At 3am on July 2, the United States stealthily abandoned the Bagram Airfield, its largest military facility in Afghanistan. Afghan security forces, who were awaiting a formal handover, received confirmation of the event two hours later. In the interim, locals began looting the 3.5 million items – including small arms and ammunition – that the US had left behind.
The disgracefulness of this singular act, which has boosted the Taliban’s morale, will be etched in Afghan memory more than the cumulative errors of the US’s foreign policy over the last two decades.
It is an equally bad omen for regional allies such as India.
Since 2001, India has relied on US security guarantees and local Afghan allies to expand its strategic footprint in the country. As things stand, India’s Afghan allies are struggling to mount a coherent resistance to the Pakistan-backed Taliban despite having similar military and stronger financial resource set. Even traditional anti-Taliban strongholds in north and west Afghanistan are being dominated by the Taliban.
To complicate India’s position further, Beijing is allegedly ramping up infrastructural projects such as the Kabul-Peshawar highway to link Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Endurance of religious extremism, multi-sided violence, and China’s decisive entry into Afghanistan in alliance with Pakistan makes this an unprecedented geopolitical moment for India. It promises to qualitatively alter the central driver of independent India’s Afghanistan policy ie, to strike a strategic balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given Beijing’s propensity to delegate its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad, the question of balance between Islamabad and Kabul will become moot even if popular Afghan opinion remains critical of Pakistan’s interventionism.
No amount of US finances for Kabul, and possible “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities in the neighbourhood will change this strategic reality. One may argue that India and China have silently cooperated in the past (February 2013) and have much in common on Afghanistan and religious extremism.
But 2021 is not 2013. Beijing’s perceived threat from China-centric Islamists is lower today, and the intensity and expanse of the Sino-Indian rivalry higher. If China saw value in quietly engaging with India in 2013, it is more-than-comfortable with Pakistan taking the lead to target China-centric extremists today.
Conversely, there may be a sense in select US and Indian policy circles that China will be bogged down in Afghanistan akin to previous great powers. Though historically sensible, this is a dangerous assumption to make for policy planning purposes.
Herein, China’s method of exercising power in South Asia is instructive.
Beijing doesn’t impose its political worldview on the target state, is politically adaptable, and has a high threshold for violence. In Myanmar, for instance, Beijing quickly adjusted to the post February-coup realities including the loss of an assiduously cultivated ally in Aung San Suu Kyi, and attacks on its factories by protesters. Instead of opting for negotiations, it doubled down its support for the junta.
In Afghanistan, this means, Beijing will accept the Taliban’s rise, even if it occurs using force and is led by the Haqqanis. Till the time China-centric militants are neutralised, and Chinese material interests – limited and unprofitable for now – don’t come under attack, Beijing will not be deterred.
To reposition itself in this situation, India needs to urgently act on three simultaneous fronts.
One, apart from coordinating with the US and Quad allies, India must intensify engagement with Iran. India needs a regional land bridge to Afghanistan, and the only feasible option is via Chabahar or Bandar Abbas. If reports are accurate, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, was recently in Afghanistan strengthening wartime alliances and exploring new ones within and outside the Taliban.
Iran’s tormented relations with the US and embrace with China notwithstanding, Tehran (similar to Moscow) is opposed to a Pakistan-controlled, Sunni-dominated, Taliban-led Islamic emirate in Kabul. Though the 2016 arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav from Iran under unclear circumstances is a complicating factor in this space, India and Iran have more convergence than divergence on Afghanistan.
Two, maintain the momentum of engagement with allies in Kabul and reassure them of continuous diplomatic, military and financial support. The last thing India wants to be seen is pulling a “Bagram exit” in Afghan eyes. Despite the closure of Jalalabad and Herat consulates, India is not rushing to shut down its consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. Continuing presence on the ground will be critical for India to maintain direct contact with all stakeholders.
In this context, it is helpful that India has taken a decision to cautiously engage with the Taliban. This is not an exercise in taking sides. But if India is serious about limiting Chinese influence in Afghanistan, and ensuring a balance between Kabul and Islamabad, it has no choice but to engage with the Taliban.
Finally, India should try and use the backchannel with Pakistan to assess and reshape the latter’s threshold for Indian presence in Afghanistan. Pakistani NSA Moeed Yusuf’s claim of the backchannel being dead is inaccurate. Chaperoned by Abu Dhabi, the backchannel is active, and needed to prevent both sides from sleepwalking into a deeper crisis.
To be certain, Pakistan’s neuralgic fears about India’s presence in Afghanistan makes it difficult to reach such an understanding. But it’s not impossible. Pakistan is worried about blowback and may not be able to contain the Taliban’s desire for a stable relationship with New Delhi. This offers India some space for manoeuvre in the weeks to come.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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