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Afghanistan: A new Pandora's box opens for India

An official welcomes the child of an Indian diplomat who was evacuated from Kabul after the city was seized by the Taliban (Photo: AFP)Premium
An official welcomes the child of an Indian diplomat who was evacuated from Kabul after the city was seized by the Taliban (Photo: AFP)

  • The fall of Kabul puts India at a severe disadvantage. Is New Delhi better prepared for Taliban 2.0?
  • Between 1996 and 2001, a resistance movement against the Taliban comprising local warlords in Afghanistan was backed by India, Iran and Russia. In 2021, there is no such formation yet

Nazir Ahmed, aged 35, hails from Afghanistan’s capital—Kabul—but has spent the better part of the previous decade within classrooms at Indian universities. Since Sunday, however, books have taken a back seat. Ahmed has been devoting most of his time towards efforts to find a shelter for fellow Afghans who have fled from Kabul and arrived in India after the Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August.

“Everyone is terrified," said Ahmed when asked about the situation back home. “Everyone wants to leave. Many remember life under the Taliban and do not want to face it again," he said.

Over the past few weeks, the Taliban, who were ousted by US-led troops in 2001, have made a stunning run through the country. The rebel group now effectively controls 90% of the landlocked country, which lies at the crossroads of central and southern Asia. After the Taliban fighters entered the capital on Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani, whom India had backed, resigned and left the country. Ghani is reportedly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“We never imagined this would happen," said Ahmed on the swift collapse of the Ghani government. Since Sunday, there have been many meetings in Kabul. The Taliban have said they will put in place an “open, inclusive government". But Ahmed and several other Afghan nationals are wary of such claims. “In Kabul, things may be different, but I have spoken to people in the provinces and there, the Taliban are back to their repressive ways," he said.

The Taliban’s ascendancy puts Pakistan on top in the “Great Game" for influence in Afghanistan, given that Islamabad is the main backer of the rebel group. By extension, the events of this week put India at a severe disadvantage. Among the nations that ring Afghanistan—several central Asian states, Russia, Iran and China—some have welcomed the Taliban’s victory while others have been a bit more cautious. However, nearly every neighbouring country is somewhat wary of the Taliban’s extremist ideology spilling over across the border, either into central Asia or into China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.

“We (India) are in the worst possible situation. Many of the main players have contiguity in Afghanistan, but we don’t have it," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “Pakistan through its contacts with the Taliban is not going to promote Islamic radicalization or terrorism in the neighbouring countries, whether it is China, central Asia, Russia or Iran. But they will try to do it with India because Pakistan has been involved in this since the mid-1980s. So, the Pakistan-Taliban connection is a specific problem for us, which other countries don’t have. That is why they (other countries) have taken a more open view. We are in a vulnerable position," he said. “We have no other choice but to anticipate the impact of this on our region and take steps in that regard," he added.

Advantage Pakistan?

From a friendly government in Kabul since 2001 to an administration that draws sustenance from Pakistan in 2021, India is suddenly looking at an uneasy relationship with Afghanistan again. New Delhi did not have diplomatic presence in Afghanistan between 1996-2001.

With the Taliban takeover on Sunday, New Delhi has swiftly reduced its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. All Indian diplomatic staff have been withdrawn from Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad. The missions remain open though, staffed only by Afghans for the time being. For Pakistan, the diminished Indian presence is the fulfilment of a long-expressed desire. Islamabad has always complained about India’s allegedly outsized diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and has accused the missions of fomenting trouble against Pakistan.

Indian nationals aboard a military aircraft set to depart Kabul airport on 17 August;
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Indian nationals aboard a military aircraft set to depart Kabul airport on 17 August; (Photo: AFP)

Nazir Ahmed, aged 35, hails from Afghanistan’s capital—Kabul—but has spent the better part of the previous decade within classrooms at Indian universities. Since Sunday, however, books have taken a back seat. Ahmed has been devoting most of his time towards efforts to find a shelter for fellow Afghans who have fled from Kabul and arrived in India after the Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August.

“Everyone is terrified," said Ahmed when asked about the situation back home. “Everyone wants to leave. Many remember life under the Taliban and do not want to face it again," he said.

Over the past few weeks, the Taliban, who were ousted by US-led troops in 2001, have made a stunning run through the country. The rebel group now effectively controls 90% of the landlocked country, which lies at the crossroads of central and southern Asia. After the Taliban fighters entered the capital on Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani, whom India had backed, resigned and left the country. Ghani is reportedly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“We never imagined this would happen," said Ahmed on the swift collapse of the Ghani government. Since Sunday, there have been many meetings in Kabul. The Taliban have said they will put in place an “open, inclusive government". But Ahmed and several other Afghan nationals are wary of such claims. “In Kabul, things may be different, but I have spoken to people in the provinces and there, the Taliban are back to their repressive ways," he said.

The Taliban’s ascendancy puts Pakistan on top in the “Great Game" for influence in Afghanistan, given that Islamabad is the main backer of the rebel group. By extension, the events of this week put India at a severe disadvantage. Among the nations that ring Afghanistan—several central Asian states, Russia, Iran and China—some have welcomed the Taliban’s victory while others have been a bit more cautious. However, nearly every neighbouring country is somewhat wary of the Taliban’s extremist ideology spilling over across the border, either into central Asia or into China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.

“We (India) are in the worst possible situation. Many of the main players have contiguity in Afghanistan, but we don’t have it," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “Pakistan through its contacts with the Taliban is not going to promote Islamic radicalization or terrorism in the neighbouring countries, whether it is China, central Asia, Russia or Iran. But they will try to do it with India because Pakistan has been involved in this since the mid-1980s. So, the Pakistan-Taliban connection is a specific problem for us, which other countries don’t have. That is why they (other countries) have taken a more open view. We are in a vulnerable position," he said. “We have no other choice but to anticipate the impact of this on our region and take steps in that regard," he added.

Advantage Pakistan?

From a friendly government in Kabul since 2001 to an administration that draws sustenance from Pakistan in 2021, India is suddenly looking at an uneasy relationship with Afghanistan again. New Delhi did not have diplomatic presence in Afghanistan between 1996-2001.

With the Taliban takeover on Sunday, New Delhi has swiftly reduced its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. All Indian diplomatic staff have been withdrawn from Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad. The missions remain open though, staffed only by Afghans for the time being. For Pakistan, the diminished Indian presence is the fulfilment of a long-expressed desire. Islamabad has always complained about India’s allegedly outsized diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and has accused the missions of fomenting trouble against Pakistan.

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According to analysts, one thing that the fall of Kabul is unlikely to change is the goodwill for India among common people. Since 2001, India has built the Afghan parliament building, the Salma dam in Herat province, which generates electricity and irrigates 75,000 hectares of agricultural land, and the 202-kilometre-long electricity transmission line connecting Pul-e-Khumri in the north of the country to Kabul. Nearly $3 billion has gone into the development assistance partnership programme. New Delhi’s offer of granting visas to Afghans who wish to flee the country is also being seen a lifeline from a friendly nation. “Even if we are able to bring out 1,000 people to India, it would be equivalent to saving many lives," said Ahmed, a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

So, is India’s position better in 2021 than in 1996? “It is tough to answer that in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ manner," said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank. “I would say that in 2021, India is in a better position in the larger regional context than it was in 1996. There was a lot of political instability in India in 1996. India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and the subsequent rapprochement with the US changed India’s overall profile. The overall change that we see in the last decade has improved India’s ability to deal with various challenges. India is in a relatively more robust position now. But specific to Afghanistan—it has fewer options now than it had in late-2001," Bhaskar said.

The India-Pakistan equation makes New Delhi’s outreach to the Taliban a bit complicated. There have been some contacts, but there is no official confirmation from New Delhi, indicating that it may still be early days for the prospect of a direct channel of communication.

“They should approach us if they think they want ties with India," said Dilip Sinha, a former foreign ministry official who was in charge of the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desk between 2005-2007. “Feelers can be sent. But I think there is virtue in waiting and watching what happens after the Americans leave (the date for a full withdrawal is set for 31 August)," he said.

The last time the Taliban were in power between 1996 and 2001, there was a resistance group headed by the Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masood (Masood was assassinated in 2001 two days before the 9/11 attacks in the US). There were also many anti-Taliban warlords—Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum being one of them. Dostum had his militia defend the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Together, these amounted to small pockets of resistance against the Taliban. India along with Iran and Russia had backed this alliance against the Taliban in the late-1990s.

In 2021, there is no such formation yet. Many local warlords folded swiftly instead of putting up a fight against the Taliban during their march to Kabul. Dostum and another New Delhi-backed warlord—Atta Mohammed Noor—have reportedly fled to Uzbekistan. The one exception seems to be the former Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh. He is believed to be in Afghanistan and had declared himself president (after Ashraf Ghani resigned from the post). News reports indicate that he is in the Panjshir valley, which is famous for being the erstwhile hideout of Masood. In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Saleh said: “As per (the) constitution of (Afghanistan), in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President, the FVP (first vice president) becomes the caretaker President. I am currently inside my country & am the legitimate caretaker President. (I) (a)m reaching out to all leaders to secure their support & consensus (sic)." This may be the beginning of a new resistance movement, but its future is as yet unclear.

Diplomatic dilemma

If India, Iran and Russia were the main backers of an Afghan resistance movement against the Taliban in the late 90s, in 2021, Russia could be among the first group of nations to recognize the Taliban government in Kabul. Russia and Iran have had contacts with the Taliban for years. Russia, China and Pakistan are among the countries that have not moved their diplomats out of Kabul since the Taliban takeover.

“In the past, the Taliban had made themselves very unpopular in the world, both by their actions as well as their policies. This time, they are behaving in a much more restrained manner. So, it makes the (diplomatic) task difficult for us," said former foreign ministry official Sinha. “Arguments that we must go ahead and recognize the Taliban will be made. It will be a challenge because we don’t know how things will shape up in the next few months," he said.

Speculation is rife that China could be the first country to recognize the Taliban government. Beijing’s statement on Monday said that it “welcomed" the opportunity to deepen ties with Afghanistan. Beijing is also said to have an eye on Afghanistan’s enormous mineral wealth that could spur growth in China as it competes with the US on the global stage.

Should Russia and China recognize a new Taliban-led government, the regime will have the backing of two permanent members on the UN Security Council—a move that will strengthen the regime’s legitimacy. Among the countries that could join Russia and China in recognizing the Taliban are Turkey, Iran and Qatar, where the Taliban have had a political office since 2013. Compared to 1996, the Taliban will be in a much better position if this happens. Back then, it was recognized only by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan.

The security situation

The biggest worry for India remains the potential for Afghanistan to turn into a breeding ground for anti-India terror groups once again. Terrorist training camps run by anti-India groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba existed in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan between 1996-2001.

The prospect of a return to this dark period is a serious worry for New Delhi. And not without reason—in 1999, four Pakistani terrorists hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu and diverted it to Kandahar, Afghanistan. There, under the watchful eyes of the Taliban, the hijackers secured the release of terrorist leaders—Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Omar Saeed Sheikh in exchange for the airline’s 160 passengers. The memory of that incident still haunts India. The number of terrorist attacks in India had also spiked between 1996 and 2001. Should terror camps spawn once again in Afghanistan, India may have limited military options. Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based Kings’ College, said: “The geography is such that any attack on India can happen only via Pakistan. India reserves the right to retaliate in self-defence."

Moving the anti-India terrorist camps to Afghanistan could also serve Islamabad’s interests in another way. It could strengthen its hand against the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF). As long as the camps are not on Pakistan soil, it might help Islamabad make its case for an exit from the global money laundering watchdog’s “grey list". FATF had placed Pakistan on its “grey list" in 2018 due to inadequate controls over terrorism financing. Post 2018, foreign firms have been exceedingly cautious about investing in Pakistan.

Thus, in many ways, the changed reality in Kabul will leave behind ripples that will surface at international fora for many years to come. For instance, even the development of the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, first conceptualized in 2003, could go into a limbo now.

The port was supposed to unlock a new route for India into the landlocked central Asia and Afghanistan by bypassing Pakistan. New Delhi had also helped build the Zaranj Delaram highway in 2009. But certain sections of the railway line from the Chabahar port to the highway and the development of the port itself had been delayed due to US-sponsored economic sanctions on Iran, which were aimed at stalling the country’s suspected nuclear weapons programme. India had recently supplied some heavy lift cranes to the port to enhance its cargo handling capacity. However, with the recent developments in Afghanistan, analysts are unsure whether the port development would be worth it.

“Chabahar is (already) difficult because of Iran-US relations…and our (improving) relations with a host of countries that Iran is hostile to, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE and the US," Sinha said. “But I think we should put some money on it to keep us in the game."

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