India’s future role in Afghanistan
When the principal combatants of a long and bitter war agree to come to the negotiating table, all other stakeholders in the dispute must necessarily also reassess their investments and alignments with both parties and with each other. Such is the case in Afghanistan now that America and the Taliban, after 17 years of bitter conflict, appear to be on the verge of a ceasefire after several rounds of peace talks in the last few months.
The ripple effects of these talks extend to Islamabad, Moscow, Tehran, Riyadh, and Beijing. But they also have significant political and economic implications for India, one of the most committed partners of the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan and a major ally of the current National Unity government led by president Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.
No ceasefire is ever unwelcome, especially one that involves a possible end to such human devastation as the war in Afghanistan. But Donald Trump’s eagerness to exit the longest war in America’s history means that the Taliban – which is resurgent in Afghanistan, and now controls more territory than at any time since it was ousted from Kabul by America’s invasion in 2001 – clearly has the stronger hand in these talks. India is not alone in fearing that an insufficiently rigorous and foresighted truce, made with the short-term aim of relieving America’s burdens in Afghanistan, might lead to the implosion of the fragile peace established in Afghanistan today.
Although New Delhi is not formally part of the negotiations, it did break with past precedent by sending Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan, its former envoys in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Moscow round of talks last November in an unofficial capacity. With the current government in Kabul excluded from the talks at the insistence of the Taliban, this move from Delhi shows that it realizes the need to play a more prominent role in a dialogue whose results vitally affect not only its own future security interests and its fraught relationship with Pakistan but also the considerable investments it has made this decade in Afghanistan.
No ceasefire is ever unwelcome, especially one that involves a possible end to such human devastation as the war in Afghanistan.
Such a realignment follows not naturally, but nevertheless inevitably, from India’s growing profile in Afghanistan in the past decade. In the chaotic years after America unseated the Taliban in 2001, New Delhi was forced to take a back seat in the reconstruction of Afghanistan as successive American governments privileged Pakistan’s needs and priorities as a trade-off in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Instead, India took the step of engaging directly with the elected governments in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy of Hamid Karzai and, after 2014, Ashraf Ghani. The construction by India of Afghanistan’s new parliament building (inaugurated by prime minister Narendra Modi in 2015), while providing a powerful visual emblem of its commitment to democracy in Afghanistan, was just the most prominent of dozens of measures together constituting over $2 billion in aid as a way of staking out a role for itself in a key strategic space.
Today, Indian investment in the port of Chabahar in Iran (which it now runs) has opened up a new trade route in Central Asia and reduced Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for international trade. Most importantly, Indian outlays in education and health in Afghanistan have earned it the goodwill of millions of Afghan people. Much more than the US, it is seen in Afghanistan today as a benign power.
But crucially, all these measures were enabled to a great extent by the security shield provided by American presence in Afghanistan. This means India has much to lose if, in the aftermath of a US-Taliban ceasefire, a resurgent Taliban were to escalate its efforts in the civil war with India, too, in its crosshairs.
Such an eventuality might lead India to commit its own troops for the first time to Afghanistan. That would inevitably draw Pakistan more visibly into a pro-Taliban. That would set up a face-off between the two great powers of South Asia, with Moscow and Beijing unlikely to be silent spectators.
So New Delhi faces a big decision on a question on which it had previously always had a unambiguous answer: that it would never do business with the Taliban. With the next presidential elections in Afghanistan scheduled for July 2019, there is a need for other stakeholders to emphasize the need to tie down the Taliban not just to a truce with America, but to some minimal commitment to resuming dialogue with the NUG (which it dismisses as a puppet government) and to ending the civil war in Afghanistan. It is surely untenable that a force that long refused to come to the negotiating table should now be able to do so while itself insisting on keeping the current government in Kabul out of the talks.
India’s future role in Afghanistan will likely see it having to walk a fine line of augmenting the state power precariously wielded by the Ghani government and its elected successor and making alliances to contain the resurgence of the Taliban while also engaging with it directly. It must move with great care in negotiating the new perils and possibilities emerging to its north-west.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets