Since President Biden declared a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan, regional nations with geostrategic, geo-economic, and security interests have been caught in a bind. Except for India, most regional countries have met the Taliban in secret, and some have utilised them to further their geostrategic and security objectives in the area. For example, since 2015 Iran and Russia have aided the Taliban to halt the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) from extending its authority in the country. Knowing the Afghan security forces’ limits and the Taliban’s operational prowess, they chose to cooperate with the Taliban to control the ISK. The Taliban have paid visits to Tehran and Moscow, met with their respective governments, and even sponsored intra-Afghan discussions in their nations.
Pakistan used a twin policy of supporting the US-led military operations while also providing a safe haven for the Taliban. Since 2002, Pakistan’s security apparatus has aided the Taliban by recruiting and funding various religious organisations. Before initiating the intra-Afghan peace process, a Taliban team led by Mullah Baradar and the deputy emir responsible for political matters paid a visit to Pakistan. They met with senior officials in Pakistan, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment was revealed further when a Taliban official in the outfit’s political office in Qatar acknowledged that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was heavily engaged in every decision taken by their office.
On the other hand, China used a “limited strategy” and engaged in “self-driven diplomacy.” Beijing’s relationship with the Taliban goes back to the 1990s when the Chinese region of Xinjiang became unstable. Due to their conflicted history, separatism, violent extremism, and centrifugal tendencies, Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims began anti-China agitations in 1980, 1981, 1985, and 1987, culminating in the 1990 Baren crisis. Lu Shulin, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, visited Taliban commander Mullah Omar in 2000 and courted the Taliban and other terrorist organizations to limit any “spillover” of terrorism into Xinjiang. Mullah Omar has vowed that the Taliban would not let Uyghurs conduct assaults against China in Xinjiang, but they will remain Taliban members. Following President Trump’s cancellation of the Taliban’s negotiations with the United States in 2019, Beijing welcomed a Taliban team headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Numerous regional powers are attempting to establish relations with sympathetic Taliban groups and protect their interests. Nonetheless, one country stands to lose the most. India, the region’s most significant contributor to Afghanistan, is one of those players. India confronts a position in which it may have no role to play in that nation, and in the worst-case scenario, not even a diplomatic presence. India has always been a staunch supporter of Kabul’s civilian administration, having invested significantly in the nation over the last two decades. India contributed more than $3 billion (€2.5 billion) in developmental aid, including constructing dams, roads, schools, clinics, and even the country’s parliament building. All of this was feasible because of the protection provided by US security personnel.
India’s reactions to the fall of Kabul in 1992 and 1996 — to Mujahedeen and Taliban, respectively — were diametrically opposed. In 1992, India chose to remain in Afghanistan, and in 1996, it left with no diplomatic presence in the country. Understanding why India’s reaction during both takeovers was different is critical to understanding India’s next step and strategic convergence on Afghanistan this time around.
India recognized the Mujahedeen’s administration two weeks after the Najibullah regime fell (30 April 1992) and began implementing the so-called “Rao ideology.” But first, let’s look at the conditions in which India’s policy choices were taken. In 1992, India’s hands were full. In the previous year, Rajiv Gandhi was murdered and PM Narasimha Rao had assumed power. India had trained and supplied the LTTE in Colombo to attack the Sinhalese and their government and had subsequently deployed its troops to battle them openly. In the early 1990s, India saw the negative consequences of using coercion for political reasons (against Sikhs and Sri Lanka). It, therefore, chose a strategy of engagement in Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union, India’s most ardent backer, had also collapsed, wreaking havoc on the Indian economy. In 1992, India could hardly fund three more weeks of imports due to depleted foreign currency reserves (Pakistan’s economy was expanding at 5-6 percent per year at the time, compared to 3 percent for India). So, in 1992, India was confronted with burning insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam, a collapsing economy, and a disastrous military campaign in Sri Lanka. As a result, India’s hands were tied in 1992, and all it could do was pursue a policy of conciliation in Afghanistan. That policy is known as the “Rao ideology” in history.
The main goals to achieve under this doctrine were: deal with anybody in power, even if they were Mujahedeen; not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and never support or arm any group in Afghanistan; keep people-to-people contact, and retain India’s diplomatic mission. Another aspect was to consider Afghanistan not just in South Asia but also in the perspective of Central Asia.
India also felt that remaining in Afghanistan would make it easier to reach out to Central Asian states and support Kashmir at the United Nations. Above all, although Pakistan wanted India to leave Afghanistan, India was more concerned with its capacity to remain, stick, and endure. Narasimha Rao was a reformer who is often regarded as India’s “Father of Economic Reforms.” His first budget, delivered in 1991, is widely considered as laying the foundations for contemporary India. As a result, India’s approach in Afghanistan was courteous, peaceful, and non-interfering.
When the year 1996-97 arrived, the Indian economy was expanding at 7.5 percent per year, thanks to PM Rao’s economic liberalisation. As a result, when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, India was in a very different political and financial situation. In 1996, the Taliban had taken control, President Najibullah had been assassinated, the situation in Kashmir had deteriorated, and Narasimha Rao had left. In its Afghan strategy, India reversed course. The main features of this policy were: refusing to recognise the Taliban regime as a legitimate government, in line with how the rest of the international community was reacting at the time; having no diplomatic presence in Afghanistan (no Indian diplomatic presence in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001), and increasing covert assistance and presence in Afghanistan.
For the next five years (1996-2001), also known as the “India-Afghanistan diplomatic black hole,” India, together with Russia, Iran, and Central Asian nations, gave covert military and financial assistance to the United Front against the Taliban, which all of these powers saw as Pakistan’s proxy. The outside world seldom acknowledges or condemns this Indian act of covert intervention in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. It took away from India its neutrality, and it is now a participant in the Afghan conflict.
It would be fascinating for readers or students of international relations to examine India’s two distinct approaches in Afghanistan. India’s capital investment in Afghanistan has given a new dimension to India’s current strategy in Afghanistan. Throughout the 1990s and up until 2001, India made no material investments in Afghanistan. With the Taliban’s possible takeover today, India’s financial investment and strategic benefits are expected to suffer a significant loss.
Indian strategy in Afghanistan has failed. While Pakistan, which has been at the forefront of mainstreaming the Taliban, still has considerable influence over the organisation and the shuras that govern its philosophy. The Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s civilian government, military, and espionage organization, supported the US–Taliban disengagement deal reached in 2020. New Delhi took a different approach, refusing to (officially) engage with the Taliban and supporting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s democratically elected administration. The debate over Afghanistan’s future boils down to whether one prefers an emirate or a republic as a form of governance. However, the rivalry between New Delhi and Islamabad for influence in Afghanistan is partly due to their opposing regional agendas. Pakistan has gained the upper hand because of its fundamental connections with the Taliban. In contrast, India has been placed on the sidelines due to its allegedly flawed approach to the Afghan issue and its unwillingness to engage with the Taliban at a time of global outreach.
India must also recognise the shifting strategic orientation in the region. Pakistan’s Prime Minister is now in Uzbekistan. Pakistan is the driving force behind the Afghan peace effort, hosting a peace summit in Islamabad that will include Afghan leaders. Pakistani-Russian ties are improving, and the Pak Stream Gas Pipeline, a joint Pakistani-Russian project that has been delayed since 2015, just inked its ‘Head of Terms’ construction agreement a few days ago. This may even open the door for President Putin’s long-awaited trip to Pakistan, where he could officially launch the project. Despite the heinous assault on Chinese employees on their way to the Dasu Hydropower Project, the Pakistan-China relationship remains strong.
The Taliban’s diplomatic outreach mirrors the growing involvement of other countries like China and Russia as the US withdraws. This comes when New Delhi is edging closer to Washington, driven by Chinese aggressiveness along its Himalayan frontiers. While this geopolitical change helps New Delhi in other ways, India may find itself on its own in protecting its interests in Afghanistan.
While Moscow and New Delhi have discussed Afghanistan, the increasing depth of Pakistan–China collaboration may become the most significant issue for New Delhi since Islamabad’s Afghan objectives are backed by Beijing’s financial might. Given Pakistan’s apparent desire for “strategic depth” in its Afghanistan policy, India will need to develop a new strategy in the coming months to safeguard its interests while also cushioning the democratic process in Kabul.
—The writer is a research scholar at Department of Politics & Governance, Central University of Kashmir. [email protected]