India needs to be more proactive on diplomatic and security fronts in protecting its Afghanistan interests

India stands at the crossroads, with neighboring countries like Pakistan, China and traditional partner Russia clearly on track to recognize the Taliban regime – a development that goes against Indian interests, writes Shubham for South Asia Monitor

Shubham Oct 13, 2021
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India-Afghanistsan

While the Taliban's ascension to the throne in Kabul was a foregone conclusion for most of the governments around the world following US President Joe Biden's announcement that the US-led NATIO forces would completely withdraw by September 11, 2021, what caught everyone off the hook was the 10-day Taliban blitz that culminated in the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021. With tens of thousands of US-NATO citizens and Afghan helpers living in Kabul, the Taliban's entry into Kabul led to chaos in the city as everyone rushed to escape to the Hamid Karzai International Airport - the last exit point from Afghanistan -  in the hope of being evacuated to safety.

The American forces quickly took control of the airport prompting governments around the world to lobby with US authorities for the safe evacuation of their citizens, which became the single most important security challenge for most countries then. For many countries, the task at hand could well have been their last involvement in Afghanistan, but for India, it seemed the beginning of an adverse security environment with long-term impact.

Indian interests in Afghanistan are huge and diverse. India provided aid of USD 3 billion over the last two decades which helped Afghans build dams, power lines, roads, clinics, schools, library and even a new Parliament complex. India also trained Afghan military cadres in its military academies and provided scholarships to hundreds of Afghans in pursuit of academic excellence. Indian Council for Cultural Relations alone provides 1000 scholarships each year to Afghan students for studying in India at various levels. Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation training program sponsored by Technical Cooperation Division, Ministry of External Affairs, is another scheme that trains 650 Afghan government employees each year.

Humanitarian and military aid aside, India-Iran-Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement on the Transit and Transport corridor in 2016 which involved the operationalization of Chabahar port in southeast Iran, construction of Chabahar-Zahedan rail line in Iran and linking it with Zaranj - Delaram highway in Afghanistan which was completed in 2009 with Indian aid.

The strategic motive behind the transit corridor for India is the access to Afghanistan and Central Asian markets sans Pakistan and also a safe and secure route for Indian companies who received concession awards of Afghanistan’s Hajigak mines - with the biggest untapped iron ore deposits in Asia - in Maiden Wardak and Bamyan provinces. The concession worth USD 10 billion was awarded to the Indian consortium in 2011 though work on it is yet to start

Threat to Indian interests

The Taliban’s return poses a direct threat to Indian interests in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was offering sugar-coated assurances, its militias ransacked Indian consulates in Herat and Kandahar. Even evacuation of Indian citizens was under constant threat from militias of Taliban and more importantly, from the Pakistanis terror groups like Haqqani network and TTP who have been given a free hand in most cities.

Pakistan has for long endured international pressure and sanctions against arming and funding terror groups and this may be its time to extract benefits from its decades' long investment, best extracted in the form of targeting Indian interests and eliminating Indian presence which may well manifest in the form of blocking Indian access to Central Asian nations and further north.

For a resource-hungry country like India, Central Asian nations hold immense potential for current and future energy needs. Be it uranium of Kazakhstan or natural gas of Turkmenistan, India's acceleration for fomenting robust energy relations with ‘the stans’ may suddenly hit brakes with no definite time for resumption. Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is one example of a slow and delayed process and the presence of the Taliban will only exacerbate the progress of other such infrastructural projects in the pipeline. The Pakistan-Taliban nexus thus has the potential of creating energy security problems for India shortly.

Pakistan-based militias are expected to be directed to the northern and western borders of India once the control over administration is secured and would consequently result in an increase in infiltration of terrorists from the Pakistani side. The establishment of a Pakistan-friendly regime in Afghanistan also frees the Pakistani army from deployments on its western borders and hence provides more scope for the redeployment on the eastern front.

The stress on LAC (a notional demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in the Sino-Indian border dispute) with the expected increase in Chinese incursions mandating bolstering Indian forces along the line, an increase in Pakistani deployment along LoC (the de-facto border between the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir) and renewed infiltration push will be a complex security challenge for India.

Taliban not trustworthy, narcotics trade

While the Taliban has repeatedly asserted that it will not allow the use of Afghan soil for terror operations against any country, there are negligent chances of it honoring its commitments and instead may very well harbor anti-India forces which may provide a new impetus to radicalizing and destabilizing forces in Kashmir and the rest of India. While China and Pakistan may be creating a Frankenstein's monster, there is little chance of the Taliban turning its back against them in the foreseeable future.

Another huge challenge for India will be on the narcotics front. Afghanistan has emerged as a prime source of opium and heroin for smugglers in India. With the active aid and support of Pakistan, smuggling drugs from Afghanistan to India may become a lot easier now and possess a challenge for the Indian authorities. Taliban has been a direct beneficiary of the thriving opium trade whose acreage grew by almost 35 percent in 2020.

Lack of employment, volatile economy, withdrawal of foreign aid and loss of local spending by foreign forces will inevitably lead to destitute Afghans turning to the narcotics trade. There is little to believe that the Taliban will ban poppy cultivation as corrupt warlords and armed groups vie for drug profits and power.

India at crossroads

India stands at the crossroads, with neighboring countries like Pakistan, China and traditional partner Russia clearly on track to recognize the Taliban regime – a development that goes against Indian interests. India has always spoken vigorously against the Taliban, and terrorism in general, while strategic reasons may induce India to think about recognizing the Taliban regime. For a country that has enjoyed immense goodwill among Afghans because of its unwavering stance of “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled' peace process”, any attempt at legitimizing the Taliban regime may negatively impact this soft power as well.

Taking Taliban at face value is not a mistake that India will likely commit, but the setting up of a terrorist regime next door should surely send alarm bells ringing in Indian intelligence circles. New Delhi needs to be more proactive on the diplomatic and security front in securing Indian interests.

(The writer, an M.Com degree holder from Hindu College, University of Delhi, keenly follows global geopolitics, international relationships, diplomacy and security studies. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shubhamsiwach00@gmail.com)