For India, history is poised to repeat itself in Afghanistan, with prospects that appear to be worse than they were when a government in Kabul it supported collapsed in 1992. By that time the Soviet Union with which India was aligned had withdrawn — and had disintegrated. India again stands isolated as the United States with which it is perceived in the region as closely aligned has left Kabul, leaving the Ashraf Ghani government seriously threatened by the Taliban, who have never been kind to India.
If India is talking to the Taliban, belatedly and hesitantly, things do not seem to have worked out so far, perhaps, because the top leadership of the group that really matters in diplomacy, is too busy capturing all the territory it can to ensure a predominant position that cannot be challenged from within or from outside Afghanistan.
The extent of Afghan territory under Taliban control does not matter anymore. They have filled in the political and military vacuum vacated by the Americans. By overrunning much of the territory in the north where ethnic minority Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks reside, right up to the international border with Tajikistan, they have worked to ensure that the Northern Alliance that India backed in 2001, and that had done much of the fighting on the ground for the US, enough to throw the Taliban out of Kabul, does not take shape again.
The situation is most unenvious for India as External Affairs Minister Subrahmanniam Jaishankar may have found after talking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif last week. These two regional powers who were earlier close to India on the Afghan conflict, have moved away. They do not want the American presence to continue in any form. Their positions are akin to another major regional power, China. Not a factor when 9/11 happened, which brought the Americans to Afghanistan, China today is a global power challenging, and being challenged by, the United States.
There are reports of the United States still hopes to reorganise the counter-terrorism capabilities and assets in the region. It plans to use a force of mercenaries, estimated at 18,000 contracted by Pentagon, the US Defence Ministry, to oppose the Taliban on the ground, while planning to unleash some kind of ‘hybrid’ war that is high-tech, from outside Afghanistan, like it has been done in Syria. It envisages basing military strength in Turkey and some of the Central Asian countries. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are being approached. With Russian arms on their soils and with China next door, it is doubtful if they will oblige the Americans and invite problems from their own Islamist extremists.
The Taliban have warned everyone against helping America. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan, America’s erstwhile “valiant fighter against terrorism” in the years following 9/11, is the first to deny any air space and support to the Americans. Prime Minister Imran Khan, basking in Chinese support, is playing safe.
Indeed, this Pakistani posture, its successful sheltering and supporting of the Taliban for two decades and facilitating their current military campaign in Afghanistan, and ensuring backing from China, must worry India as much as it should the US and other Western powers. China already has deep interest in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. The Sino-Pak alliance in Afghanistan is ready to take a larger shape with China extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan once the Taliban take Kabul.
That date could well be by the end of this year, if the planned American ‘hybrid’ war does not succeed in keeping President Ashraf Ghani in office in Kabul. To allow a little historical comparison, if that succeeds, Ghani may be like Mughal Emperor Shah Alam ruling in Delhi. (Lal Qila se Palam).
If at all there is some consolation for India, the situation is as much complex for Pakistan. Its much-sought “strategic depth” vis a vis India with a friendly government in Kabul may come at a heavy price. Whether the Taliban will remain ‘friendly’ once in power and if they will accept the Durand Line as the international border remains to be viewed in a distant future. For now, Pakistan can expect refugees’ influx, adding to the estimated 2.8 million already there, besides greater inflow of narcotics.
Add to them the increased movement of militants and sectarian groups. There is ideological affinity between the Afghan Taliban and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that move across Af-Pak border and operate from the largely ungovernable tribal belt located on both sides. China fears this, too, the way it is trying to suppress its Uighour separatists in Xinjiang.
This strengthening of religious extremists, thanks to a Taliban victory, covers not just Pakistan, but also India and indeed, a vast region across West, Central and South Asia. It was only thirty years back that the ‘heroes’ of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan returned to their respective homes across this vast region. They included Osama bin Laden who supposedly staged 9/11 in America from Afghanistan and then moved to Pakistan when the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, to be eventually located and eliminated in Abbottabad. These extremists fed separatist militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, and across the Subcontinent, in Bangladesh and still further east, Jemmah Islamia and other Salafist movements in Southeast Asia.
This Al Qaida canvas stretches to the Islamic State (IS) that, although contained in Syria, has developed strong affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the arguments being made in war-weary America to explain a deal with the Taliban and to justify the hasty, victory-less withdrawal from Afghanistan, is that it aims to ‘insulate’ the Western world (read Christian world) from Islamist extremism – in short, to prevent another 9/11. Whether such an ‘insulation’ can be ensured is open to serious doubt. Having sown poisonous seeds, you must be ready for a poisonous harvest. No lessons are learnt from history when you try to write it yourself. If you promote conflict, be it in the name of democracy or human rights or to fight terrorism, you live with it, suffer and make others suffer.
To return to India after taking in this grim global worldview, the goodwill India earned from the Afghans over the last two decades will stay frozen once the Taliban take power. The three billion-plus dollars spent to contribute to Afghanistan’s nation-building stands jeopardized for now. The United States itself says, to quote President Joe Biden that the US did not intervene in Afghanistan for “nation-building.” Not new, this assertion comes after losing 2,500 men and a trillion dollars. Hence, any Indian attempt to invest more at the instance of the US or anyone else, or to mark a military presence as part of the ‘hybrid’ war, would be futile and risky.
Besides the dam built in Herat and a network of farm development and information projects that India initiated, Afghanistan’s parliament complex that India built must stand in hopeful silence till democracy and development return to a relatively peaceful Afghanistan. Till then, look into a distant, uncertain future.