The Afghan predicament: What it means for India now

 By Sarthak Das
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“Older men declare war. But it is the youth that fights it” these lines truly resonate today with America’s longest engagement in different regions and how it’s left in a state of paralysis and chaos and what New Delhi should do given that Kabul fell. America’s longest war has finally come to a tragic end. With babies being handed over to NATO troops over the wired boundary wall of Hamid Karzai International Airport by families in a desperate bid to escape the fall of Kabul. Western Countries were startled by the speed at which the Afghan National Army and the civilian government melted away and escaped to neighbouring countries. Cities after cities fell with Kabul finally at the end.

For India, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and diminished presence in the country would cost the steady progress made in the war-torn country.  New Delhi right now is at the crossroads it has to either choose and engage or abandon its aspirations of holding strategic depth in Afghanistan, not through the barrel of a gun rather through her expertise in community building projects and cultural diplomacy. The situation in Afghanistan remains fluid amid volatility.

America first, Escape Afghanistan

Since America’s military expedition of Afghanistan in late 2001 it has been its longest and most expensive war. But that simply does not disqualify the human toll and the vicious cycle of impoverishment in the Central Asian country. Afghanistan is a stark example of America’s failed ‘Nation-Building’ exercise. There are only two outcomes with American led involvement in a region, militarily and diplomatically, the first one is disturbing the Status Quo and the second being absolute chaos the kind being vociferously seen at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

For America, the war has been a long one. A sense of dreariness has now prevailed over America’s choice to stay in Afghanistan any longer. Something that was visible in the ‘Doha Agreement’ signed by the United States and the Taliban was to bring an end to the long-drawn insurgency in Afghanistan and to bring peace to the war-torn nation. The long negotiations came to a point where the Taliban wants international recognition, legitimacy and aid to exist and bring their ideas of an ‘Islamic Emirate’ to fruition. But America and its allies enjoy considerable grip over the international multilateral institutions responsible for enforcing sanctions, recognition and legitimacy.
The Doha agreement gives leverage over each other and lays the groundwork for further engagement between the Taliban and the American state. But, the agreement has also put the Afghan people in an extremely precarious situation. One, which has forced them to flee the country in any way possible even to the extent of holding on to the landing gears of aircraft taking off.

The Taliban reorganized

According to Clausewitz, war is a continuation of politics by other means. What the Taliban did was integrate good diplomacy with military action. Without international aid, support Afghanistan cannot survive and the central echelon recognizes this. By, integrating diplomacy and military action the Taliban got time to surround, reorganize and support their fighters along with key cities and towns at the same time maintaining diplomatic leverage over the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban has managed to dominate the perception of war at the grass-root level. It has milked the general mistrust towards the government in Kabul, Occupation of Afghanistan by NATO troops, lack of basic facilities provided to citizens among a list of other things that people from rural Afghanistan base their general lack of trust towards the civilian government or government authorities and let’s not forget the rampant and rotten corruption in the Afghan institutions.

A crowded place

China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan have overlapping interests in Afghanistan. The country has an abundance of untapped mineral resources. Given the country’s instability, it remains a poverty-stricken country however the two decades of progress achieved shouldn’t be let go or seen as less impactful. Afghanistan’s economy remains agrarian with very little to nil industrialization. Each country’s involvement and engagement with the people at the helm of running Afghanistan comes due to economic, political, ideological or strategic motivations. Each stakeholder is jockeying for a place in Afghanistan’s future.

Russia

Russia also fears a Taliban-led radicalization of the former Soviet South, thus creating a fertile breeding ground for an insurgency in the already fragile region. As Russia overcame its ‘Afghan Syndrome’, Moscow came to appreciate the intricacies of a tribal society and the limitations of modernizing and implementing reforms in a society, in this case, Afghanistan. Moscow has realized that in the context of Afghanistan, any ally can turn into an enemy and vice-versa. Russia rendered substantial help to the United States in Afghanistan in the initial days of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and it also made the Russians realize that Americans are not ‘ ten feet tall ’ and are prone to making mistakes.

Although earlier there are no records of Moscow’s changing relationship with the Taliban things have changed with Moscow forming a troika to pursue and affect the given change in political stability in Afghanistan as NATO completes its withdrawal. This opportunity comes to Moscow as the withdrawal of America creates a power and a military vacuum given Afghanistan’s nature of society and power-sharing arrangements the country is further pushed into another deadly civil war.

Iran

Tehran very well knows that the new neighbours won’t be any good. Afghanistan and Iran’s bilateral relations have always been in ambiguity from working with each other to working against each other. Iran and Afghanistan share a 945 Km long land border. Drug trafficking remains a common sore point. Tehran holds the current Afghan government accountable for its inability to stop the drug trade and lack of control beyond Kabul, given how Afghan society is largely tribal where the government has little to no influence, making it harder to obtain strategic and military objectives. Iran also fears a mass exodus of refugees from Afghanistan into Iran in case of any further armed conflict in the country. [4]

Pakistan

For Pakistan, the withdrawal of American troops is seen as a win, but the win comes at a cost as the Taliban, unlike in the early decades, is unwilling to put all their eggs in one basket as the Taliban slowly slides away from their masters in Pakistan. The Taliban has to serve the western countries with a palatable form of subjugation of the people in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, maintaining its grip over Afghanistan comes with the only idea of not letting India get any strategic depth in the country which can, in turn, threaten the state of Pakistan. [5]

China

For China, there is a confluence of risk and opportunity in Afghanistan. Beijing’s ability as an economic power simply results in a stake in Afghanistan’s political and economic growth. With China’s Belt and Road initiative ready to foray into the region, Afghanistan has forever remained a missing piece in the project. China can fill the power vacuum left by the United States, and the Taliban representatives are keen on having Beijing as a partner. For Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, the reality of sharing a border with Afghanistan makes them prone to blown-out insurgency given the simmering discontent between the respective governments and the Muslim majority regions and societies especially the Uyghur populated province of Xinjiang. This also comes at a time when China wants to open up another front in Afghanistan against New Delhi. [6]

The new reality for New Delhi and what New Delhi should do?

At this time policymakers need to restructure and calibrate their policy towards Afghanistan. Situations like this call for further broader diplomatic engagement and use India’s existing inclusion into regional power blocs like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a tool to formulate and find a tangible solution towards peace in Afghanistan.

Given the recent deep engagement between Russia, China, Turkey, and Britain with the Taliban to ensure a seat at the table, Afghanistan’s political and social stability is in the best interest of everyone, especially Russia, India, and China.

Conclusion

The sudden fall of Kabul has put India in a seriously disadvantaged position, New Delhi needs to leverage its position diplomatically to maintain pressure on the Taliban to keep Afghanistan open to the world at the same time engage through this process. With the Afghan situation becoming more unpredictable all New Delhi can do is wait and watch but it shouldn’t wait too long to start engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan given India’s general goodwill among the Afghan population. New Delhi needs to leverage this to maintain a presence in Afghanistan or get back to one so strategic depth and face acquired in the last twenty years in Afghanistan can be salvaged.

Endnotes

[1]Pankaj Mishra (2021), “Why America’s Afghan project was doomed all along anyway”, Available at:  https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/why-america-s-afghan-project-was-doomed-all-along-anyway-11626022942702.html

[2]Amie Ferris-Rotman (2011), “Special report: In Russia, a glut of heroin and denial”, Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-heroin-idUSTRE70O22X20110125

[3]Kaneshko Sangar (2016), “Afghanistan’s significance for Russia in the 21st Century: Interests, Perceptions and Perspectives” Available at: https://sciendo.com/abstract/journals/pce/12/1/article-p59.xml

[4]Scott Smith (2014), “The Afghanistan Syndrome”, Available at: https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/the-afghanistan-syndrome

[5]Farzin Nadimi (2021), “Iran Sets Its Eyes on Afghanistan”, Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/iran-sets-its-eyes-afghanistan

[6]Sushant Sareen (2021), “Afghanistan: A military solution is what Pakistan wants”, Available at:  https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/afghanistan-the-military-solution-is-what-pakistan-wants/

[7]Derek Grossman (2021), “China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance”, available at:  https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/07/21/china-taliban-afghanistan-biden-troop-withdrawal-belt-road-geopolitics-strategy/