The Taliban Conundrum
With the U.S and N.A.T.O efforts getting saturated in containing the violent and extremist Taliban who have held various provinces of the country in their control. The western powers needed to look out for an exit strategy as lots of blood and money has been spilled in efforts to eradicate the Taliban influence. This exit plan and strategy has emboldened with President Donald Trump’s strong resolve to exit Afghanistan with or without a deal. Taliban and the Ghani government both have refused to acknowledge each other as a legitimate player in Afghanistan’s future power structure. While the U.S exit is imminent the opportunity to be its replacement is being capitalized by China and Russia with Pakistan trying to be the deal maker between them and the Taliban leadership. China’s Afghan policies are in line with its intent to extend its trade routes into Central Asia via Afghanistan that provides it significant hold and leverage in dominating political and trade prowess in the whole of Asia. If China achieves this Pakistan is sure to get huge kickbacks from the Taliban as well as China and other concerned parties which will in all certainty amplify its resources and resolve for continuing the proxy war in Kashmir against India.
The poisonous cocktail of the Taliban and Pakistan in Afghanistan is bad news for the Indian establishment. The United States wants to leave this region saving itself of unnecessary security-related commitments to third parties and also prolonging the war for the stressed armed forces units. Russia sees the Taliban as an ally against the Islamic State on the borders of its central Asian allies. Afghan authorities have bitterly complained that Russia is providing covert military assistance to Taliban units operating in the country’s north a claim Moscow denies. Beijing, similarly, has cultivated close links to the Taliban, in return for help with jihadists seeking to target Xinjiang province and also safeguard its long term interests in the region being hampered by the Taliban. The last player in this fiasco, Pakistan hopes to deepen its strategic depth in Afghanistan as well as seek the support of Taliban in the form of its fighters being exported to Indo-Pak borders for continuing the proxy war and by that means giving a cover to the already sanctioned terror outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, LeT etc. to train, flourish on Afghan soil and return to fight on the Indian borders.
In all this uncertainty the Taliban with its unreliable credentials and its bias towards Pakistani intelligence does not make a reliable partner for India in Afghanistan post-U.S exit from the region. In the past with support from Pakistan, the Taliban has orchestrated acts of Terror (1) on Indian Embassy & consulates in Afghanistan in the years 2008 and 2014.
India’s experience with the Taliban makes it wary of engaging with the entity, Kandahar hijacking stands testimony for it. But since then Afghan Taliban is not what it was once. The outfit has been hit with internal rifts and realignments (2), especially since the death of its founder Mullah Omar became public in 2015. Also, the Taliban hardliners angry about peace talks with the U.S seeking pledges of ceasefire and counter-terrorism in exchange for troops withdrawal have joined other outfits like Islamic State which go by the name “Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K)”. India too can amend its ties like Russia and Iran who have supported (4) the Taliban in fighting IS-K and thereby helping the Taliban fight the common enemy which has led it to secure a strong foothold in 40 percent territory of Afghanistan in-spite of U.S resistance. Also, India can smartly use this factionalism and splitting up within the Taliban leadership to its advantage in possible dialogues as Pakistan has shown its inability to control the Taliban. India in the last decade has seen it all, its soft approach in Afghanistan has made India as one of the biggest contributors to the development of Afghanistan with more than 3 Billion USD worth projects being undertaken in the last decade.
Dance with the Dragon
At the same time ideas such as the deployment of Indian forces on Afghan soil have not been entertained by the Indian establishment restricting itself only to soft areas of co-operation. Perhaps a more innovative approach or middle ground can be sought in these difficult times, that would be establishing co-operation with the Chinese in matters of mutual and shared interests in Afghanistan. Both India and China have been training Diplomats, Police Forces and other administrative workforces of Afghanistan. Both countries have invested themselves in Afghanistan’s infrastructure development and other allied areas. Given the influence China has on Pakistan and also to some extent over the Taliban, India can offset any possible Pakistani ploy of collaborating Taliban and Kashmir insurgency or any other kind of anti-India ploy. China’s Afghanistan policy is anchored primarily on the need to contain extremism at home and India too faces the same threat but from the Pakistan side, thereby India could utilize the “China card” against Pakistan, India’s troublesome neighbour which has systematically strengthened the ideological foundations and operational cadres of the Taliban.
This is quite possible as China had sought collaboration (3) with India within Africa in areas of mutual interest, the same olive branch can be extended to China by India in the matter of Afghanistan. A strategic partnership between India and China in Afghanistan would be very well received by the civil establishment of Afghanistan and would also keep in check any divergence from the Taliban or Pakistan in maintaining peace, tranquillity, and development of the region at large.
Well, these are testing times for the South Asian region and at the backdrop of COVID-19, the situation has become worse. India most probably will have to change its Afghanistan strategy as the departure of the U.S is a done deal. With new stakeholders like the Taliban emerging out of this peace process establishing a channel with them would be very challenging and may also risk scraping away India’s trustworthiness and goodwill in Afghanistan. But India needs to step up and consider starting a dialogue with all stakeholders irrespective of their stance towards India. U.S.A, China and Russia’s engagement with the Taliban speak volumes of the changed equations in South Asia. India will have to move quickly in communicating India’s positive role in the future of Afghanistan to the Taliban and also seek assurances to safeguard Indian interests within Afghanistan. This needs to be happening while maintaining a working relationship with the elected government aiding it in establishing harmony among the troubled Afghan masses for the greater good of the region that culminates their aspirations of peace and normalcy.