India’s original sin in Afghanistan
THE recent capture of Kabul by the Taliban sent India packing out of Af ghanistan. The abrupt loss of the 20 years old Indian influence in the country is being characterized as a ‘strategic policy failure’ and a ‘diplomatic setback’. To put it differently, it is being viewed as Pakistan’s strategic victory over her eastern rival.
In sum, New Delhi finds itself as a bystander on the Afghan chessboard while other players notably Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia remain engaged with the Taliban regime 2.0. Spanning over 20 years, worth $3bn and dotting all the 34 provinces of the country, the future of 400-plus Indian development projects is at stake.
Consequently, New Delhi’s post-2001 Afghan policy is under fire even from within India. The Indian policy choices in Afghanistan, have turned out to be a tactical gamble on a grand scale rather than any well-calculated strategy.
The criticism poses the million-dollar question as to what went wrong with India’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan. The answer calls for taking multiple factors into account.
The critics of India’s abortive Afghan policy are targeting its post-2001 approach to the country. Undoubtedly, the policy options pursued were flawed. However, the seeds of the recent diplomatic debacle do not lie only in the post-2001 Indian policy.
In fact, the original sin lies in India’s myopic strategic vision of Afghanistan. From the very outset, New Delhi has been viewing Kabul as a key prong of her foreign policy calculus vis a vis Pakistan.
This unsustainable quest for encircling and squeezing Pakistan by the pincer-movement approach has been holding India back from forging durable Indo-Afghan ties independent of the Indo-Pakistan dynamic.
Being apprehensive of the Indian designs, Islamabad feels forced to adopt countermeasures oriented to undo Indian influence. In the long run, the security dilemma works more to the disadvantage of India.
Had Indian policymakers seen Afghanistan from a geoeconomic lens rather than from the geo-strategic perspective, India would not have had to witness the dramatic collapse of her clout cultivated over the last two decades.
The second causative factor behind the present policy fiasco has to do with the disregard for the ethno political fabric of Afghanistan.
The country remains a tribal society plagued by the violence-prone power struggles. The sharp ethnic fault lines fuel the centre-periphery friction that militates against the making of an organic Afghan state.
Moreover, the power hegemony of non-Pashtun groups, faces resentment leading to armed resistance from the majority ethnicity, ie, the Pashtuns.
Traditionally, Indian foreign policy planners have tended to commit the avoidable policy blunder by leaning on a particular local power player opposed to Pakistan.
The above-mentioned historical pattern of the ethnic rivalry was conveniently overlooked by India throwing in her lot with the Northern Alliance piggybacked to power by the US in 2001. Such a policy may fetch tactical returns but leads to strategic alienation from the other key Afghan actors.
The unwise Indian policy of extending all-out support to the US-backed and non-Pashtun-dominated successive Afghan regimes condemned as illegitimate and un-Islamic by the Taliban was the beginning of the eventual end of the Indian presence.
More importantly, the successive Indian governments viewed the Taliban only as a Pakistani proxy rather than the most consequential local ground reality.
So, this unpragmatic Indian approach blocked all the approaches towards any possible rapprochement with the most powerful out-of-the-power actor.
Undaunted by the unsustainability of its Afghan policy, India has persisted with the policy of putting all her eggs into the brittle basket of the successive Afghan regimes since 2001.
Widely perceived as the US puppets, unrepresentative and corrupt, such governments did not make a reliable partner capable of standing the ground without the US security umbrella and financial oxygen.
Minus the American boots on the ground, it was only the question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the Taliban will be reclaiming their lost power.
Seen from hindsight, it becomes abundantly clear that New Delhi failed to foresee (or simply chose to ignore) such a highly likely scenario and salvage the situation by reaching out to the Taliban.
The third driver behind her Afghan policy disaster can be found in geography. India also failed to appreciate the critical role of geography that imposes limitations on Indo-Afghan relations.
Any pro-India government in Kabul may feel free to love or hate Pakistan, but it cannot afford to ignore the being land-landlocked and physically bordered by a nuclear-armed fellow Muslim state on the other side of the Durand Line.
Certainly, the ever-dangling prospects of the Indian economic carrot may be a tantalizing attraction for any Afghan government, but Pakistan remains an unavoidable geographic compulsion confronted by Kabul.
Thus, discounting the inescapable geographic disadvantage is bound to invite the revenge of geography sooner or later.
Now, New Delhi needs to go back to the drawing board and come back with a new strategy to regain its strategic relevance in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and beyond.
Unshackled by its Pakistan-centric policy paradigm, India’s Afghan policy 2.0 ought to be reflective of the historical, ethnic, geographic and geo-economics realties.
—The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist and faculty member at the Department of International Relations, National University of Modern Languages (NUML) Islamabad.