WITH THE TALIBAN taking control of Afghanistan, again, the situation in the landlocked nation is back to square one – where the Islamist militants left it 20 years ago when George Bush Junior’s military came from the air and unseated the men and enterprise that aided Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden there. This was less than a month after the 9/11 attacks on the US. Today, India has reasons to be extremely wary.
It was in 2001 that the US had unseated the Taliban from power in one swift go and took control over the country. With support from NATO on the one side and India on the other, Americans sought to bring in an era of democracy. The experiment and funding by billions over the past 20 years have not helped change the Afghan scenario for the better.
The Hamid Karzai era was relatively better, though he was having control of only the capital Kabul while warlords ruled the roost in most of the provinces. Karzai, who had his higher education in India and took the help of India in rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan, had kept Pakistan at a distance. In later years, Ashraf Ghani came in to lead the nation – and he demonstrated a pro-Pakistan tilt in foreign policy. He visited Pakistan but avoided coming to India for months after his installation. Eventually, as India continued with its non-military, pro-development cooperation with Afghanistan, Ghani too sensed danger in associating closely with Pakistan. Pakistan had backed the Taliban to give pin-pricks to Ghani and undercut Indian engagements in Afghanistan.
Yet, India built and donated a Parliament House and took an active part in helping the nation with infra-development, as in the construction of roads, dams etc. Indian presence was pronounced in Afghanistan just as the US and NATO maintained their forces there by way of support to the elected government as also with the stated purpose of “training” the Afghan military. The Afghan military did not get much training from the US military, though, and corruption in the local ranks of the military was huge. The men in the uniform had no interest in getting themselves trained for a future fight. With the US and NATO pulling out their troops recently, the Afghan military has by now disappeared into thin air. There was no way for Ashraf Ghani to carry on with his governance.
In a way, George Bush Junior as US president did a disservice to Afghanistan by prematurely pulling out the large part of the troops from there for redeployment in Iraq, in 2003, to take on Saddam Hussein. Had the US troops continued to stay back in strength for more time, they would have been able to support the democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai for longer-term and bring about a modicum of law and order there. The Americans gained from the opium trade in Afghanistan; and, reaching Iraq, they made up for the loss in the war by drawing its oil in huge quantities at cheap prices the American contractors dictated. The Americans benefited while, notably, India gained little from its engagement in Afghanistan.
Yet, it was important for India to be on the right side of the government in Afghanistan. More so as Pakistan was trying to use Afghanistan against India in whatever ways possible. Those at the head of Islamabad and the military leadership in Rawalpindi will now be able to indulge, though the Taliban has stated openly that it would not allow any foreign interest to take advantage of the emerging situations in Afghanistan. The Islamic link would however ensure that both Afghanistan and Pakistan cooperated in more active ways under the Taliban rule. China has already recognized the Taliban and its soon-to-be-formed government in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan has spoken highly of the Taliban and he is bound to back the new government. The military intelligence of Pakistan, the ISI, is already on the right side of the Taliban. Taliban’s styles will keep irritating India and an association with it will be difficult for New Delhi to maintain if at all it attempts to do so.
The security situation in the subcontinent and beyond is bound to turn for the worse as the Islamists gain a foothold again over Afghanistan. A combination of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the western region is an invitation for more trouble to India principally on the Kashmir front and in other matters as well. Pakistan, Afghanistan and China — forming the entire western and northern sides of India, can be expected to act in unison to target this country. The US is under weak leadership – note the way President Joe Biden has goofed up with the Afghan exit plan! – cannot be expected to be of much help to India in this respect. Russia too is bound to back the Taliban. So would Iran in the neighbourhood.
The Taliban says it is not against India and appreciates the role India played in the rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan in the past two decades. But, the Taliban is untrustworthy — and the US knows this better than India.
India would stand isolated in the region. India’s relationship with Nepal in the northern sector is facing serious strains in recent years. India does not have much leverage with Sri Lanka, which too is under the Chinese orbit. In the entire region, India maintains good relations with Bangladesh and Bhutan. Both will continue to be on the same wavelength for more time. Bhutan has direct links with the US by way of safeguarding its interests against Chinese designs. Bangladesh is wary of Pakistan’s attempts to regain influence in what was East Pakistan till the early 1970s. Both these nations will continue their ties with India in good form.
QUAD ALLIANCE: US and India are having close ties under the Quad, the quadrilateral security dialogue, a four-nation alliance involving also Japan and Australia with a special interest in checking the Chinese offensives in the Indo-Pacific ocean region. Their slogan is a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, but the Chinese are not enthused. The underlying Quad sentiment is that any fresh Chinese offensive in the Indo-Pacific will be jointly opposed.
With the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, the Belt and Road Initiative of China’s Xi Jinping is bound to get a fresh fillip. Notably, the Ashraf Ghani government had successfully been wooed by China to participate in the BR initiative, which will mean a direct highway linking it with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This will give prominence to the Gadwar City Port in Pakistan at the tip of the Arabian Sea in the north. The central Asian republics are already a part of this Chinese initiative. Iran too would be encouraging the Taliban to keep Americans away from the region. India’s joint initiative with Iran and Afghanistan, the Chabahar Port set in Iran, close to Afghanistan, could now be on the backburner while Gadwar gains prominence. So will be the Zaranj-Delaram Road initiative in Afghanistan with Indian support.
Even otherwise, the Indian isolation in the geopolitical region is somewhat complete. The Maldives, which was close to India in the past, is charting a different course and the Pakistanis are at work there through Islamists to get the islands nation close to China, by ditching India. The breakaway Isthans of the former USSR, they being Muslim provinces turning themselves into independent republics, have geographical proximity with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Gulf nations, due to a variety of reasons, are Muslim nations but continue maintaining good relations with India. The Gulf nations apart, the entire geopolitical region could sooner or later gang up at the political and diplomatic levels.
WHAT OF AL QAEDA? It was well-known that Pakistan’s ISI gave secret sanctuary to Osama bin Laden for years after the 9/11 attacks on the US installations. Finally, after the exit of George Bush and the arrival of Barack Obama as the US president, the Americans laid their hands on Osama from Abbottabad, close to the Pakistani military headquarters of Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s deceitful nature is known to the Americans and this help to Bin Laden was fresh proof. Yet, what confuses American minds is the ‘non-alignment attitude of successive Indian administrations against India building close ties with the Americans. Some changes took place since the time of PV Narasimha Rao as PM, and Dr Manmohan Singh took matters forward between 2004 and 2014. President Obama repeatedly visited India. Till then, it was a different story. India stood close to the Socialist bloc led by the USSR and Moscow. Even after its breakup, India has reservations about closer associations with the US.
With Putin — and previously Mikhail Gorbachev with his Glasnost and Perestroika – coming to the head of the Socialist nation, the non-alignment bloc once led by India, at the behest of the USSR, crumbled. Russia began minding its own business. India lost a close ally in Russia, but it failed to build a new alliance even as the US showed a willingness and there was cautious optimism on the part of Americans about India edging closer to them. Pakistan, an ally of the US when India stood by the USSR, still holds some clout of it being an all-weather ally to the US, and also considered among US policymakers for this reason.
Geopolitical situations are shaping up in the region in a way that India has little choice other than strengthening its ties further with the US. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lacks the guts to act in decisive ways, though he has managed to build an aura of a strongman. His foreign policy initiatives have had no cutting edge; rather, he messed up with matters and wasted precious time by his unwarranted foreign jaunts in the entire first term of his governance. He simply groped in the dark as he had no understanding of the nuances of foreign policy. Remember the way Modi played host and extended a full-throated welcome to a reticent Xi Jinping at the very start of his first term in 2014. What came out of his foreign jaunts is worth close analysis.
Diplomacy does not work on personal charms; it works on realpolitik and mutual interests of nation-states. India is still a soft power; its economic growth is a reality, but India’s progress is slow; and steady as well. The political stability in recent decades — after the disastrous terms of coalition governments led by weak men in the form of the IK Gujrals, the Deve Gowdas and the like– helped. Another disruptor is waiting in the wings to become the PM: Mamata Banerjee.
Modi, on the good side, promoted stability and did not rub anyone the wrong way for the most part. The result: the Hindu Rate of Growth, weak and insignificant as it is — set against the fast-paced growth of not just China but even Bangladesh, and of India itself in the Manmohan era — continues under the Modi Raj. Worse, it took further hits in the Covid season. The only way for India to survive in the emerging hostile regional environment is, on the one hand, to strengthen itself economy-wise, militarily and in terms of rebuilding its institutions, the strengths of which have eroded over time and loot of the exchequer and banks is the order of the day. On the other hand, a closer association with the US is the way forward for an isolated India in matters of diplomacy and international relations.
—The writer is a media consultant and former Editor of Khaleej Times, published from Dubai, the UAE. —