In several ways, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan can be a game-changer in India’s worldview and policymaking strategies. New Delhi wants to play a role in shaping the future of that country, but no one sees any role, even a secondary one, for India. Irrespective of India’s likes and dislikes, the neighbouring countries—Pakistan, Iran, China and the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—will be mainly involved in Afghanistan and its future trajectory. Any Indian role in Afghanistan will have to be approved and coordinated with one of these countries. We can rule out Pakistan and China as potential conduits; just as India is not comfortable working with them, both will not want a role for New Delhi, at least not until they are sucked into an Afghan quagmire.
The great power game over Afghanistan exposed the faultlines of India’s engagements with the world, but it can also be an opportunity if the nation learns from this. First and foremost, statecraft is not a monastery where moral righteousness prevails over all other considerations. How many nations will be ready to confront Iran over the treatment of Baha’is, Myanmar over Rohingyas or China of Uyghur Muslims? Moral high ground is good but is a costly and painful road for states. At the same time, can one ignore the challenges of inclusivity, peaceful transition, and gender and minority rights in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? Exclusive reliance on realism will make states greedy and unethical players who enjoy, benefit and, in the process, perpetuate the miseries of others.
Finding a balance is the real challenge, moderating the Taliban without providing legitimacy to their orthodoxy. Conditional engagement in line with national interests and ethos is the only way forward. In practical terms, this means that formal Indian diplomatic recognition will be a slow process and is conditional upon the Taliban being different and more moderate than its earlier avatar. Other incentives and opportunities can also accompany political recognition.
Two, India will have to scale up its engagement with Iran and Central Asian Republics for a role in Afghanistan. This is easier said than done. India had a roller coaster ride with Iran, at least since the outbreak of the nuclear controversy in 2003. Its willingness to forge energy security relations with Tehran—as outlined in the Delhi Declaration signed during the visit of President Mohammed Khatami in January that year—was undermined by American pressures over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In the following years, India increasingly came under American diktats and virtually stopped oil imports in 2019. Lacking foresight, India did not capitalise on the limited opportunities under the Trump administration when the Chabahar port was exempted from sanctions. Things have not improved even under the Biden administration and hence, Iran will be less eager to cooperate with India over Afghanistan, especially when China and Russia are scaling up Tehran’s regional profile through political, economic and strategic investments. Iran’s 15-year wait ended this September when it joined the China-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a full member. Thus, tangible and significant Indian assistance—shelter, food and medical and health facilities—to Afghan refugees in Iran and also to Central Asia can be a start.
Three, the decade-long Sino-Russian partnership vis-a-vis the Syrian crisis transformed when China took the lead on Afghanistan. Not prepared to return to the Soviet policies of the 1980s, Moscow is happy to play a second fiddle to Beijing. In practice, this means the former acceding to the latter’s veto over any Indian role in Afghanistan. Short of the Sino-Pakistani efforts collapsing, India will find little common ground with Moscow on Afghanistan.
Four, catastrophic and shameful as it is, the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a lesson for India. External assistance is not an undated blank cheque; it always has an expiry date. Friendships and alliances are predicated on shared interests and deliverables. States will have to ask: Is the price worth paying? Is it value for money? Not just the US but also India will have to ask these uncomfortable questions constantly. Irrespective of the nomenclature, partnership in international relations is never open-ended. States constantly make a cost-benefit analysis and often operate behind the backs of their friends and allies. For example, the US and Australia kept the other two Quad members—India and Japan—in the dark about AUKUS. Likewise, the French fury over the new alliance will overshadow India’s strategic engagements with the US and UK.
Thus, the Afghan crisis can be an opportunity if the Ministry of External Affairs undertakes a ruthless cost-benefit analysis of India’s assets and liabilities and asks some uncomfortable questions. What are the relative advantages and drawbacks of all major players in Afghanistan? How are they better placed in Afghanistan than India? What time frame does India need to become relevant in Afghanistan, and what will its interim strategy be? Can India deliver what it promises or live up to the expectations of others? Are there any like-minded countries that aspire for a role in Afghanistan but are unwanted today? And how to increase its leverage and utility vis-a-vis Iran, Russia and Central Asian republics and become relevant in their Afghan strategy?
For an effective Afghan strategy, the government should ignore the ‘wisdom’ of instant experts, three-plus-one elite (read three articles on a subject then write the fourth) and the pontification of ordinary minds, hardcore ideologues and perennial weathercocks that change with the wind. Rather, it should delve into institutional memory and explore and re-examine the assessments of Indian missions over the years; even if their final assessment is sometimes coloured by ideological bias or are rarely acted upon, these dispatches are professional, detailed and above all factual. It is time to look inwards for an effective outlook.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there