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by Aditya Raj 1 October 2019

Afghanistan has always played a very important role in moulding the history and geography of India and was indispensable to the security of India. But besides being a vital security factor, it has also remained a challenge for India for a very long period in history as well as in this new world order. Talking about Indo-afghan ties in the previous two decades after the ouster of Taliban regime, magnanimous amount of assistance amounting to a total of US $1.2 billion has been provided by India for reconstruction and nation building in diverse areas. In fact, when in January 2019, Donald Trump mocked India of not doing enough for Afghanistan, the Indian government revealed projects worth $3 billion which India is pursuing in Afghanistan, these include the construction of Afghan Parliament worth $90 million, the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (earlier known as Salma Dam) worth $290 million, the Delaram-Zaranz Highway worth $135 million and many such projects.

India’s main aim in the great game of Afghanistan has always been limiting Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, in fact, the ISI, and the CIA to some extent, offered  complete support to Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar in setting up the Taliban and providing it financial and military aid in 1994 when it comprised of merely 50 Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan. The regime of Taliban with overwhelming support of Pakistan and the hosting of al-qaeda supreme leaders’ by Taliban during 1996-2001 had been perceived as a major threat to India due to Pakistan’s association with radical jihadist groups in order to promote its dirty game in Kashmir and its self-perceived identity of destroyer of India and revivalist of Islam.

After the end of cold war, India lost a very major partner and a friend with the disintegration of Soviet Union. In order to redefine and align its foreign and economic policy and bring it at par with the new world order, India didn’t pay enough attention to the civil war in Afghanistan and subsequently the rise of Afghan Taliban. A secular and civilized country like India can never imagine to maintain ties with a regime like Taliban, a radical jihadist terrorist organization and as a result of this, India’s ties with Taliban hit a new low and the Taliban also started considering India as an enemy and a major existential threat due to India’s support for Northern Alliance. Now with a major possibility of Taliban’s revival in Afghanistan, we need to ponder over the challenges which are faced by India with respect to security, both internal and at a global level, and foreign policy.

A fear that the revival of Taliban will destabilize Afghanistan and impact India in terms of an increase in jihadist attacks is a real one. It will affect overseas investments in India, and will affect India politically, economically and diplomatically. One of the first measures India can take is bringing the global community together to lean hard on Pakistan, the terror exporter of Indian subcontinent, and pressurizing it to root out terrorism from its soil and stop providing moral support and flow of arms in Afghanistan. Taliban’s well-known source of funding during its regime was narcotics which was smuggled by Pakistan into the Afghan territory, the global community needs to keep an eye on this issue too. Secondly, instead of complaining about the unplanned and US exit of Afghanistan in haste, the New India as envisioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, should be willing to take the ball in its own court. India should not be reluctant to use hard-power unlike it did during all these years which left the Northern Alliance and other rivals of Taliban hardly with any sophisticated weapons and state of the art technology to fight Taliban, all it was able to do it was to flaunt its soft power in terms of development projects and educational aid.

The US invaded Afghanistan to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice but ended up using it as another economic support and military base to throw weight in matters concerning Central and South Asia and counter its two major rivals, Iran and China, that was the reason why it miserably failed in Afghanistan and now wants to exit it. With the decline of Islamic State in its strongholds of Iraq and Syria, it is trying to secure a base in Afghanistan. There can be two possibilities with respect to Islamic State of Khorasan Province (Islamic State in Afghanistan)- first it can become a cause for another civil war with Taliban in order to grab power and second, it can enter into an alliance with Taliban and make Taliban a new hub of Jihadi terrorists and terror launchpads and thus pose another challenge to the world. With the previous role model of Salafi-Jihadist ideology Al-Qaeda now functionally defunct due to lack of proper leadership, a stronger Taliban and Islamic State are a new hope of jihadists and wahabbis to pursue their agendas. The Taliban can emerge as a new inspiration for separatists in Kashmir too which are currently on a backfoot.

After the exit of troops, India needs an effective policy to curtail Islamabad’s influence in Afghan society. It has to keep an eye that the state and non-state actors in Afghanistan don’t use the present status quo to further their own interests which are toxic to India. Along with controlling Pakistan, it also needs a strategy to gain access to oil markets in central Asia. Besides all this, there is another question in front of Indian foreign policy makers- “Do we need to change our policy on Taliban?” India didn’t recognize Taliban regime as a legitimate regime and even provided intelligence support during US military intervention of Afghanistan. And it would always had been in interest of India if US would have remained in the war-torn country. But now, when the US seems firm on its decision to leave Afghanistan, should India start interacting with Taliban. Of Course it is an option to reach out to Taliban, talk, settle scores and remain a player in the game but the idea is not as easy as it seems to be, for even if for once India accepts Taliban, there still remains ambiguity whether Taliban would prove out to be a reliable partner for India and accept India as an ally or not. Taliban’s ideology just like that of Pakistan is a radical Islamic ideology which sees itself as an enemy of west, Zionists, modern muslims and India, so there will always remain a trust issue while engaging with Taliban.

If Taliban refuses to engage with India, then the best approach for India is to continue fostering its ties with the former warlords of Northern Alliance and keep on providing financial and military aid to Afghan National Army, the militias fighting the Taliban and continue to be a trusted friend of Afghans. It should keep providing educational and economic assistance to Afghanistan which has brought substantial goodwill to India but should be willing to keep table of communication with Taliban always ready.