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Business News/ Opinion / Tough times ahead for India in Afghanistan

Tough times ahead for India in Afghanistan

Pakistan has managed to sell the flawed theory that the Taliban can be used to fight the Islamic State

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

After the recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including the one which killed five UAE diplomats, Russia has “(urged) the warring parties in Afghanistan, primarily the leaders of the Taliban movement, to renounce violence and to take urgent action to launch intra-Afghan dialogue". Even if the Taliban has denied any role in the killing of diplomats—because, many Afghans say, its benefactors in Pakistan want to avoid the UAE’s wrath—the verbiage of the spokesperson of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs is interesting. It recognizes the Taliban as just one among multiple warring parties in Afghanistan, and emphasizes its inclusion in the peace process.

Russia has indeed been warming up to the Taliban for several weeks now. And on 27 December, Moscow hosted representatives from Pakistan and China to discuss the war in Afghanistan. Notably, no Afghan representative was invited. After the discussions, the three countries “expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS (Islamic State)", and advocated a “flexible approach to remove certain (Taliban) figures from (UN) sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement".

This move by Russia was criticized by both Afghanistan and the US. Either Moscow genuinely believes that the IS is a bigger threat than the Taliban or it merely wishes to make things difficult for the outgoing Barack Obama administration—or it could be a combination of both. In support of the former view, Zamir Kabulov, a special representative of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Afghanistan, said in an interview to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency that the Taliban is mostly a “local force" that has given up on the “global jihadism idea". On the contrary, the IS, he believes, is much more dangerous on account of its centralized, globally widespread ideology in the absence of a centralized leadership or organization.

When looked at through the prism of Moscow’s military engagement in Syria, the threat of IS becomes more real for the Russians. The return of Russian IS fighters from Syria to the homeland exacerbates the domestic threat considerably and makes Moscow view the prospect of the IS gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and neighbouring Central Asian states with enormous concern.

Even if Moscow’s threat perception is genuine, there is a definite touch of underestimation in Kabulov’s assertions about the Taliban and overestimation in his evaluation of the capabilities of the Afghan branch of IS. As Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) noted in FDD’s Long War Journal, a video released by the Taliban as recently as last month had flaunted its alliance with Al-Qaeda and proclaimed itself as the “hope of Muslims for reviving back the honour of the Muslim Ummah" and “for taking back the Islamic lands!" On the other hand, the IS fighters in Afghanistan are mostly made up of disgruntled jihadis of the Taliban. Many of them joined the IS during the Taliban’s battle for succession after the news of Mullah Omar’s demise surfaced in July 2015.

New Delhi is aware of these facts and is therefore not buying into the theory that the Taliban can be used to fight the IS. This flawed theory, India knows well, is propelled by the generals in Rawalpindi as it gives them an extended run of life in Afghanistan, the country they perceive to be their strategic backyard. And Pakistan was expected to play the IS card in order to make a comeback just when New Delhi’s role was about to receive a boost. India had just transferred four attack helicopters to the Afghanistan government to boost its fight against the Taliban. More military assistance seemed likely as the US was on board: The revival of the India-US-Afghanistan trilateral was announced in August 2016 by John Kerry, the US secretary of state.

Unfortunately, not just China but Russia too has bought into Pakistan’s theory. And Iran may well join the Russia-led coalition. At the moment, however, all the regional powers of consequence are waiting for the Donald Trump administration to take over in Washington. If Putin’s overtures to the Taliban are intended, primarily, to frustrate the Obama administration, he can be expected to take a step back with Trump’s arrival and this will be precisely what New Delhi would be hoping for. However, Putin may, in another scenario, convince Trump that the Taliban is no more than a localized insurgency. Trump, looking to cut down on the US’ global policing role, may choose to back the Russia-led coalition. This will not be an outcome to the liking of either Kabul or New Delhi. The Afghan government cannot be expected to fight the Taliban on its own if Trump decides to pare down US support substantially. A geographically disconnected India can do little to help in that case.

Irrespective of what Trumps opts for, India must begin to re-establish its contacts with the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. In tough times, it is always better to have support on the ground rather than to rely merely on principled speeches to be delivered in international conferences on Afghanistan. India’s own experience of supporting the Northern Alliance during the Taliban’s reign from 1996-2001 is testimony to that.

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Published: 17 Jan 2017, 11:50 PM IST
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