Afghanistan: India’s Afghan Policy Hostage to Domestic Politics
When India was celebrating its Independence Day on Aug 15, 2021, Taliban was concluding its blitzkrieg through Afghanistan and took over Kabul. Amongst all the governments in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, India seems to have been completely unprepared for the consequences of the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This is perhaps reflected in the decision of the BJP led union government in Delhi to call for an all-party meeting on August 26 to find a consensus on the Afghan issue.
Back in India, Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, currently ruled by BJP, is scheduled to hold its assembly election in early 2022. It is perhaps the most crucial election that may set the tone and determine the outcome in the 2024 national parliamentary election.
The Questions Waiting for Answers
In the ten days since taking control of the Afghan capital, there is still a lot of uncertainty over the nature of the new regime that may emerge. Most crucially, whether the Taliban regime engage in exporting their brand of extremism and terrorism in the region, and other parts of the world?
There has been a lot of speculation regarding whether this is the Taliban 2.0, distinct and different from their origins in the 1990s. At that time in the nineties, the Taliban did not seek international recognition, nor did it negotiate with foreign governments. Taliban 2.0 with Mullah Baradar, one of Taliban’s key negotiators in Doha peace talks, even had a telephonic conversation with the then US President Trump. And this week, the US media has reported that the CIA chief had flown in to Kabul to talk to the Taliban leadership. Also, this time, most of the neighbours of Afghanistan, including Russia and China, are, looking to establishing relationship with the new regime, if the Taliban promises not to export Islamic extremism to these countries.
Taliban has announced a change of name from Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. An indication that democracy may no longer be a priority for the new regime. At the same time, news reports have emerged about people in some places are replacing the Taliban flag, with the Afghan flag. Images of groups of people protesting in Kabul and other parts of the country are also going around on social media. There is also a lot of speculation about the Tajik’s in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the home to erstwhile Northern Alliance, will once again defy the Taliban take over, like they did twenty years ago.
At the same time there are reports that former president Hamid Karzai and the Chief Executive in the Ghani administration, and former Negotiating Council Chairman Dr Abdullah Abdullah have met the Taliban leaders and discussed the nature of the next government.
Will terrorism revive?
According to many geopolitical experts, Pakistan has emerged as the biggest gainer. The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan soon after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, said that the Afghan people have broken the “chains of slavery”. It is an open secret that Pakistan has provided at least a safe harbour for many Taliban leaders and fighters. It is, of course, widely alleged that Pakistan also supported the Taliban materially.
Some Taliban factions, like the Haqqani Network, are believed to be an extension of the Pakistan intelligence service. The Haqqani base of operation in Pakistan's tribal area of North Waziristan is the most important militant haven in the region. Al-Qaeda is said to train and plan attacks under the protection of the Haqqani network. This group is believed to be behind some of the attacks on Indian personnel in Afghanistan over the years. Apparently, the Taliban had wanted India to keep its embassy in Kabul open, and assured its safety. However, Indian intelligence reports advised the India that fighters of Haqqani Network had infiltrated into Kabul, and the Indian Embassy could be their target. Therefore, the decision was taken to evacuate the embassy. Negotiations with the Taliban ensured that Taliban fighters escorted the Indian convoy safely to the Kabul airport. Since then, Indian has operated a few flights to evacuate more Indians, and some members of the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Afghanistan, among them two members of Afghan National Parliament.
For India, one of the key questions is how the Taliban may view the issue of Kashmir, which has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan for 75 years, ever since Independence from British colonial rule. It is believed that some of the Kashmiri militant outfits operating from Pakistan occupied Kashmir, like the Jaish-e-Mohamed and Lashkar, have been with the Taliban. A question that is worrying the Indian government is whether these groups will be emboldened by the development in Afghanistan to plan for action in the Indian side of Kashmir.
ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), is a Sunni jihadist group with a particularly violent ideology that calls itself a caliphate and claims religious authority over all Muslims. During the rise of ISIS in Syria, and in their attempt to establish a Caliphate a few years ago, it was evident that they had inspired a lot of Islamic militancy and terrorism in different parts of the world. These acts of terror were largely planned and executed by small groups and lone wolves, while claiming allegiance to ISIS. Intelligence services find it very difficult to get a whiff of such independent acts, and therefore preventing them proved to be extremely difficult.
Over the past few decades, India has faced many shades of insurgency, with roots in political ideologies, ethnicity, and religion. With Muslim population of nearly 200 million, the largest in any secular country, there are inevitable elements of extremism. Yet, very few Indian Muslims, no matter the nature of their grievances against the Indian society and state, have joined any international terror networks or gone to fight in any jihad abroad.
Therefore, the million-dollar question is that with Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan at best ambivalent, at worst actively abetting, will India experience any fresh spurt in Islamic militancy or acts of terror? Will any of the people, particularly foreign fighters who fought alongside the Taliban, now turn their attention to Kashmir, with or without any direction from the Taliban? Or will the increasing religious polarisation within India, motivate some domestic disgruntled elements to engage acts of extremism in the name of Taliban?
Erosion of India’s Soft Power
Over the past two decades India has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. It is estimated that US $ 3 billion were invested in a range of developmental projects, building roads, dams, schools and hospitals, and the new Parliament building in Kabul. India is not a major donor nation internationally, but in Afghanistan, India is said to be the fifth largest donor, after the major western countries.
An opinion poll conducted jointly by several news broadcasters, including ABC and BBC, conducted in 2010 found that 70% of Afghans looked at India more favourably, far more than either the US or Pakistan. Bollywood films and music are perennially popular in Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, many in India, and elsewhere, look at Afghanistan today through the religious prism of Islam. Although over 99% of the population are Muslim, Sunnis constitute 80-89% and Shias 10-19% there are huge ethnic diversities. About 35-42% are Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% each Hazara and Uzbek, 4% Aimak, 3% Turkmen, 2% Baloch and 4% fall into an unspecified "other" group. Islam was never sufficient as a political identity nor governing philosophy for this diverse society.
The new developments in Afghanistan have once again brought out the political contradictions within India. We fear the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, and hope that the ethnic divisions would help mitigate religious extremism.
The dilemma Indian faces is how to deal with the challenges in Afghanistan. If the Taliban dominates the new government in Afghanistan, India would have to decide whether to recognise it or not. Unlike in the 1990s, this time quite a few governments in the region and beyond are likely to recognise it. And the reason why Taliban is trying to present a more acceptable face to the world.