the Indian deity. But on Friday, 8th of July, India disappointed them too and rejected their demand of the supply of light and heavy weapons. The denial of this demand made the worsening administration of Kabul much more embarrassed. Now their disappointment and susceptibility is explicitly increasing day by day.”
Taliban have resented India’s support to Northern alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, and as is evident above Taliban is also against the warm relationship India enjoys with the current leadership whom the Taliban considers Western puppets and on the last leg of its existence.
On the other hand Taliban is a Pashtun dominated movement and As Robert Kaplan pointed out few years ago, “the Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism.”, and India has always enjoyed a good relationship with Pashtuns. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun, was a prominent leader of the Indian independence movement. Although the NWFP (now Khyber Pakthunkhwa) became part of Pakistan in 1947, active participation by Pashtuns in the Indian freedom struggle led to India’s deeper appreciation of the Pashtun aspirations for greater freedom and autonomy. Therefore India provided unstinted support to Pashtun leadership in its cause for greater Pashtun autonomy. Pashtuns live on both sides of the Durand line and the Taliban movement straddles the entire Pashtun region.
Furthermore following the US defence Secretary’s visit to New Delhi in June last year, the AL Jazeera reported: “In a statement on their English-language website, the Taliban have praised India for not heeding calls by Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, for New Delhi to take a more active role in Afghanistan. Some reliable media sources said that the Indian authorities did not pay heed to demands and showed their reservations, because the Indians know or they should know that the Americans are grinding their own axe. The reference to Panetta’s recent trip to India was followed by a reassurance from the group that Afghanistan won’t be used as a base to lodge
attacks on another nation.” This underlines the fact that even a perception of neutral posturing vis-à-vis the US has the potential for altering Taliban’s disposition towards India.
As a prelude to the withdrawal in 2014 the main protagonist of the war the US has been having parleys, enabled by Pakistan, with Taliban. US is primarily interested to ensure a safe exit of its troops and to prevent a rapid flare up of civil war; and US would aim for Taliban acquiescence to residual troops that US would like to station in Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal. Taliban would be striving for a dominant role in the post 2014 dispensation thus avoiding conflict and attrition of its cadres. Of course Pakistan´s interests are in having a regime that is not pro India, so that Pakistan can achieve its objective of illusory strategic depth vis-à-vis India.
US withdrawal from Afghanistan coupled with US – Iran rapprochement is going to see heightened Saudi Iran rivalry in the region. As Saudi is completely disillusioned with US because of its shying away from attacking Syria, Saudis are going ahead on their own for toppling the regime, and there are reports that a Saudi Pakistan plan is being debated wherein Pakistan will train two brigade strength of rebel fighters. In the backdrop of the close Saudi Pakistan links in waging the Mujaheedeen war, propping up the Taliban regime, and Pakistan’s desperate financial conditions it is quite likely that Pakistan will not hesitate to do the bidding of Saudis and in the process get further sucked into the global terror machine bankrolled by Saudis and their Arab allies.
Now where do all these developments leave India? India`s Afghan policy has so far reflected the Indian perspective that saw convergence of India’s interests with those of US. However In view of the coming closer of US – Pakistan, it might be too early to draw conclusions, but it is plausible that India’s Afghan strategy might unravel and India could suffer a double whammy – a diminished role in Afghanistan and coercion from US to offer concessions to Pakistan. In all probability Pakistan will definitely play a hard ball with US and ask for assurances of some headway in Kashmir in lieu for its role in bringing around the Taliban, and offering US the safe exit to the Karachi harbour. Furthermore India’s goal of accessing Central Asia through the Zaranj Delaram highway could be jeopardized, as the Nimroz Province is dominated by Taliban.
It is clear that India’s intimacy with extra regional powers or their allies in its quest for Afghanistan will not only be resented by Taliban, but also put India on a collision course with its neighbours such as China, who are strongly against outside role in stabilising Afghanistan. Going by the Chinese experience elsewhere, China will most likely not militarily oppose Taliban, and in fact will co-opt Taliban in order to secure its economic interests. So Taliban playing a dominant role in Post 2014 Afghanistan is the most likely scenario.
Therefore India has to avoid repeating the mistake of being on the wrong side of History, by putting all its eggs in the basket of Hamid Karzai, as it did post-Soviet pull-out in late 1980s when it supported Northern Alliance.
Indian must acknowledge the emerging realities and aim for arriving at a working relationship with Taliban in the post 2014 Afghanistan. As is discussed above Taliban may not be averse to dealing with India, and any headway India makes will be at the expense of ISI’s influence on Taliban. India must explore the blending of Pashtun fault lines across the Durand line with India’s historical links with Pashtuns in order to blunt the ISI’s plans for Kashmir.
Secondly India could work closely with Iran and lobby with US to use the Iranian port of Chabahar for the withdrawal of its forces, this will help in undercutting the Pakistan’s monopoly for enabling the exit of NATO forces.
Finally India should aim for solution that involves all the regional players, such as those in SCO, who are affected by the terror and the instability in the neighbourhood. India will have to work together with China, Russia and Iran in developing strong bulwark against the enhanced militant activity that will arise due to the changing dynamics in Middle East, and preventing Pakistan from allowing its territory for export of militancy.
* Sanjiv Khanna, email : email@example.com