Can India reverse Pakistan's gains in a post-US Afghanistan?

Taliban's return to power was a major strategic loss for India. Can it reverse the gains of its arch-rival, Pakistan?
6 min read
07 Jan, 2022
Though India suffered a major strategic setback in Afghanistan by the Taliban's return to power last summer, and its ramifications on Kashmir. Still, it is trying its hardest to offset any gains by its arch-rival Pakistan, writes Syed Fazl-e-Haider.
Afghan nationals gather for a peaceful protest against the Taliban's treatment of women and children in Afghanistan, at Jangpura, in New Delhi, India on 19 September 2021. [Getty]

On December 19, India hosted a meeting in New Delhi on Afghanistan joined by the leaders of five Central Asian States on the same day when Pakistan was hosting the extraordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers on Afghanistan in Islamabad.

The foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries, which are also members of the Islamic bloc OIC, skipped the meeting in Islamabad to attend the meeting in New Delhi. Out of the five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan – that attended the India-led dialogue on Afghanistan, three nations share borders with Afghanistan.

Hosting a meeting on the same day along with Islamabad was an attempt by India to weaken Pakistan's efforts for pushing the international community into recognising the Taliban government in Afghanistan. While the deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan was the focus of Islamabad's meeting, the human rights violations, particularly women's rights abuses, were mainly discussed in New Delhi's meeting. 

"Perhaps the ousted Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani was not so much upset by the US's "rushed withdrawal" from Afghanistan as India felt upset and immensely confused with the pullout of foreign troops"

Perhaps the ousted Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani was not so much upset by the US's "rushed withdrawal" from Afghanistan as India felt upset and immensely confused with the pullout of foreign troops. India's $US 3 billion investments in reconstruction of the war-torn country along with its heavy investments in building its intelligence network and its strategic assets are at stake under a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Under the previous Taliban administration,  India was forced to leave the country in 1996. India re-entered Afghanistan after the 2001 US invasion ousted the Taliban government in Kabul.  

During the US withdrawal, New Delhi was stuck in a dilemma – what to do and what not to do to save it from being the strategic loser in the Afghan endgame?

As the United States began to leave Afghanistan in May, India tried to fill the security void in the war-torn country. Before the fall of Kabul on August 15, India covertly did everything except put boots on the ground to strengthen the Afghan government of President Ghani in order to resist the Taliban's advance in Afghanistan. The Afghan government had been India's key pawn in the endgame and New Delhi struggled hard to keep it 'in' in the game. To India's frustration, Ghani left Kabul leaving it to the Taliban without offering any resistance. 

Even India brought a major shift in its Afghanistan policy and tried to open backdoor channels with the Taliban leadership, whom it had been accusing of facilitating terror attacks along with Pakistan-based groups like the Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e Mohammad on Indian missions in Afghanistan. Indian security officials contacted several Taliban leaders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a member of the Taliban leadership council.

Perspectives

India seriously tried to limit damage to its security interests, as the Taliban emerged militarily stronger and politically more powerful, rapidly expanding their control to several Afghan provinces as soon as the US started the withdrawal process.

Since India's secret but short romance with the Taliban flopped, New Delhi left no stone unturned to resist the Taliban's advance towards northern Afghanistan. Following the fall of Kabul in mid-August, India continued to support anti-Taliban forces, which were fighting with Taliban fighters in Panjshir, the last province that ultimately surrendered to the Taliban. Under the previous Taliban government, there was resistance against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan and the Taliban had not been able to control the whole of the country.  

For months, Panjshir valley remained the last resistance holdout against the Taliban in post-US Afghanistan. The remnants of the ousted Afghan government including former vice president Amrullah Saleh and Afghan soldiers grouped in Panjshir to mount an effective resistance against Taliban under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of a former Mujahideen commander – Ahmad Shah Massoud.

India had been covertly helping militarily to Masood's father, Ahmad Shah Mehmood during the previous Taliban government in Kabul (1996-2001). Strategically located at the border between Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, the Farkhor base had been used to transport military supplies to the Afghan Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the late 1990s. New Delhi provided extensive assistance to the Northern Alliance. The supplies would arrive at Dushanbe from where those were transferred to Farkhor. New Delhi also gifted two Mi-8 helicopters to the Northern Alliance under the previous Taliban government.

Perspectives

India blamed its arch-rival Pakistan for assisting and arming the Taliban and it saw Islamabad's alleged hand behind the Taliban's rapid advance and the fall of Kabul and Panjshir. Pakistan, however, denies the charges.

Over the past two decades, New Delhi increased its diplomatic and economic presence in Afghanistan, which shares long borders with Pakistan. India's presence in Afghanistan enabled it to settle scores with its arch-rival Pakistan and it used Afghanistan as a second front for the past 20 years. Islamabad repeatedly accused India of fueling unrest in Pakistan, allegations that India has denied. 

India's second front was first disclosed in 2011 by Chuck Hagel, the 24th US Secretary of Defence. In a speech at Oklahoma's Cameron University in 2011, Hagel said, "India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border." 

Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban and Baloch separatist groups are the strategic assets India has been using to fuèl unrest in Pakistan.  The capture of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav by Pakistani authorities in Balochistan province bordering Afghanistan in 2016 and his confessional statement revealed the whole story of India's proxy war against Pakistan from Afghanistan. Jadhav was a serving officer with the Indian navy and he was allegedly an agent of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the spy agency. 

"New Delhi does not want to see an Islamabad-friendly Kabul, and hence will ultimately want a regime change"

The US withdrawal also removed the security cover to India's interests in Afghanistan. India's interests suffered immensely in post-US Afghanistan. For example, the Taliban took control of Salma Dam, the Afghanistan-India friendship dam in western Herat province. The dam is one of India's most expensive infrastructure projects in the war-wracked country.

Presently, New Delhi's biggest concern is about the impact of the Taliban's victory on Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. India sees the reemergence of the Taliban as further oxygen to Kashmiri Jihadist groups fighting the Indian forces in Kashmir. It also sees the recent surge in violence in India-controlled Kashmir as a spillover effect of the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

India's strategic interests in Afghanistan have already suffered immensely, but now the post-US Afghanistan gives Pakistan an opportunity to settle scores with India in Kashmir. New Delhi does not want to see an Islamabad-friendly Kabul, and hence will ultimately want a regime change. 

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including ‘Economic Development of Balochistan’.

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