India-mukt Afghanistan, as desired by Pakistan, will be nothing but a recipe for disaster. Even if we forget, for a moment, India’s generous humanitarian aid and infrastructural development assistance to Afghanistan, what New Delhi’s engagement with Kabul underscores is the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. That Pakistan has consistently violated that principle only enhances its value at an epochal moment when the United States, disgraced and defeated, is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan and its patron, the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan does not fritter away any single opportunity to marginalise India in Afghanistan. True to his style, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in an interview with an Afghan television channel, has again accused India of using Afghan soil against Pakistan. He even went to the extent of indirectly questioning Afghan sovereignty in deciding the nature and scope of its bilateral ties with India. Though Pakistan’s political rhetoric holds on to “Afghan-led, Afghan-ruled, and Afghan-controlled” resolution of the conflict, what Islamabad effectively aims to achieve is India-mukt Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Qureshi’s remarks have received severe condemnation from Afghan national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, who has earned considerable notoriety in Pakistan for his frequent acerbic comments about Islamabad’s pro-Taliban policies.
Pakistan appears to have gained the maximum advantage from the ensuing instability in Afghanistan. Its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has trained and equipped the Afghan Taliban in their fight against the Afghan government. With the US exit approaching fast, Pakistan seeks to exercise complete veto on Afghanistan’s internal and external affairs with the installation of a Taliban-dominated regime in Kabul. The reasoning is to keep India out of any reckoning in Afghan affairs. Thus, India’s primary objective in Afghanistan, after the US drawdown, will be to reduce Pakistan’s strategic influence so that Afghan soil is not used as a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups, particularly focused in Jammu and Kashmir.
Nevertheless, New Delhi’s policy toolbox for responding to the unfolding Afghan crisis remains fairly limited because India’s Afghan policy has generally suffered from the tension between idealistic thinking and the compulsions of power realities. Though India has finally abandoned the inexplicable policy of non-engagement with the Taliban, this only reinforces the impression of inconsistency of purpose and lack of a sense of clear direction. India’s official pronouncements regarding Afghan developments usually do not reflect a well-crafted policy grounded in power realities.
What India needs is a long-term strategic approach towards Afghanistan that weaves political, economic, military and diplomatic dimensions into a coherent whole within the framework of a grand strategy. India’s Afghan policy must be based on a clear-cut understanding of India’s strategic goals in the region, and the regional and global strategic environment. Though it is a bit late, yet India has taken the right decision by engaging the amenable section of the Afghan Taliban.
The creation of Pakistan has left India with an unrelenting violent conflict with the former and separated it geographically from Afghanistan and Iran. Currently, there are two wars in Afghanistan: One inside Afghanistan that has gone on against foreign intervention for the last four decades, and the other against the Afghan government from Pakistani soil causing a parallel internal disturbance. Since Pakistan’s key policy objective has been to establish its hegemony in Afghanistan, it views an independent Afghanistan that has a vibrant relationship with India as the main hurdle in the achievement of its hegemonic ambitions.
If Pakistan grants India overland access to Afghanistan, it will transform the entire region. But since there are no indications that in the foreseeable future Pakistan will give up its myopic strategic ambitions, it is the balance of power between India and Pakistan that is most likely going to determine the shape of their future relationship as well as the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan. Pakistan can be expected to employ every instrument of policy, overtly and covertly, to undermine the independent political voices in Afghanistan and to achieve the settlement of the Durand Line on its own terms. Needless to say, Pakistan’s Afghan policies have been a canny amalgam of misinformation, disinformation and manipulation backed by unabashed use of brute force through the Taliban and other terror outfits. That the contemporary Taliban leadership, due to their extensive social media exposure and their acknowledged dependence on continued Western financial assistance, has radically changed their worldview is not borne out by ground realities.
India should formulate its long-term Afghan policy keeping in view factors such as America’s need for tactical cooperation with Pakistan, China-Pakistan strategic coordination, and the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Though India cannot step up its military commitment to Afghanistan beyond what it is doing now, it will still need to closely work with the US, which carries substantial heft in Afghanistan’s political and economic circles, after its departure. Though New Delhi cannot influence the Biden administration’s approach toward Pakistan, efforts should be made to impress upon Washington that US–Pakistan relations should be redefined so as to ensure that any tactical accommodation between them comes with some strings attached.
Nearly four decades of Pakistan-engineered violent intervention in Afghanistan has led to significant breakdown of traditional authority and institutions in the country. Qureshi’s adverse remarks undoubtedly constitute another institutional humiliation for the Afghans, meant to degrade their self-worth and instill a sense of being unworthy of exercising strategic autonomy. An Afghanistan deprived of Indian presence would be nothing but another hapless province of Pakistan to be ruled by movers and shakers from Rawalpindi, and to be exploited by China through the Belt and Road Initiative. More problematically, India-mukt Afghanistan will not only compound the humiliating experiences of the Afghan people by way of rollback of their basic freedoms, but also create a breeding ground for various jihadist organisations, ready to escalate religious and sectarian conflicts across the region. Thus, the more Afghans come to believe that they deserve a dignified life defined in terms of rights to freedom, education and safety, the more they will become critical of Pakistan’s attempts to marginalise India from their socio-political life.
This article was first published on ORF.