India’s Taliban Dilemma

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India is scrambling to get on the good side of the Taliban after decades of backing up the previous Afghan regime. There is substantial fear in New Delhi that the return of the Taliban to power means the return of Pakistan-supported administration. The sudden fall of Kabul accelerates a fundamental realignment with Pakistan that was already in progress. The withdrawal of US troops is likely to fast-track current trends in India’s relations with the US, China, and Russia: greater cooperation with Washington, deeper conflicts with Beijing, and wider fissures in the traditional strategic partnership with Moscow.
The debacle in Afghanistan will certainly produce spillover effects. What is happening in Kabul will not be contained in Kabul.
Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China are correctly worried about the implications of an extended Afghan civil war, including a large-scale refugee crisis. India, however, is in the most disadvantageous position and therefore should be excessively worried. While Russia, China, and Iran rightly began talking to the Taliban years ago, to be better able to address their concerns directly, India stuck to its opposition and stood by its longstanding allies of US-sponsored government.
For long, India’s foreign-policy elite muttered about the dangers of the US leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban. The fear in New Delhi was twofold. First, the favourable conditions for India’s political and economic engagement with Afghanistan since the US intervention in 2001 would come to an end. Second, the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would once again become Pakistan’s partner in promoting the ongoing freedom struggle in Kashmir, as witnessed following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Armed groups fighting in Afghanistan will naturally look for new ground to expand and Kashmir could be chosen for a variety of known and unknown reasons.
On the upside, New Delhi senses that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could significantly weaken the current strategic partnership between Washington and Islamabad. Although Afghanistan will continue to figure in US-Pakistani ties, the relationship is now likely to evolve in a very different direction. One of President Joe Biden’s justifications for ending the US military intervention in Afghanistan is the importance of coping with new challenges from a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region. For India, which sees China as a greater threat than Pakistan, the Biden administration’s focus on balancing China is certainly welcome. While New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have seen growing tensions in recent years, the partnership between the so-called iron brothers, Pakistan and China, has been on the upswing. The latest developments in Afghanistan are likely to further boost the trend.
Although Beijing has been strongly critical of the rushed US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has been arranging itself to play a greater role. In the last few years, Beijing has cautiously stepped into Afghan politics and has been trying its hand at reconciliation diplomacy. The idea of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan is welcomed by the Taliban hierarchy. A strong partnership with Pakistan, which has considerable influence with the Taliban, enhances China’s prospects in Afghanistan. This positive assessment, however, is subject to peace and stability in Afghanistan and credible assurances from the Taliban on dissociating itself from Islamist movements in China’s restive Xinjiang region. Yet Beijing is hopeful, and it is no surprise that it was among the first to offer a conditional welcome to the Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul.
India, of course, views a larger Chinese role in Afghanistan with certain concerns. New Delhi has suspiciously watched Beijing steadily expanding economic and military profile in the Subcontinent in recent years, in ways that go beyond its traditional alignment with Islamabad. A Chinese-Pakistani partnership in Afghanistan will indeed be a major setback for India on its sensitive northwestern flank. China’s massive economic resources could be a powerful force multiplier for the Pakistan Army in reshaping the turbulent Afghan theatre.
The situation is in flux, India will need to conduct a detailed assessment of the political costs to its interests in Afghanistan. The key will be to find equilibrium between approaches to its strategy that are necessarily paradoxical. India has already shut three of its consulates in Afghanistan and is likely to adopt a different set of policies following the US withdrawal.
Russia’s successful outreach to the Taliban will only widen the gap on regional issues between New Delhi and Moscow. For the last couple of years, Moscow has repeatedly emphasized the importance of engaging the Taliban, while New Delhi doubled down on its support for the elected government in Kabul. Moscow defended the decision to keep New Delhi out as it had little influence with the Taliban and therefore would not be able to contribute to the Afghanistan peace process. The latest developments in Afghanistan could intensify Sino-Indian contradictions, consolidate Indian-US relations, and produce greater coldness between India and Russia.
Facts have to be taken for what they are. Afghanistan is changing is a fact and it is not easy to change facts.