Some may think India’s tough diplomatic challenge is dealing with China as it confront on the land border and surrounds it on the sea. Others may think it is finding a worthy place of its own in the Quad that it has joined with the US, Japan and Australia. And there is the perennial confrontation with Pakistan.
But for now, the biggest challenge is tackling a hostile group of armed militants who are all set to return to power in Afghanistan and run it the way they want, no matter what the world thinks of them.
India had a common border with Afghanistan during the British era and its soldiers witnessed the serious debacle by the British forces that invaded Afghanistan, fighting three wars. Hundreds of Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed by the Afghans who let just one British officer, a doctor, to return, in all ignominy. The British learnt their bitter lessons.
Post-independence, India saw its ally, the erstwhile Soviet Union, invade Afghanistan, and not leave it despite some well-meant private counsel from Delhi. The outcome was that when the Russians did withdraw, the cascading effect was the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Now an ally of the United States, India is witnessing a third withdrawal by the world’s supposedly only super-power. And it is a hasty one, lacking in grace. The Emperor has been caught without clothes. The Afghan have retained their reputation as the graveyard of Empires, but it is a Pyrrhic one. As Americans and the NATO allies leave, mostly likely to fill in the political, military and strategic vacuum will be the Taliban.
It will be a setback to India whom the Taliban do not like, and advantage Pakistan. But again, there are no black-and-white prospects for anyone.
The important thing is that it is next-door to India. Although a regional development, it has clear global implications. It is dreaded by all, whether in support or opposition, as the world looks on helplessly and with concern. Well-armed and highly motivated, the Taliban are overrunning Afghanistan, fighting pitched territorial battles with the government forces, pushing them out of the vast countryside and confining them to the cities.
It may be a matter of weeks before the government in Kabul collapses, because the political and military will of the world powers to prevent it has collapsed. There seems room only for diplomacy as war-weary US-Nato withdraw their soldiers, a process they may complete well before the September 11 deadline.
The Taliban appear unstoppable. They couldn’t care less what the world thinks of them. They are focused totally on regaining power and with their own national issues. In a recent interview to “Foreign Policy” a top Taliban leader has reiterated their well-known and much-lamented approach to their women. There will be little education and no jobs for them.
The Taliban calculate that the world will worship the victor. After all, they have huge untapped minerals to offer. Weren’t they, when in power, wooed for access and exploitation of Central Asia’s gas an oil – till 9/11 happened?
But the dread persists and it is not just about uncertainties of what may lie ahead. The nations that are withdrawing from a war they cannot win after nearly two decades are frightened of terrorism in the shape of Al Qaida and the Islamic State returning to Afghanistan, along with, and even without, the Taliban at the helm. The extremist forces created and battled by turns as per the expediency have acquired huge strength they cannot control. It’s déjà vu.
This is most apparent in the Biden administration that had little choice – and inclination – to undo what the previous Trump administration handed down. Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says Al Qaeda could regroup in Afghanistan in two years. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, told the US Senate Appropriations Committee that he agreed. It was the most specific public forecast of the prospects for a renewed international terrorist threat from Afghanistan since Biden announced in April that all US troops would withdraw by September 11.
If America fears this even as it withdraws, unconditionally and completely, the France-based think tank, Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT), in a paper published this month sees resurgence of Al Qaida, the IS and its numerous affiliates across a vast region that covers West, Central and South Asia as result of the forthcoming tectonic changes in Afghanistan.
The title and the focus are “the Pakistani Jihadis and Global Jihad” which India can hardly afford to ignore. It says: “following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, one is likely to witness a resurgence of the Taliban and probably a more operational coordination between Pakistan-supported groups like the LET & JEM and the Taliban.”
It further says: “The current threat landscape and its evolution is strongly tied to the evolution, transformation and fragmentation of historical organizations active in the region since the late 1980s and to the continuing alignment of political organs and elites’ interests in Pakistan with those of the Pakistani jihadi organizations (for example the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir), whilst several of these organizations have since adhered to the global agenda of terrorist organizations posing a direct threat to neighbouring countries, primarily India.”
It is hardly surprising that Pakistan castigates India as a ‘spoiler’ in Afghanistan for trying to deny the strategic advantage it (Pakistan) hopes to gain, post-US withdrawal, from a new regime in Kabul. But Pakistan has its own set of Cassandras to fight in the shape of more refugees, more drugs and more sectarian violence. Notably, TTP, the Pakistani Taliban have the same ideological inclination as the Afghan Taliban they have hosted for two decades.
The situation is unenviable for India that sees a repeat of its recent past. It was friendless when the Russians withdrew and the regime they had supported collapsed. It stands to become friendless again with a Taliban rise, this time having invested over USD three billion in Afghanistan.
India has little choice but to engage with the Taliban, and whoever else gains powers after the US-led evacuation. Indeed, its growing proximity to the US makes its presence more vulnerable from the very people it has opposed and criticised. The memories of the 1999 hijack of an Indian passenger aircraft to Kandahar are fresh and so have been attacks on its interests by the Haqqani group, said to be working for Pakistan’s ISI. The group should be more powerful as part of the new establishment in Kabul.
When the Mujahideen took power in the early 1990s, M K Bhadrakumar, a senior diplomat well versed in the region’s affairs was dispatched. He met the new top leadership, including Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masud. Full advantage was taken of an airport refuelling stopover in Delhi by Rabbani and his men. That was good diplomacy. The rapprochement took long, but it happened.
The diplomatic situation is many times more challenging, what with India being identified closely with the US and against the Sino-Pak alliance, with old allies Russia and Iran missing from its side.
India is a straggler in engaging with the Taliban leaders who have resented India. The past record has been one of mutual dislike and distrust. This is hardly the time to remince what India has done or can do in Afghanistan and the goodwill it has gained. The time is to salvage what is built and protect, even the embassy in Kabul and consulates in other Afghan cities.
Can India meet this diplomatic challenge having an overwhelming security component? It will need to be watched with great concern.