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Dealing with the Taliban: India’s Strategy in Afghanistan after Regime Change

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Present piece deals with recent stunning takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and India’s foreign policy dilemma in dealing with new ruling. It also deals with immediate implications for Pakistan, India, China and USA and their assumed response over new geo-political landscape in Asia.

 Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul sent shock waves around the world and has placed immediate implications for the complicated knot of three regional powers in Afghanistan’s neighborhood: Pakistan, India and China. In recent months, all three governments have escalated their diplomatic outreach to the Taliban in anticipation of the possibility that it would grow into a political force in Afghanistan. That possibility became reality as the group swept into the capital ushering in a new geo-political landscape in Asia. For Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s return delivers a strategic defeat to rival India, but also potentially a boost to an affiliated insurgent group, the Pakistani Taliban, that threatens Pakistan itself. For India, it heightens anxieties about militancy in Kashmir as it is juggling flammable border standoffs not only with Pakistan but also with China.

Cherished History of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is an ancient mountainous landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia and is surrounded by Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and China to the northeast. Its location along the Silk Road connected it to the cultures of both the Middle East and other parts of Asia and has historically remained in contention and violence since the military campaigns of Alexander, the Mauryas, the Arabs, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and in 2001 by the United States with NATO-allied countries. It has been called ‘unconquerable’ and nicknamed as ‘graveyard of empires’ though it has been occupied during several different stages of its history.

The modern state of Afghanistan began with the Hotak and Durrani dynasties of the 18th century but unfortunately very soon became the buffer state in the ‘Great Game’ between British India and the Russian Empire. In 1893 Durand Line was made to mark border of Afghanistan with British India, but was not recognized by the Afghan government and it has led to strained relations with Pakistan since the latter’s independence in 1947. Following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, the country became a monarchy under King Amanullah, until almost 50 years later, when Zahir Shah was overthrown and a republic was established.

In 1978, after a second coup, Afghanistan became a Soviet Union protectorate. This provoked the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s against Mujahideen rebels and by 1996, most of Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban, who were removed from power after the US invasion in 2001 post 9/11. This 20 year war has finally drawn to a close on 15 August 2021, with Taliban once again sweeping across Afghanistan.

Insinuations for India

Afghanistan and India have remained strong and friendly over the decades. They had been historical neighbors, and shared deep historical and cultural ties. India was also the only South Asian country to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Relations diminished during the 1990s when Afghan civil war started which turned into take-over of a government by Talibans. India is the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to the present day Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and even today is engaged in various construction projects, as part of India’s rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan.

India is recognised by most Afghans as the ‘most cherished partner of Afghanistan’ and is the largest regional donor with over $3 billion in assistance. It has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over 1,000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students. In the aftermath of the 2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul, the Afghan Foreign Ministry quoted India as a ‘brother country’ and the relationship between the two as one which ‘no enemy can hamper’. Relations between Afghanistan and India received a major boost in 2011 with the signing of a strategic partnership agreement, Afghanistan’s first since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

A major shift in India’s political position on the Afghan Taliban was reported by a Qatar official in June 2021, who confirmed that an Indian delegation had quietly visited Doha to meet Taliban’s leadership. This is a major shift. The Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. The cost to India of remaining distant from the ongoing attempts at reconciliation especially since it has thus far nurtured a relationship mainly with the Afghan government would likely be much higher than the cost of being involved in them.

Scorching Afghanistan and New Geo-Political Reckonings

New developments in Afghanistan have created new scopes in context of geo-politics of the region and might form new equations for realigning the power politics. For China, the U.S. withdrawal has raised fears of a widening network of militant groups targeting the ambitious infrastructure projects it is unfurling westward across Eurasia. The Afghan Taliban pledged in its 2020 deal with the United States that it would not harbor extremist groups such as al-Qaeda if the U.S. military withdrew in a timely fashion. The Taliban spokesman has also said the group would not attack Chinese targets. In Islamabad there is euphoria that they defeated India and America but also worry among the national security establishment that the Taliban may not be beholden to Pakistan in their moment of triumph. After the euphoria, there are second-order consequences that include the potential of Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorist groups, including the TTP (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan), that might come back to bite Pakistan.

Pakistan’s close ally China has also sought a deal with the Taliban that they will not hamper any Chinese interests in the region. China’s conciliatory posture toward the Taliban marks a stark public turnaround from previous decades, when it voiced concerns that the group was harboring ethnic Uyghur fighters who sat on the Taliban’s ruling council while plotting separatist war in their homeland of Xinjiang.  China was ready to contain any fallout from Afghanistan by pressuring the Taliban to make a ‘clear break with Xinjiang-related forces’, holding joint military drills with Russia and other regional governments, and reinforcing border controls.

In India which had long argued for a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan, anxieties soared in recent months as India’s partner, the former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, sustained a string of battlefield defeats before fleeing the country. For the first time in decades, India will no longer have a friendly government or tribal faction in the country. And more problematic to India Taliban’s return will be a morale booster for Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the TTP. It could be a psychological victory of the terrorist groups and the terrorist groups will use it to try to drum up a little more recruitment among youth in places like Kashmir.

Could China gain a foothold in the Region?

China has reportedly promised big investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including the building of a road network in Afghanistan and is also eyeing the country’s vast, untapped rare-earth mineral deposits. And it was already reportedly preparing to formally recognize the Taliban before the group seized control of the country. Laurel Miller, the program director for Asia at the International Crisis Group, tells NPR that “The Taliban see China as a source of international legitimacy, a potential economic supporter and a means of influence over Pakistan, a Chinese ally that has aided the group,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the Taliban could be pushing China and Russia closer as the two countries seek a hedge against the potential for instability in Afghanistan. Both countries are concerned about possible ‘spillover’ of Islamist extremism, Miller says. Despite their Cold War animus, China and Russia recent time reportedly deployed 10,000 troops, as well as planes and artillery pieces, to China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region as part of a joint exercise to fight terrorism, and jointly protect peace and stability in the region.

Is America now weaker?

The nature of withdrawal comes at great risk to US national security and to America’s standing in the world. What is happening on the ground is a complete collapse of the US-led negotiations with the Taliban, which left the United States flat footed to respond to the events rapidly unfolding on the ground. The world will not view this as a logical transition away from a country in which the United States does not belong. Instead, Biden’s realpolitik message juxtaposed against the chaotic scenes in Kabul simply reinforces longstanding global opinions of America’s unreliability and diminished superpower standing in the world. Biden tried to assure Americans, and the world, that Washington would continue to fight global terrorism. Finally, the United States still needs eyes on Afghanistan and must move quickly to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan and then begin the hard work of developing a plan for protecting its long-term national security interests in South Asia.

Indian Dilemma

The idea of dealing directly with the Taliban is a bitter one for Indian officials and the larger Indian population. This was the group that escorted terrorists into Pakistan following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999.  India needs a long-term strategic approach towards Afghanistan that weaves political, economic, military and diplomatic dimensions into a coherent whole within the framework of a grand strategy. India’s Afghan policy must be based on a clear-cut understanding of India’s strategic goals in the region, and the regional and global strategic environment.

Currently, there are two wars in Afghanistan, one inside Afghanistan that has gone on against foreign intervention for the last four decades, and the other against the Afghan government from Pakistani soil causing a parallel internal disturbance. Since Pakistan’s key policy objective has been to establish its hegemony in Afghanistan, it views an independent Afghanistan that has a vibrant relationship with India as the main hurdle in the achievement of its hegemonic ambitions. However, an Afghanistan deprived of Indian presence would be nothing but another hapless province of Pakistan to be ruled by movers and shakers from Rawalpindi, and to be exploited by China through the Belt and Road Initiative. More problematically, this will not only compound the humiliating experiences of the Afghan people by way of rollback of their basic freedoms, but also create a breeding ground for various fundamentalist organisations, ready to escalate religious and sectarian conflicts across the region. Only Time can tell what actually happens in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. Whatever be the final truth, India must engage with the Taliban leadership, leverage our support amongst the people, build our resources to deal with any surge in terrorism within our borders and keep our powder dry.

Dr. Devender Sharma specializes in Middle Eastern Studies. Currently he is Assistant Professor, in Political Science at Centre of Excellence, Government College, Sanjauli, Shimla (H.P) (India).

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South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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