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With Taliban in Kabul, India’s Pakistan problem just got bigger

As Afghanistan under the Taliban will be an extension of Pakistan, India’s Afghanistan policy will now have to be dealt within its complex ties with Pakistan and China as well as domestic politics. Still, a comprehensive understanding of the Taliban may open some avenues for engagement 

September 07, 2021 / 12:20 PM IST
Taliban fighters stand guard outside the airport after the deadly attacks, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

Taliban fighters stand guard outside the airport after the deadly attacks, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

Though events are continuously unfolding in Afghanistan, the direction has been clear since August 15 — the Taliban has been consolidating its power. The world is eager to know the nature, structure and policy direction of its government. But the Taliban has never been in a hurry.

It waited 20 years for the United States to leave Afghanistan. For years, it engaged best of the western diplomats at Doha without giving any serious concessions or agreeing for a ceasefire. In the coming days or weeks, some ‘interim’ government will be in place. But still the world will never be sure about the true nature of its dealings with international terrorist groups or its treatment of women and minorities.

Traditionally, the Taliban has not compromised on its core beliefs. However, it has clearly understood the power of the media and western sensibilities. Given this, its spokespersons will continue to use eager global media to disseminate politically-correct views.

In the meanwhile, Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, etc. will facilitate the Taliban’s global engagements. The European Union (EU) and its member states have already agreed for an “operational engagement” with the new government through a joint EU presence in Kabul co-ordinated by the European External Action Service. The United Kingdom also intends direct engagements with the Taliban.

India’s declared policy is ‘wait and watch’. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has asserted that though New Delhi has had only limited conversation with the Taliban, it seems to be ‘reasonable on India’s concerns”.

Close

For those who are familiar with the geopolitics of the region, it is reasonable to assume that Afghanistan, under the Taliban, will be an extension of Pakistan. For India, there is no need to pretend or plan otherwise. The world knows about the Taliban’s linkages with Islamabad. It is not that the West is naïve, but for most of them the Taliban is not a direct threat at the moment. This ‘realisation’ — coming after two decades of US-led intervention — is reflected when The Economist says in an editorial that “Afghanistan is a backwater, with little geopolitical or economic significance”.

For India, Afghanistan’s major strategic significance has been in the context of difficult India-Pakistan ties. Once Kabul is closely linked with the Pakistani State, its own strategic significance will decline. However, India’s Pakistan problem will become bigger and perhaps more difficult to handle.

The problem is going to be further complicated due to Taliban-Pakistan-China axis as well as the Russian, Turkish and Iranian support to the Taliban. On top of it, the direct ‘engagement’ by the EU and some of its member states will provide de facto legitimacy to Pakistani design in South Central Asia.

Many countries are already turning to Islamabad for help in Afghanistan. In the last few days, foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have visited Pakistan. Many western nations are worried about Afghan refugees turning to their countries.

Most Indian analyses of the Taliban indicate one thing — its linkages with Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This is an established fact, reinforced with the ISI chief’s recent visit to Kabul. The question is how does New Delhi deal with the Taliban given this background?

For this, we need to study more carefully the Taliban’s nationalist ideology, justice system and interpretation of Afghan culture and traditions. New Delhi also needs to remember that for the past 10 years the Taliban has been controlling a significant part of rural Afghanistan. This understanding will be useful in the coming years for any meaning engagement in Afghanistan.

For India, Afghanistan has also been important for regional connectivity. Investments at the Chabahar port in Iran and the Zaranj-Delaram Road in Afghanistan were part of the strategy to bypass Pakistan. This approach is no longer valid. So, India has to sort out its connectivity issues with China and Pakistan first before thinking of any connectivity in Afghanistan.

New Delhi is still mainly trying to co-ordinate its Afghanistan policy with the US. But the US and the broader West will have a very limited interest in Afghanistan in the coming years. India’s strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan will now have to be dealt within its complex ties with Pakistan and China. Similar to Pakistan, the Taliban issue also has a huge significance in domestic politics. So domestic politics taking over India’s Afghanistan policy cannot be ruled out.

Gulshan Sachdeva is Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and headed the ADB and Asia Foundation projects at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul.

Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Gulshan Sachdeva is Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and headed the ADB and Asia Foundation projects at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul. Views are personal.  

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