July 19, 2021The Intersectiongeopolitics

India can protect its interests even if Afghanistan falls to the Taliban again

New Delhi's strategy must shift to exploiting the contradictions among the foreign powers influencing Afghan politics.

New Delhi’s strategy must shift to exploiting the contradictions among the foreign powers influencing Afghan politics.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

As the prospect of Taliban bands fighting their way to Kabul becomes more likely with withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, there is a growing perception in New Delhi that, as a newspaper editorial put it, for India the situation holds no glad tidings, good options or even a silver lining.” The concern is that if the Taliban regain power, not only will India lose influence but also that battle-hardened Islamist militants will turn their attentions to Kashmir, just as they did thirty years ago after the Soviet retreat.

Well, as much as these fears and concerns are genuine, they are also overblown. International politics is vastly different today from what it was in 1991 or even 2001. The return of the Taliban will be terrible for the people of their unfortunate country, but it does not automatically follow that they will pose the same kind of threat to India as they did in the 1990s. Even then, their hostility towards India was driven more by the agenda of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and less by any intrinsic animosity towards us. In recent times, their adversarial position towards New Delhi has been due to India’s support for the Afghan government and, until recently, the refusal to talk to them.

It is unlikely that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will have the same level of control over the Taliban as they once did. Even if Rawalpindi somehow manages to exert control over Afghanistan’s security policies, Pakistan will not get the same free pass from the West as it did under the Clinton administration. Neither the United States nor the Gulf Arab states will turn a blind eye to cross-border terrorism. Pakistan will have to depend on China, Russia and Turkey for cover. Even if these countries decide to become apologists for Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, they will do so in the face of opposition from the West. It’s a different world today.

And Pakistan’s leaders are well aware of this. Far from salivating about strategic depth’ against India, they know they have a massive problem on their hands. The surge of armed conflict across the Durand Line will come with all the destabilising spillovers that Pakistan experienced a generation ago. This time there are no generous dollops of foreign aid either. Foreign powers will expect Pakistan to intercede with and manage the Taliban. But the military establishment’s hold on the militant groups today is a whole lot weaker than they make it out to be. General Qamar Javed Bajwa is quite possibly a very worried man. Having spent most of his tenure trying to stabilise Pakistan he is unlikely to want to push foreign fighters across into India, at least not right now.

Of course, we can’t be sure of the General’s prudence or good sense. But we can encourage it indirectly. It has been clear for over two decades now that an effective way to influence Pakistan’s behaviour is by talking to its sponsors. For this India has a number of options. Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have a significant congruence of interests with New Delhi over terrorism. Beijing and Moscow might not share interests, but have multiple touchpoints with New Delhi the totality of which can be leveraged. All this simply means that India is not short of options to secure itself from the risk of a repeat of the 1990s.

What about India’s influence over Afghanistan? Let’s face it: it was not much to begin with. It is important to recognise this when considering what to do. The debate is caught in a false binary: should India back the beleaguered Afghan national government or the rampant Taliban? Such a framing neglects the important question of whether India’s backing can tilt the scales enough for it to matter.

There is, in fact, a third option: to sit back, observe what happens and amplify the contradictions among the various powers that have stepped in. For the Taliban, the Uyghurs are co-religionists just across the border. For the Pashtuns, the Pakistani army is an enemy that is oppressing their ethnic brethren across a colonial border they have never recognised. The Russians would not mind their Chinese allies getting a bloody nose. The Chinese, being nobody’s fools, are unlikely to want to be the latest foreign power to enjoy the delights of Afghan politics. Every one of these faultlines presents New Delhi with levers.

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So those who argue that India has no good options are looking in the wrong place. Unlike political or military instruments, New Delhi has fewer constraints on employing an information offensive. Exposing the truth to the appropriate audiences at the appropriate moments can advance India’s interests very effectively. This is a good opportunity to build the offensive information and cyber capabilities that India needs anyway.

Tailpiece: New Delhi cannot control how Kabul will affect Kashmir. But it can entirely control how it will affect Kashmir. The road to Srinagar runs entirely through Indian territory.

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