When the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, it was believed that the organisation with its ideology was buried forever. It was dreamed, then, that Afghanistan will be refurbished, restructured and redesigned on the model of western “democratic values”. The “War on Terror” yielded nothing (Joe Biden accepted, although indirectly) but chaos, destruction, violence, abuses of human rights, and around a trillion US dollars of tax payers’ money (although wasted). The USA had failed to realise that Afghanistan has been the “Graveyard of Empires” and no foreign power could hold on for long there. “Democracy imposed and transplanted by others will not last or be firm,” said Chinese foreign minister Hua Chunying of Afghanistan.
In the last 20 years (2001-2021), India had been strategically very active in Afghanistan and had invested heavily in developmental projects and training of Afghan security forces. India was successful in combating the China-Pakistan regional dominance through Afghanistan. Now the situation has changed drastically but not overnight (the peace deal between USA and Taliban in 2018 and Pakistan’s role in bringing Taliban on table was the beginning where India could have showed some urgency). Afghanistan, now “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, has come under Taliban regime again, but with apparently a different outlook and attitude towards its neighbours and international partners. Different from 2001, this time the power vacuum created by the USA is expected to be filled by China, Russia and Pakistan. The western media (Indian media isn’t helping India’s cause either) is also portraying Taliban in a slightly moderate attire.
US president Joe Biden has come under heavy criticism for leaving Afghanistan in haste. India has also been affected by this decision and India’s strategic balance is in crisis, but the politicians seem to be in no hurry. Even before the Taliban takeover, China welcomed the delegates of Taliban and discussed the prospects of relations between them. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson, in an interview to CGTN, Chinese State Media, said that “China can play a big role in rebuilding, rehabilitation, reconstruction of Afghanistan.” China seems to be eager to work with Taliban for growing its regional strength and filling the power vacuum while keeping India at bay. Relations between India and China have not been on the brighter side, and have become even worse, in the last few years and China will be eager to challenge India’s interests in Afghanistan. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its way to Afghanistan could be a big challenge for India’s dominance in South Asia.
According to a report published in Hindustan Times on August 20, 2021, the Indian diplomatic mission was requested by the Taliban to stay in Afghanistan. If true, India has wasted this opportunity of having some sort of diplomatic contacts with Taliban just like China, Russia and Pakistan have (the embassy of Pakistan is open as of now in Afghanistan).
What Taliban has said about India till now after taking over Afghanistan on 15th August:
1. Suhail Shaheen in an interview said, We are thankful to India for their developmental projects and they should continue to work for the development of Afghanistan without any fear (summarised from Indian Express newspaper report dated 18th August)
2. In the same interview, he hinted that Afghan soil will not be used against any country.
3. Some reports came of Afghanistan banning imports and exports with India, but later Taliban denied the reports categorically
4. Times Now reported Suhail Shaheen as saying:
• “India has been helping the Afghan people or national projects and I think that is something which is appreciated.”
• “That flag from the gurdwara in Paktia was removed by Sikh community themselves.”
• “Have a general policy that were committed not to allow anyone to use Afghan soil against any country.”
What concerns India?
India may see huge influx of refugees from Afghanistan with people from all communities and religions. That will be very challenging amid concerns raised recently about refugees in various parts of the country and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The greatest concern for India right now is the evacuation of Indian citizens and their safety. The huge amount of investment in Afghanistan is also a grey area where it is not clear what will happen to it in the future.
In this context, Indian political leadership needs to keep a close eye on Afghanistan and, if given opportunity, actively participate in the process of peace and development in Afghanistan while prioritising its national interests. India needs to understand the changing power dynamics and geo politics for approaching the challenges it faces in the days ahead.
—The writer is a research scholar at Islamic University of Science and Technology Awantipora