India’s future in Afghanistan

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Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai

When the Taliban negotiated with the US in Doha, India was the only country that showed its concerns and was not happy over the agreement as the dominance of the Taliban in Afghanistan would affect its interest, Carnegie India wrote in a report in June 2020. India had a significant role in post-9/11 Afghanistan, where it had the US support to play its part in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, especially in health, education, and infrastructure. However, India’s deep engagement in Afghanistan ended with shutting the last Indian consulate in Mazar Sharif in August 2021. India’s opposition to the return of the Taliban was logical as its relationship with the group had never been smooth in the past. Though India reopened its embassy in Kabul in late June, India’s future remains bleak in Afghanistan, considering the following factors.

First, the historical distrust is a significant factor that would keep both the parties — India and Taliban — quite cautious regarding any deep cooperation in the future. India has opposed the Taliban since their emergence in 1994. Likewise, in the 1990s, India, Russia, and Iran used to back the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Similarly, when the Taliban were toppled following the US intervention in Afghanistan, the key ministries remained with the Northern Alliance that, along with the US support, provided India an ample chance to expand its clout in Afghanistan. Hence, while investing in Afghanistan, India put its premium on building its soft power, which was achieved to a large extent. At the same time, India supported the US efforts to dismantle the Taliban, which the Taliban will hardly do. India believed real peace could only come to Afghanistan once all terrorist groups (including the Taliban) were eliminated (Middle East Institute, November 1, 2017). Hence, a general suspicion on the part of India and deep suspicion on the part of the Taliban will not allow them to engage deeply, making India’s future bleak in Afghanistan.

Secondly, Pakistan, is also a factor in India’s engagement with the Taliban. If India-Taliban comes close, it would affect Pakistan’s interests or lead to a more significant Indian role in Afghanistan — like the post-9/11. Pakistan accuse India of using Afghan and Iranian soil against Pakistan and gave empirical pieces of evidence like Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was arrested in March 2016 in Balochistan. Pakistan assumed the return of the Taliban would help its grim security situation as the Taliban time and again pledged they would not allow the Afghan soil to be used against any state. However, following the Taliban takeover, the TTP attacks accelerated in Pakistan, a pretty unexpected move for Islamabad. Hence, India’s efforts to again use the Afghan soil will provide for serious concerns on the part of Islamabad. Being neighbor, Taliban need Pakistan more than India, and Pakistan wants stable and smooth relations with the Taliban and expect the same from the other side.

Thirdly, China is another factor that makes India’s future bleak in Afghanistan. It does not mean China would block India from playing any role in Afghanistan but will not allow it to play a profound role that could affect China-Pakistan interests. China plans to expand CPEC to Afghanistan, and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has also to pass through Afghanistan. China is investing in Afghanistan and working to build profound relations with the Taliban and its soft image. In case of a robust Indian presence or involvement, it will affect the Chinese interests. On the contrary, India believes China’s efforts are meant to further its strategic and commercial interests rather than adopting a conflict-resolution approach.

Fourthly, religion is also a factor that will affect Taliban-India’s deep engagement. Inculcated with the Wahabi ideology, the Taliban would not believe in what India promised them. Ideologies play a role in relations between states. Taliban are fundamental Muslims; hence, they will not go for unlimited cooperation with non-Muslims or to allow them to use their soil. The element of religion is deep-rooted in the Afghans. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Afghanistan in 1970, religion has been the main driver of politics and conflict. We saw resistance against Soviet interference by religious circles throughout the 1980s.

Similarly, Sardar Daoud had a tough time after his bloodless coup in 1973 because his policies were influenced by communism. Likewise, religion played a vital role during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Moreover, the post-9/11 Taliban struggle against the US was also based on religious doctrine: “We want to get out the infidels from our country,” Suhail Shaheen told me in a discussion. Hence, the Taliban would not tolerate any state who wanted to dictate their policies, even though they did not follow Pakistan’s dictation in the case of TTP despite Islamabad’s constant support. India would not be able to have a free hand in Afghanistan in the future to pursue its strategic interests.

Fifthly, in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no imminent partner for India who can support it. If there was Indian sway in post-9/11 Afghanistan, it had the US’ support  — to play its role in reconstruction. Two countries are close to the Taliban: Pakistan and China, and they are constantly supporting the Taliban. Furthermore. India would not hugely invest in Afghanistan as there is no guarantee of stability and certainty under Taliban rule. Besides, all political leaders who had close relations with India were out of government, which put India in a weaker position in Afghanistan. No one in the Taliban regime can lobby for India. India is also against the authoritarian rule that the Taliban are pursuing, which makes India’s future in Afghanistan grim.

For several reasons, India’s future in Afghanistan is desolate. India would take a long time to overhaul its relationship with the Taliban. However, there could be three scenarios where India could have a strong foothold in Afghanistan. First, in the case of India’s bonhomie with China to cooperate and invest in Afghanistan, that is incongruous. Second, a gap between the Taliban and Islamabad may allow India to assert its influence in Afghanistan. Third, in case of direct cooperation between the Taliban and India. One may argue the last scenario is likely in the light of the Taliban’s Defense Minister’s statement that there is ‘no issue’ in sending its army for training to India. However, comments often signal political gains and may hint to Islamabad that the Taliban have an option. Indeed, that statement would have alerted Islamabad, and the Taliban would extract something from it. Nevertheless, all these three scenarios are unlikely to happen sooner.

Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai is Senior Research Fellow at Center for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS) and author of The Troubled Triangle: US-Pakistan Relations under the Taliban’s Shadow (Routledge, 2022). He tweets @yousafzaiZafar5