Taliban In Afghanistan: India’s Options

Now that the Taliban has been declared winner in Afghanistan and its elected President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15, 2021 without putting up a fight, the world, especially those in the region are assessing the implications of Taliban rule. The departure of United States Armed forces has been the catalyst for the series of events and emerging geopolitical shifts that will necessitate new thinking in Indian Foreign policy.

US entered Afghanistan to eliminate the Al Qaeda network and its Taliban supporters who were responsible for the attacks on the United States soil. The leader of Al Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks has been eliminated but the Al Qaeda network survives as obviously do the Taliban. The United States may still have some influence on the new Taliban, but for India the political terrain is tectonically different.

India is invested heavily in Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War. In terms of geopolitics in South Asia, Afghanistan accords a vantage point for India vis-à-vis Pakistan, it’s arch-rival. Matters are complicated further with the realization that China with its financial muscle and intention to expand the Belt and Road Initiative will find a stronghold in Afghanistan. Beijing made overtures to the Taliban leadership and met them in Qatar recently. With strong China-Pakistan relationship, India’s situation in the region becomes precarious as it may not have any leverage on its Western expanse.

India’s western borders have remained a concern historically and it expends a lot of energy and investment to consolidate and remain visible in the region. With its immediate neighbour Pakistan, not an ideal one, New Delhi looks towards Afghanistan and Iran, to both manage the western neighbourhood and to balance Pakistan.

India, therefore, has made significant investments in Iran and Afghanistan which are Pakistan’s neighbours towards west. India, imports crude oil from Iran even at the displeasure of the USA, and has invested in creating infrastructure (Schools, Hospitals and Roads) in Afghanistan. It has remained a cornerstone of India’s western geographical strategy.

The returns New Delhi may have been expecting in the form of connectivity and transport networks in the region now stand jeopardized. Under the New Silk Road Strategy of the USA, India would have gained access to Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan. The current situation, however, alters the dynamic as the Taliban have expressed their resentment with India in the recent past and have gone to declare it as an adversary. India’s increasing proximity towards the United States may have resulted in the Taliban to dislike India.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has harboured the Taliban in safe havens on its Western tribal provinces during their difficult years and will influence decision-making in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it will work towards negating India and reducing its existing footprint in Afghanistan. As China has already approached the Taliban it is likely to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects into Afghanistan via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. In collaboration with regional power China, Pakistan will work to reduce India’s engagement in Afghanistan. The current geopolitical situation, therefore, is favourable for Pakistan.

India needs to take these developments into its stride and create opportunities to engage with the Taliban afresh. A positive beginning could be acceptance of the Taliban as the current interlocutors for Afghan people.

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Internationally, a host of states have expressed their willingness to talk to Taliban as the ruling dispensation of Afghanistan. It may be because of the swiftness with which Taliban has occupied Afghanistan and it seems there is no challenge to Taliban and a civil war is unlikely. India also needs to engage with the Taliban for multiple reasons ranging from the investments made there to the inclusion in connectivity projects to pure geostrategic concerns. India can take heart from the fact that it evokes a lot of goodwill among the Afghan people.

Significantly enough, questions remain about the capacity of Taliban to govern a complex country. First, it will have to raise an economy from scratch to employ the younger generation of Afghanistan (60% of Afghan population is below 20 years of age). Whether China and Pakistan, two main allies of Taliban will be able to revive Afghanistan, remains to be seen. Second, current dominance of Taliban over the entire country will come under strain when local tribal warlords gather strength, aided by the West. The irony is that Taliban will still be riding the infrastructure built by the United States and its allies and India, whom they despise.

Third, acceptability for Taliban in the international system will also depend on the issue of human rights, most importantly women’s rights as they impose Shari’a law under the Islamic Republic in the territory. It is the fear of reprisals from the Taliban and the Shari’a which is causing the mass exodus of Afghans.

India, has been a favoured destination for common Afghans for generations and the international opinion is against the Taliban. India’s diplomatic efforts and negotiating capabilities to engage with the Taliban government will be crucial in the days and years to come. India must forsake idealistic notions in a realist world and should diplomatically engage with Taliban to protect its interests and to stay relevant in the region.

‘Taliban Are Savage, I Fear For My Family In Afghanistan’

Sayed Idris, 26, an Afghan student who also works at a Delhi eatery, says he can only pray for the safety of his family left behind in Afghanistan

I don’t know what the future has in store for me and my family; I spend sleepless nights worrying about the members of my family left behind in Afghanistan. Only my elder sister and I could make our way to India, my parents and another brother and a sister are still in Kabul, the city I grew up in. With news of Taliban capturing Kabul, I wonder if I would ever be able to see my family again.

My sister and I came to India in 2019 and ever since then things have only worsened in Afghanistan. Each day people live in fear. These Taliban fighters are brutal and barbaric; they have no humanity in them and they don’t heed to any logic.

I don’t want to go through the story of the journey we made from Kabul to Delhi, but no one wants to leave his or her motherland unless forced by circumstances. It broke my heart to leave my family and country and start a new life elsewhere without them. Thankfully technology is still intact in Afghanistan and we can at least talk to our family members each day over the phone.

Even though we both didn’t know a word of Hindi before we landed here, India and Indians welcomed us with open arms. The neighbours are very nice and never treat us differently. My sister and I can now speak Hindi a little.

Idris says he feels helpless and can only pray for his family

We live in Delhi along with many other Afghan refugees. Life here has been much better here than it was there, especially for my sister. She feels respected here as a human. There is no education, no scope for employment, basically no future back there. Women are really treated badly by the Taliban and my sisters were ‘discouraged’ from studying or working, as if they have no dreams or ideas of their own.

We have a distantly related uncle living nearby and we look up to him. I work at an eatery making Afghani bread and also take online classes for learning English and Computers. My sister has also enrolled for the same courses and it makes me happy to see her making progress, free and away from the eyes of the Taliban.

I wish we can both stand on our own feet soon and get our family here. Thankfully I was working at an eatery which didn’t suffer so much from lockdown. If I were working in any other kind of business, I don’t know how we would survive.

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Afghanistan has had a taste of Taliban rule before and most people knew how it could turn out again and so decided to come to India. My only wish and hope is that the rest of my family can join us too and that my country finds peace.

I hope the international powers that are will find a solution to the problem soon and I feel India’s voice matters a lot in times like these. The international community has to come together and stand up for Afghanistan otherwise it will have ramifications for the whole world. Bahut mushkil waqt hai, dua ke alawa ab kuch aur nahi kar sakte. (These are tough times. It is all in God’s hands now. We can only pray for the safety of everyone).

– As Told To Yog Maya Singh