February 15, 2019

India has much goodwill in Afghanistan but that may not be enough

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on February 15, 2019. 

What are we to make of the rapidly shifting situation in Afghanistan? The country’s welfare has direct security implications for India: We are approaching 20 years since the hijacking of IC 814 to Kandahar. But Afghanistan’s future is so difficult to anticipate because a multitude of internal and external variables are at play.

First, consider the domestic security situation. Attacks in Kabul are still frequent. Several Indian citizens, many engaged in development assistance, have lost their lives, including in the recent Kabul bomb blast of January 14. Parts of the country that were once deemed relatively peaceful — including central Afghan provinces such as Bamiyan — now feature periodic Taliban assaults, including devastating attacks against Afghan security forces.

Second, Afghanistan’s political situation is in considerable disarray. Parliamentary elections were repeatedly postponed, and their execution was hardly seamless. The field in this year’s presidential elections has become incredibly crowded, with former interior minister Hanif Atmar emerging as the most significant challenger to incumbent Ashraf Ghani.

Third, the Taliban too is divided and has been since Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed on Pakistani soil by the United States (US) in a 2016 drone strike, although the return of Mullah Baradar may prove significant. Still, the Haqqani Network is not represented in leadership council meetings. The arrival of the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan has added further complications, with some using this development to justify accommodating the Taliban.

Fourth, peace talks between the US and the Taliban are underway, with a parallel Moscow process also ongoing. The Taliban talks are still at a very preliminary stage, despite bold announcements of breakthroughs. The possibility of a ceasefire has been mooted, but the Taliban wants assurances, including the release of prisoners currently in US custody. While Donald Trump has made the withdrawal of US forces a priority, the American security establishment has reason to slow it down, raising the prospect of a withdrawal in name only.

Fifth, Pakistan is unable to take full advantage of a situation that it once deemed desirable. Some of it is due to its own pacification efforts in its northwest, initially conducted under pressure, while some of it can be explained by Pakistan’s relative international isolation, economic weaknesses, and internal political divisions. But it is also increasingly clear, as following the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s and after 9/11, that a firm resolution in Afghanistan was never the preferred outcome for Pakistan’s security establishment.

Sixth, China’s role has been thrown into sharper relief. Beijing had previously been uncertain about its own objectives when it engaged in a quadrilateral dialogue with Afghanistan, the US, and Pakistan at the latter’s insistence. But it is now considering a presence in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to stem Islamist infiltration into Xinjiang.

Seventh, Russia has adjusted its position vis-à-vis the Taliban. Romantic notions of India recreating old alliances are no longer particularly realistic, as the fault lines have changed significantly since the 1990s. Moscow’s motivations include taking advantage of a US pressure point.

So where does all this leave India? Not in a good place. India has staked out two positions in Afghanistan after 2001. One is as the most stringently anti-Taliban external actor, a position that some observers have criticised as hopelessly unrealistic. But not only has this bought India credibility with virtually all major parties within Kabul, it has also placed India in a position to grant legitimacy, as when former warlord and Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar agreed a peace deal in 2016. Former Indian diplomat Amar Sinha recently clarified India’s position on the issue of Taliban talks, and subtly warned against undercutting Kabul.

Additionally, India has continued to be involved in state-building efforts, which remain poorly appreciated even within India. It has been among the largest providers of aid to Afghanistan since 2001, developed significant electricity and healthcare infrastructure, built the country’s parliament, and trained large numbers of students, security personnel, and administrators. Being at the vanguard of Afghanistan’s air freight corridor programme, India has become the largest destination of high-value Afghan exports. At the same time, Indian efforts at developing the Iranian port of Chabahar represents a long-term investment in bolstering Afghanistan’s commercial links.

India’s state-building efforts have won it widespread goodwill among the Afghan population. But its ongoing political and assistance efforts will remain subject to the security situation and it has ruled out the possibility of military boots on the ground. India therefore finds itself with many carrots and few sticks. But as security deteriorates, politics becomes more unstable, and external actors alter their approaches, some creative ways to secure Indian interests in Afghanistan will have to be contemplated.