Home / Opinion / Columns /  How India can guard its interests should Kabul fall to the Taliban

As the prospect of Taliban bands fighting their way to Kabul becomes more likely with the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, there is a growing perception in New Delhi that, as a newspaper editorial put it, for India the situation “holds no glad tidings, good options or even a silver lining." The concern is that if the Taliban regain power, not only will India lose influence, but also that battle-hardened Islamist militants will turn their attentions to Kashmir, just as they did 30 years ago after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan.

Well, as much as these fears and concerns are genuine, they are also overblown. International politics is vastly different today from what it was in 1991 or even 2001. The return of the Taliban will be terrible for the people of their unfortunate country, but it does not automatically follow that they will pose the same kind of threat to India as they did in the 1990s. Even then, their hostility towards India was found to be driven more by the agenda of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and less by any intrinsic animosity towards us. In recent times, their adversarial position towards New Delhi has been in response to India’s support for the Afghan government and, until recently, the refusal to talk to them.

It is unlikely that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will have the same level of control over the Taliban as that apparatus once did. Even if Rawalpindi somehow manages to exert control over Afghanistan’s security policies, Pakistan will not get the same free pass from the West as it did under America’s Bill Clinton administration. Neither the United States nor the Gulf Arab states will turn a blind eye to cross-border terrorism. Pakistan will have to depend on China, Russia and Turkey for cover. Even if these countries decide to act as apologists for Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, they will do so in the face of opposition from the West. It’s a wholly different world today.

And Pakistan’s leaders are well aware of this. Far from salivating over ‘strategic depth’ against India, they know that they have a massive problem on their hands. A surge of armed conflict across the Durand Line will come with all the destabilizing spillovers that Pakistan experienced a generation ago. This time Islamabad has no generous dollops of foreign aid for the asking either. Foreign powers will expect Pakistan to intercede with and manage the Taliban. But the military establishment’s hold on militant groups today is a whole lot weaker than they make it out to be. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, is quite possibly a very worried man. Having spent most of his tenure trying to stabilize Pakistan, he is unlikely to want to push foreign fighters across the border into India, at least not right now.

Of course, we can’t be sure of the Pakistani general’s prudence or good sense. But we can encourage it indirectly. It has been clear for over two decades now that an effective way to influence Pakistan’s behaviour is by talking to its sponsors. For this, India has a number of options to pursue. Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have a significant congruence of interests with New Delhi on various issues, including terrorism. Beijing and Moscow might not share interests, but have multiple touchpoints with New Delhi, the totality of which could be leveraged. All this simply means that India is not short of options to secure itself from the risk of a repeat of the 1990s.

What about India’s influence over Afghanistan? Let’s face it: It was not much to begin with. It is important to recognize this when considering what to do. The debate is caught in a false binary: Should India back the beleaguered Afghan national government or the rampant Taliban? Such a framing of the choice set neglects the important question of whether India’s backing can tilt the scales enough for it to matter.

There is, in fact, a third option: To sit back, observe what happens, and amplify the contradictions among the various powers that have stepped in. For the Taliban, Uyghurs of China’s northwest Xinjiang province are co- religionists just across the border. For many Pashtuns of Pakistan’s frontier region, the Pakistani army is an enemy that is oppressing their ethnic brethren across a colonial border they have never recognized. The Russians, for their part, would not mind their Chinese allies getting a bloody nose. The Chinese, being nobody’s fools, are unlikely to want to be the latest foreign power to enjoy the delights of Afghan politics. Each of these fault lines presents New Delhi with levers.

So those who argue that India has no good options in the face of a Taliban grab of power in Kabul are looking in the wrong place. Note that New Delhi has fewer constraints on employing an information offensive than political or military instruments. Exposing the truth to appropriate audiences at well chosen moments can advance India’s interests in the region very effectively. This is a good opportunity to build the offensive information and cyber capabilities that India needs anyway.

Tailpiece: New Delhi cannot control how Kabul will affect Kashmir. But it can entirely control how it will affect Kashmir. The road to Srinagar runs entirely through Indian territory.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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