8th May 2021
The U.S. has decided to finally close the book on one of its longest military interventions. The subcontinent however, will not be exempt from the ripple effects of Afghanistan’s future even after the U.S. forces leave. While the expected withdrawal throws open agency for Afghanistan to chart its own future, it also ushers in a new round of regional geopolitical changes. The current Chief of Defence Staff of India, General Bipin Rawat expressed that India’s primary concern is “disruptors” that would most likely fill in the power vacuum after the U.S. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces leave.
An unstable Afghanistan could have a spillover in its neighbourhood as the lion’s share of India’s Afghanistan policy has been contoured by its rivalry with Pakistan. Uncertainty has undoubtedly clouded New Delhi, ever since the U.S. announced its withdrawal. An Afghanistan, which is led by the Taliban, would enable deeper strategic ties with Islamabad, leading to threats of increased militant attacks on India and India’s assets in Afghanistan. New Delhi’s position in the present state of affairs is hardly enviable, and there is a possibility that the situation will see some form of power-sharing between Kabul and Pakistan if there is a Taliban resurgence. This presents an asymmetric challenge for India and puts its interests at risk. India might have to go by a new playbook and might find itself at a high stakes game post U.S. withdrawal.
The first set of risks that India will face post U.S. withdrawal, is terrorism. Although one of the principles in the joint statement signed between United States and the Afghan government guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil by international terrorist groups; there are still doubts on how this principle will be upheld, regardless of how well intentioned it might be. Pakistan’s history of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) providing safe havens for the Taliban and the Haqqani network operating actively from Pakistan longs to limit India’s influence in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network has been an affront to India and has carried out attacks against Indian assets, such as the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Moreover, the nexus between the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the ISI present very real dangers to India’s outreach to Afghanistan in the case of a power vacuum. In the case of Taliban representation in Afghanistan in the near future, India will have to grapple with a triad that seeks to undercut New Delhi’s manoeuvres towards the South Asian country.
The Deep Political Divide
The second challenge to India stems from Afghanistan’s perpetually divided government. The militants have ruled out joining the current political system. Political foes of Ashraf Ghani’s support some sort of transitional government in Kabul, but are simultaneously looking for ways to gain more influence in the process. While the current leadership in Kabul remains optimistic that peace will gradually be ensured and the volatile state will be brought under control; the Taliban will seek to make the most of the fissures existing in the government. Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan and Ashraf Ghani have maintained a bitter rivalry and will have to work together to ensure political stability. The sharply competing politics within the country will shape the trajectory of Afghanistan’s future and with it, the nature of its relationship with India.
New Delhi has provided the Afghan government with economic and limited military support but might have to think about its strategic actions in the scenario of a Taliban led Afghanistan. Besides the Ghani-Abdullah political rivalry coupled with the Taliban’s scramble for power, Afghan warlords have also been putting forward peace plans. Rival proposals coming in from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rashid Dostum will add complexity to the transition process. Dostum’s plan emphasizes the rights of ethnic minorities’ rights as well as decentralization of political and military power. Whereas Hekmatyar proposes a coalition with non-controversial people. New Delhi fears that the Afghan security forces will disintegrate, plunging the country into civil war, with northern warlords resisting the Taliban’s advance in the same way they did in the 1990’s.
The U.S. and NATO forces helped the Afghan forces to extend its control in the country’s territory. With it, some form of stability was partially guaranteed and the Taliban did not go completely unchecked. India is already concerned over the potential outcomes especially since a contingency force or a special operations force is unlikely to stay. Moreover, the U.S. exit limits diplomatic, economic and political manoeuvres of India towards Afghanistan as Pakistan has already positioned itself as an integral player in Afghanistan’s peace process. Regardless of the outcome, India’s ambitions in the region will be tested in Afghanistan’s transitional process. The possibility of India accommodating the possibility of a Taliban-led Afghanistan in the future, will depend on recognizing the power shifts in the country, and assessing if the costs are worth the risks.
*The author is currently a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies