India’s policy has been focused on maintaining neutrality and the achievement of peace, New Delhi need not bear much responsibility for the current security situation.
Afghanistan has become the focal point of attention once again. The Taliban have finally taken Kabul. The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has left for Tajikistan, and the country is without proper mechanisms for administration. Many are lamenting the situation in Afghanistan, and uncertainty is looming about the future of the highly volatile country. Indeed the vicissitudes for it have been too heavy.
One has to consider that the Taliban have been the masters of a well-planned strategy. From the moment of their ouster by the West in 2001, they retreated, resorting to tactics that minimized the scope of a direct confrontation. A change in the outlook regarding America’s forever war provided them with an opportunity for reconstruction. They slowly amplified their activities, and an example is opening an office in Doha (2013).
The Taliban took advantage of the capriciousness which characterized former U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. The agreement with the United States granted them recognition of them being a legitimate party and a written promise of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They agreed to commence negotiations with the Afghan government, showing the world a willingness to adopt peaceful methods. A clever approach was maintained throughout the negotiations. The Taliban, while participating in the peace talks didn’t show convergence on some issues, examples being the Talibani passivity in maintaining the prisoner swap agreed to between both sides and the continuation of terrorist attacks.
The acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for the Taliban to start their offensives, albeit slowly. Enter into 2021, and the Taliban mount their attacks while at the same time sending their representatives to various countries, their spokespersons assuring the international media that they support stability through legitimate procedures. Come August 2021, and the world is witness to the rapid fall of Afghan provincial capitals into the hands of the Taliban and on the second Sunday of this month, they enter Kabul.
The Taliban had been aware of the fact that the negotiations in Doha wouldn’t be conducive to their objectives. Emboldened by the agreement in February 2020 with the United States, they took a resort to arms. Control over nearly the whole country gives them colossal leverage and has secured them a fortified place in deciding the country's future.
The question that now arises is that what are the prospects for India? Our Afghan policy has neither been as deep as the U.S.A nor as shallow as that of Japan. The Indian investment in Afghanistan has been more concentrated towards facilitating the development of Afghanistan, with Foreign minister Dr. S. Jaishankar stating that India has undertaken “400+ projects in 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces” at the Geneva conference held in 2020. As of July 2021, Indian investment in Afghanistan totalled $ 3 billion, much of which sans demand for reciprocity.
But the point of contention is our engagement and our role in the future of the country. Denunciation of the Taliban and the near absence of statements by the Indian government regarding the spiralling situation in Afghanistan as of now raises many questions. How will India assert its role in the new circumstances which have provided other regional players to reinforce their clout in the war-torn nation?
The withdrawal of the West has created a vacuum that Russia and China, our partners-cum- adversaries, are seeking to fill. The Taliban’s solemn promises to China regarding the security of their interests and their acceptance of the Chinese narrative of its activities in Xinjiang signal many things. The Russians are the principal backers behind the PAKFUZ initiative under which Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have agreed to build a trilateral railway network. Admiration of the Afghan public and the general hatred towards our rival Pakistan can be touted as a source of strength. But these aren’t fruitful in a country where the few based on their armed prowess decide the nation's affairs.
This forced neutrality requires a break, and we need a source through which we can come to terms with the changing landscape in our neighbourhood. The Islamic Republic of Iran can aid us in this pursuit. It isn’t without reason that Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar has visited Iran twice within one month. Chabahar port is an example that is always touted to symbolise our convergent interests with Iran. But there are other spheres too where Indo-Iran ties can play a role. The precarious situation in Afghanistan is going to be challenging for Tehran. An influx of refugees is expected, with some seeking habitation while many are traversing Iran to reach Turkey or Europe. Also to be mentioned is the fact that Afghanistan could also become a breeding ground for anti-Shiite extremists and other terrorist groups.
The Pakistani backing of the Taliban is also a major factor which New Delhi can use in its engagement with Tehran, thus converting its anti-terrorism stance into a key asset. Iran is also seeking to invigorate its political clout in Western Asia. With the Iraqi assertion of independence in foreign affairs, the anti-establishment sentiment in Lebanon and the increasing isolation in its shadow war with Israel, a waning of the Iranian influence over Middle-Eastern affairs can be seen. Afghanistan can be an opportunity where Tehran could add vitality to its influence, and New Delhi can be a good partner for achieving that. Developments can reach a point where India and Iran together can provide a better alternative than the messy policies of the West and the cynicism that shrouds the Russians and the Chinese.
The situation in Afghanistan isn’t permanent, and any measure of stability will require some years, considering the number of interests covering the landlocked nation. Since India’s policy has been focused on maintaining neutrality and the achievement of peace, New Delhi need not bear much responsibility for the current security situation, which is also owed to its lack of engagement in that sphere. Engagement is much better than adopting a passive approach. This policy can bear some results, and at the same time, adaptability can be ensured towards any future development.
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