India's regional challenges post US withdrawal in Afghanistan

The graveyard of Kings and empires, Afghanistan is of strategic interest to Pakistan, Russia, Iran and even China. What are the stakes for India? How are we going to deal with the Taliban?

Salma Dam built by India in Afghanistan
Salma Dam built by India in Afghanistan

Salman Khurshid

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan comes with little to show except having kept the Taliban at bay for twenty years. Now as the 11 September deadline approaches and the Bagram air base is handed over to Afghan military, many informed experts believe that the Taliban will inevitably take over the country in a few months, if not weeks.

There is no indication to suggest the Taliban are now reformed and wiser. The protracted negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban made little headway despite recent interest shown by China and Russia. We may therefore conclude that the Taliban will reoccupy the seat of power on their own terms.

One can only wonder what then will be the fate of President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah of the present governing establishment as indeed of former President Hamid Karzai in whom the world, including India, invested enormous time and resources.

Several years ago, during the second tenure of the UPA government, India’s generous financial, development and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan was much appreciated. With a 3-billion dollar support that included 200 schools, the new Parliament building, 10,000 scholarships and 16,000 student intake into Indian institutions, we were way ahead of the world in standing by Afghanistan.

The Salma Dam, renamed the Indo-Afghan friendship dam, stands out conspicuously. But we sensed that there might be an unarticulated expectation of assistance in the form of military weapons. We were already helping with police training and refurbishing of non-lethal equipment and vehicles but obviously had reservations about offering outright military weapons. We did gift three Mi-25 helicopters. But at each stage we carefully watched for any move by Afghanistan to reach out to Pakistan and China.

We were confident that President Karzai preferred India to Pakistan and often in formal or informal conversations made that obvious. Yet there was the pressure that he had to deal with. Fortunately, the growing engagement of the US forces and the completion of President Karzai’s Presidential tenure enabled us to avoid having to respond explicitly to the discomforting expectation.

India’s contribution to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, some of which I had the privilege to see personally during my several visits to that country, was indeed very impressive. So was the appreciation we received from the MPs, trainee journalists, civil servants who benefitted from our training programmes and ordinary citizens of Afghanistan who have traditionally felt a close relationship with the citizens of India.

But of course, we cannot forget that Afghanistan is comprised of more than Pashtuns (we know them as Pathans) and Turks; Hazaras etc. have a strong presence, both in numbers and military strength. In dealing with Afghanistan at least India cannot deal only with Pashtuns, who are to be found on both sides of the Durand line and therefore under direct influence of Pakistan.

This will get even more messy if the Taliban takeover of Kabul spills into a civil war once again, uncovering the scars of the past conflict that lasted for decades before the Russians stepped in to preserve the embattled ‘Left inclined Afghans’ with whom India too had very good relations.


When as Foreign Minister I pursued the plans for increasing assistance to Afghanistan, my senior colleague, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, repeatedly forewarned that the generosity shown by India would finally drop into the lap of the Taliban with whom we had no sympathy; nor any hope or expectation to secure a working relationship if they came to power, if at all.

The red lines were clear and so was the future prospects to the objective mind of P Chidambaram. We may thus have to admit that he was indeed clairvoyant when we were perhaps struggling to keep the romantic commitment to the peaceful, inclusive Afghanistan we were accustomed to before the civil war and the birth of Taliban.

Even more important than predicting the future of Afghanistan is to understand where we stand with it today.

When the initiative for talks was taken by Qatar, the US and UK, despite nudging them we had no clear response, not to mention any involvement. After all, as part of India’s extended neighbourhood, we have a stake in the region. Since 2007 Afghanistan is a member of the SAARC.

Any major tilt towards political Islam and revival of the unacceptable political ideology that caused the destruction of the Bamiyan statues and possibly the attacks on Indian missions that took innocent Indian lives cannot quietly be introduced into our foreign policy even if our friends in the US hope that we will take to realpolitik to fill the gap they leave behind.

It is not just a matter of likes and dislikes but the implications that developments in Afghanistan will have for the sub-continental strategic situation. Yet one hears of secretive talks in Qatar with a view to mediate between India and Taliban.

It may pass muster with the embattled establishment in Kabul but one wonders about the impact on the erstwhile Northern Alliance that had great goodwill for India when it was battling the Taliban. Furthermore, what will happen to our formal strategic partnership with Afghanistan under the Taliban?

We seem to be moving very rapidly towards a storm without adequate protection and preparation. If the tremors travel to the troubled parts of northern India, the government will find its event management technique of politics under great stress.

The dramatic steps taken by the present government to put J&K on track with the national ambition and obsession of the government have already been subjected to some rethink, believed to be under the persuasion of the new administration in Washington. Time will tell if it is just symbolic optics or a real-life game of ‘trick or treat’.

But we cannot ignore important departures in the time-tested Indian position of not encouraging honest brokers in dealing with bilateral issues with Pakistan. Of course, mixed signals continue to emanate from our neighbourhood in terms of public statements of the Chief of Army Staff and Prime Minister Imran Khan and not to mention the recent display of audacity in the use of armed drones.

The neat bifurcation of good and bad objects of foreign policy, mirroring the similar divide in domestic political landscape is beginning to reach its ‘sell by date’ if the RSS Chief’s recent comments on lynching is anything to go by.

India’s attractive markets and impressive military may no longer strike a chord with the post-pandemic world because of our insipid record of handling serious crisis. We may no longer have the muscle to flex, at least for a while, till we put our economy back where it belongs.

With all that, we have not figured out China’s intentions and determination to dominate the world. Although the unpleasant exchange with China a year ago may have been successfully clouded for public perception, it remains a permanent thorn.

A turbulent Afghanistan and short-sighted Pakistan will only add to the sting. India will thus have to watch its step. The Government of India will do well to share its endeavour with the Opposition, because there will be no kudos to claim monopoly over for a while.

(The writer is a former External Affairs Minister of India. Views are personal)

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