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Sunday, December 4, 2022

India considers its options in Afghanistan

OPINION: As India does not share a border with Afghanistan, it had always been a worry on how it would save its investment if a hostile government took over, writes Sanjay Kapoor.

A few days after the Taliban militants stormed into a defenceless Afghan capital, Kabul, India reacted in its own way.

The government of Narendra Modi, which had been kept out of the loop by the countries that are negotiating with the Taliban, chose to be circumspect about the geopolitical blitz that the world witnessed in Afghanistan, his party and its noisy front organisations hysterically attacked the Islamic extremists, Taliban, as if they had entered India.

In the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls next year, the saffron-robed Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, promptly announced the setting up of an anti-terror police squad at Deoband, the town that nestles the famous Muslim seminary known to be the ideological forebear to the Taliban.

Though there is no threat coming from the Taliban, which is unlikely to cross Pakistan and attack India, similar squads have also been constituted in other cities that have a large Muslim presence.

Visibly, the endeavour was to polarise the Hindu votes by showing the Muslim minority of the state that reveres Deoband, as linked to the violent and anti-women phenomenon that was sweeping Afghanistan after being kept at bay by US intervention for 20 years.

Indian TV channels, the storm troopers of this divisive mindset, show little other than what’s happening in Afghanistan and how splendid a job the government in Delhi was doing by evacuating Indians and those of Indian descent.

Tougher questions have remained unanswered though. What will India do with all the investments it has made in Afghanistan?

For 20 years, India has been riding on the US intervention after 2001 to enter the landlocked country, with whom it shared a border before it was partitioned in 1947. In 1915, Indian revolutionaries led by a maverick King Mahendra Pratap Singh had also declared Kabul as the capital when they gave a call for freedom from the British.

Since independence, though, Afghanistan was always romanticised in literature and writing of history in post-independent India.

This has served as a justification for spending US$3 billion on development works here, including building the country’s new parliament.

India also constructed the Zaranj-Delaram highway that was to connect the ancient city of Herat with Gandhar. India envisaged linking the route later with its larger connectivity project that it was building with Iran from the port city of Chabahar.

The project was meant to help India sidestep Pakistan, which had been preventing it from accessing Central Asia after the British colonialists partitioned the sub-continent. Chabahar port was meant to provide land access to India to Afghanistan and further to landlocked countries of Central Asia.

The grand plan has been short circuited by the takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban.

India will have to realign the project or abandon it. As India does not share a border with Afghanistan, it had always been a worry on how it would save its investment if a hostile government took over.

Besides, Pakistan was always deeply suspicious of New Delhi’s investments and saw in them an attempt to militarily sandwich them from both sides. Every time the US sought Pakistan’s help to find a solution to the volatile Afghanistan, they would put the blame on India.

The military leadership in Pakistan wanted a friendly government in Afghanistan to attain strategic depth, which means freedom for the Pakistan government to move with its assets to Afghanistan if they lost to India – like they did in 1971.

In fact, historians like William Dalrymple linked the instability in Afghanistan to the irreconcilable differences between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The belief was that until the threat of war over Kashmir between the two countries ended, there would always be problems in Afghanistan.

The thesis is questionable, but the US government ended up lending credibility to it as it crafted its plans to draw down its troops and leave the tragedy-scarred Afghanistan.

In the past few years, it gave Pakistan guarantees that it’s borders with India would remain quiet if it redeployed its army on the Afghan side to prevent the militants from the Haqqani network that is in the Pakistani city of Quetta to cross over.

The Taliban fighters have been trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, always blamed the Pakistan army for destabilising his country.

Whatever the truth maybe, the manner in which the Taliban took over Afghanistan clearly shows that the US has not just kept them alive, but gave them legitimacy to engage them in the future too. The Taliban was funded through proceeds from Opium, which was grown and produced in Afghanistan, which was under the control of the Western powers.

The area that has the best quality of opium, Helmand, was under British control until 2014. Thereafter it was the US army. How did the Taliban benefit from copious funds from narcotics if it was not directed by those who occupied the country?

US government claims that it spent a trillion dollars in the Afghanistan war. This is a lot of hogwash. Pakistani army officials have mocked the global hegemon for not being able to control the ragtag army of the Taliban when they could control their shaky frontiers with very little resources.

Sometime, it seems like a Potemkin war as the UK or US did not lose a single soldier after the 2014. In all they lost 2 000-odd troops compared to 70 000 Afghans.

A recent report in an American magazine, based on the experience of an US solider who heard the chatter of Taliban militants, suggests that their sophisticated Airforce was basically killing the local people without winning any land.

It is easy to draw an inference that US kept alive the threat even in places it did not exist. In some ways, the speedy drawdown of US troops after former US president Donald Trump’s emissary Zalmay Khalizad signed the deal with the Taliban in Doha Qatar.

President Joe Biden claimed that what his administration was doing was to respect the agreement. The admission bears out reports from Kabul that the Taliban are working very closely with the US army, and that is one of the  reasons why they left so much of hardware for the Taliban and the Afghan defence forces, trained by them, did not challenge them.

With President Biden under pressure to sort out the Afghan mess that undoes the gains of the last 20 years, there is a strong possibility of Washington requesting Russia and China to step in to stabilise the country tired by war and lack of development.

Both the countries have good ties with Pakistan, which could emerge as the new influencer in the Central Asian region. The moot question is: What will India do? Continue using the Taliban for its domestic politics or negotiate with it to save its considerable investment and build on its goodwill?

* Sanjay Kapoor is the editor of Hardnews in Delhi.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.


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