View: India’s Afghanistan policy should rapidly adapt to the evolving realities


By Harsh V Pant

Ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, US President Donald Trump stated that India should also be fighting against terrorism in Afghanistan —Pakistan should be fighting more — and not just the US that’s ‘7,000 miles away’.

A day earlier, Trump had hinted that there would not be complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, stating, “We will always have intelligence, and we’ll always have somebody there.”

With those two comments on two successive days last month, the US president yet again made life difficult for various stakeholders who were getting hopeful about a ‘final settlement’ in war-torn Afghanistan.

Instead, on Sunday, US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad left Qatar, where the US-Taliban talks were being held, the September 1 deadline having been crossed without any final agreement.

The Taliban wants a timetable from the US for complete withdrawal of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan. Without such a guarantee, it remains adamant about not moving forward with intra-Afghan negotiations and issues related to future political governance. This, after the US had earlier made a key concession to the Taliban when it agreed to direct talks, excluding Kabul from the table.

For Washington, it is key that when the US agrees to withdraw troops, the Taliban agree to ‘control’ transnational terror networks from using Afghan territory to conduct terror attacks. Almost as a precursor to things to come, the Taliban launched a major offensive on Kunduz in north Afghanistan, one of country’s largest cities, a day before the September 1 deadline for a possible US-Taliban agreement.

Any hope that the Afghan presidential elections, scheduled for September 28, operationalising some kind of power-sharing arrangements between the Afghan government and the Taliban looks slim as of now.

Recent attacks by the Islamic State (IS), including the August 17 suicide bomb attack at a wedding reception in Kabul that killed 63 Afghans and wounded more than 180 others, have underscored the challenges on the ground as to how far the Taliban would actually be able to tackle IS — a peace deal between the US and the Taliban being theoretically a way by which the two can tackle IS jointly.

What is clear, though, is that Trump’s desire to reduce US military footprint in Afghanistan will create increasing pressure on regional powers to step up their game.

India will be no exception. Bemoaning the fact that the war against terrorism in, and from, Afghanistan is being conducted, for all purposes, only by the US, Washington is likely to get more serious about wanting countries like India, Iran, Russia and Turkey to join the fight sooner than later. Trump’s call for ‘burden-sharing’ will only grow louder.

Those in India berating New Delhi for becoming marginal in Afghanistan today, though, are the very same who have resisted Indian efforts to step up its military profile there. India has done a lot in Afghanistan in terms of developmental work — certainly much more than ‘funding a library’ that Trump wisecracked about in January.

There is also genuine goodwill for India in Afghanistan. But when it comes to negotiating about the future power structure in Afghanistan, there is no substitute to hard power. What is equally true is that despite attempts by Pakistan to have it otherwise, India can’t be ignored as Afghanistan’s future is being decided.

New Delhi’s ability to shape the priorities of its neighbours remains quite significant — as was made amply evident when Pakistan tried to link Kashmir and Afghanistan after India abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that removed Jammu & Kashmir’s ‘special status’ in the Union of India.

Pakistan was then reminded by no less than the Taliban that “linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because the issue of Afghanistan is not related”. Pakistan’s inability to think of Afghanistan beyond its ‘strategic depth’ fallacy will ensure that whichever party comes to power in Kabul, it will look to New Delhi to safeguard its sovereignty.

So, India’s Afghanistan policy should rapidly adapt to the evolving realities and play a role that suits India’s stature in the context of the wider South Asian region.

If a stable and economically robust Afghanistan was in India’s interest in the past, it continues to be a priority in the future as well. The US, ‘7,000 miles away’, will come and go. But the realities of geography will remain for India.

(The writer is professor of international relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London, UK)


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