India, Pakistan Clash Again In Afghanistan

The ascendancy of Taliban to power in Afghanistan almost two-and-a-half months ago, after the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of the US forces from the country had raised hopes that Afghanistan may see the dawn of a peaceful era and the Taliban 2.0 might be able to establish a stable and secure government in the country.

Since August a lot of regional and multilateral meetings and conferences have been hosted to find a roadmap to lead Afghanistan to peace and stability, besides various country’s representatives meeting Taliban representatives in Doha.

Countries that have a lot of stake in Kabul and are affected by the Afghanistan affairs both internally and externally have taken most of these initiatives.

Meetings on Afghanistan

Russia hosted the first regional conference titled Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan in which all the Central Asian republics, China, Iran, Pakistan and India and a high-level Taliban delegation also participated.

Its objective was to find “a regional consensus” amongst the participants regarding the Taliban2.0. But the primary objective was to get the Taliban to form a broad-based government in Kabul, reflecting the country’s ethnic and religious diversity, ensure basic human rights of all Afghans, particularly the women and children, and get an assurance from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be allowed to be used as a launchpad for terrorist attacks on other countries.

Soon after, Tehran hosted a similar conference of regional and neighbouring states to discuss how to deal with the Taliban. Once again, the de facto objective was to find a regional consensus and to pressurise the Taliban to adhere to its commitments. Its additional aim was to ensure the welfare and safety of the Hazara community and other Shias of Afghanistan.

DRSD and T+ Meetings

However, the most curious meetings were hosted by India and Pakistan on 10 and 11 November in New Delhi- called Delhi Regional Security Dialogue and Islamabad-called Troika Plus, respectively. It seems as if the two regional foes wanted to establish their supremacy over each other, in order to play a crucial role in the redevelopment of Afghanistan.

But more curious play out during these meetings was that no Taliban representative was present at either of the two, though the acting foreign minister of the Taliban government, Amir Khan Muttaqi was present in Islamabad from 10 to 12 November. He had to contend with meeting the participating special representatives of Pakistan, US, Russia and China and Pakistan’ prime minister and foreign minister separately.

In yet another twist Russia, issued a statement of its own after the release of the Delhi Declaration, based on a twist of words and technicalities, but this is uncalled for in diplomatic circles.

Pakistan and China didn’t attended the DRSD, Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf said he would not attend the New Delhi meeting saying ‘…a spoiler can’t be a peacemaker”. India called Pakistan’s decision unfortunate and said it reflects its mind-set of viewing Afghanistan as its protectorate. Its comments against India are an unsuccessful attempt to deflect attention from its pernicious role in Afghanistan

On China skipping the dialogue, sources said that though it is not attending the conclave because of the scheduling difficulties, it has conveyed its readiness to maintain contacts with India on Afghanistan through bilateral and multilateral channels.

Why so much worry about Afghanistan?

Now the question that arises is why are different regional and international players so interested in Afghanistan? The US which entered Afghanistan twenty years back, following the traces of its one time prodigy in the name of War on Terror, is also seen kowtowing to the same Taliban with which it fought for twenty long years.

The underlying reason seems to be based on reports, which originated at different times during the last twenty years, but were described as controversy theories and were brushed under the carpet. But now the turn of events shows that they indeed were true.

According to reports published by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the country possesses at least $1 trillion of untapped mineral resources. A country of 38 million people is estimated to hold more than 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore, 1.3 billion tonnes of marble and 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth minerals like Lithium, Chromite, Aluminium etc. besides Gold and Silver.

According to geologist Scott Montgomery, a minimum of seven to 10 years is required to develop large-scale mining in Afghanistan, to become a major source of revenue for the poor country. On September 2, the Taliban said that the group would rely primarily on financing from China, which already holds several long-term mining leases around the country.

So one can deduce that this newfound love for Afghanis and Afghanistan is based on the hunger for these minerals. During the last twenty years the American geologists might have identified the key areas and processes to be adopted to mine these resources, yet the US based on experience understands very well that to commercially exploit this natural wealth of Afghanistan, a peaceful and business conducive atmosphere is needed, otherwise in a war ravaged country the cost of mineral commercialisation may shoot up very high. That’s why it seems to have propped up Taliban 2.0, ensuring that they are able to establish their government and promising them to give a small percentage of the revenues back to it as Developmental Aid and pocket the big chunk of revenue and utilising the rare minerals for its industries. The rest of the international community too seems to be following on this blueprint. A classic case of present day economic imperialism.

As far as India is concerned, it wants to play a constructive role in Afghanistan, so as to ensure that the still present rogue terrorist elements in Afghanistan do not find their way to Indian Kashmir. Though it established contacts with Taliban last, but was seen as lagging behind to pursue them proactively, perhaps because of internal political dynamics. But it will have to take a calculated risk to engage with Taliban with foresight, so as to manage Pakistan’s rude attitude on the issue, which considers Afghanistan as its protectorate and can’t tolerate any Indian play. Only then India could claim to be a regional power.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

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.

ALSO READ: The Afghanistan Papers Uncover A Dirty War

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 Victory Puts Pakistan In A Spot

Pakistani government at the moment seems to be in a quandary. The manner in which it wanted to exploit the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has rebounded threatening to reinforce religious fundamentalists inclinations in Pakistan itself. US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan was due to the realisation that religious fundamentalism might not remain contained to Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan may give Pakistan a choice to look at its relationships with its neighbours, not just from an anti-India stance as it tries to rein-in and influence Taliban to remain pro-Pakistan and not adopt an independent policy of their own.

However, the religio-politico situation of the region which started rearing its head in 1980s with the help of US and Saudi-backed fanatical elements to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan, has increasingly showed ripple effect in Pakistan, the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP) remains a prime example of such thinking.

Pakistan is seen as working in support of the Taliban as reports suggest that it was based on the advice of Pakistani military and government officials that the US generals stuck to the Taliban’s August 31 deadline for an end to US evacuation so that the group can move forward with forming a government.

In fact the Pakistani military started working on efforts to persuade the United States to negotiate an end to the war with the Taliban even before they gained control of Afghanistan, a development Pakistani officers believed was inevitable. Based on those inputs the US started to engage with Taliban in early 2019.

Commenting on the evolving situation Ayesha Siddiqa a geo-politics adviser at SOAS, UK said that Rawalpindi invested primarily in the Taliban as it knew that US would ultimately leave Afghanistan. Rawalpindi’s prime desire was to ensure a friendly establishment in its north-western neighbouring nation, which doesn’t get exploited against Pakistan’s interests, especially by India.

ALSO READ: ‘Afghanistan Papers Uncover The Dirty War’

However, the investment over 27 years has produced mixed results. It certainly did not translate into the Taliban doing Pakistan’s bidding. Ms. Siddiqa described Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s promise that Afghan media would be free as “a reminder of similar assurances about media freedom by Pakistan’s generals, which makes one realise the effort afoot to make a Taliban-led regime look increasingly like Pakistan (or even India): Hybrid-authoritarian and hybrid-theocratic… This is where the real problem for Pakistan begins.”

While Pakistani fears that the Taliban victory may give a violent boost to the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban that has close ties to their Afghan kin, the TTP had started to be active again inside Pakistan even before the Taliban capture of Afghanistan.

The Taliban victory benefits from decades in which religious fundamentalism was woven into the fabric of Pakistani society as well as some of its key institutions.

Ms. Siddiqa comments, “The fact remains that, notwithstanding the ambition to mellow the tone of religion in Afghanistan, Pakistan itself runs the risk of becoming more like its north-western neighbour – more religious and more authoritarian.”

Pakistan understands the complex situation very well and that’s why it was pushing the Taliban to opt for a truly inclusive government besides broadening its contacts with other Afghan groups. A visit last week to the Pakistani capital by representatives of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and other Afghan politicians is a pointer in that regard.

In discussing the fallout for Pakistan of the Taliban victory, analysts have by and large focussed on Pakistan as fertile ground for the spread of Taliban-style religious fundamentalism as well as concerns that it would enable TTP to rekindle their campaign of attacks in Pakistan.

The TTP is a coalition of Pashtun Islamist groups with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that last year joined forces with several other militant Pakistani groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a violently anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim supremacist organisation.

“Pashtuns of the Afghan Taliban will, after a few years in power, find common cause with their Pashtun kinsmen in Pakistan… There are plenty of Pakistani Pashtuns who would prefer the whole of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) to be part of a wider Pashtunistan,” predicts scholar and former British ambassador to Pakistan Tim Willasey-Wilsey.

In fact, the events of the last 75 years confirm that the main focus of Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been anti-Indian in tenor and practice. It became a fertile ground for Mujahedeen in the 1970s, as it wanted to exert more influence on the Soviet state as compared to India besides stoking fire in Indian Kashmir.

Later it allied with the US just in order to belittle India, but the reality is that Pakistan has always tried to be involved in the Afghan affairs due to the economic gains also and this trend continues even now. The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb, while in Pakistan last week, announced doubling of aid to Afghanistan to £286 million and released the first tranche of  £30 million of that to support Afghanistan’s regional neighbours including Pakistan. Thus, in a way the foreign aid has not only lined the pockets of Afghan gang lords and politicians but even the Pakistani generals and politicians.

Due to this complexity in the Afghan affairs and the recent announcements by senior Taliban leadership with regard to India puts Pakistan in a real quandary. Pakistan might also be concerned after a Taliban official Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai declared in a rare statement on foreign policy that “we give due importance to our political, economic and trade ties with India and we want these ties to continue. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard.”

Stanekzai is considered to have a soft corner for India, having trained at IMA, Dehradun during the 1980s, and it is Taliban officials like him and others who might be more pro-India, which puts Pakistan at unease along with the concern that one day the Taliban style thinking might spread through Pakistan also.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)