Despite attending the US-Taliban peace deal, India has every reason to be watchful of events in Afghanistan

Despite attending the US-Taliban peace deal, India has every reason to be watchful of events in Afghanistan

India’s concerns are rooted in issues of regional security and trade with Central Asia, especially with Pakistan playing a part in the deal.

By Anand Vardhan

Published on :

Two decades can be a long period in how terms of engagement are seen in international relations. At the turn of this century, the use of the expression “moderate Taliban” was cited as an example of an oxymoron. It was a time when the United States had launched a large-scale armed crackdown on Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan, in response to the 9/11 World Trade Centre terror attacks in 2001.

Besides the deployment of American troops, the 19 years that followed witnessed a regime change in Afghanistan and the dismantling of a part of the terror network in the country. However, the last decade also saw the Taliban wresting back control over large swathes of the country, and emerging as a parallel power centre along, and quite contrarily, with the democratically elected government.

More significantly, in terms of international engagement, the fatigue of a long-drawn war saw signs of creeping into American politics, particularly with the loss of around 2,350 US soldiers since 2001.

For over a year, there has been a strong possibility of President Donald Trump executing his commitment to the phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on the condition of getting the Taliban’s assurance of a significant reduction in violence and an eventual nationwide ceasefire. Besides this, the US has been keen on the Taliban initiating a dialogue with the Afghan government and other groups for a stable ceasefire across the country, and for reaching a power-sharing agreement.

With the American presidential election scheduled later this year, the US-Taliban peace deal, to an extent facilitated by Pakistan, will be ratified today at Doha, Qatar’s capital.

As a stakeholder in regional security as well as the economy, the deal poses a diplomatic and strategic challenge for India. India’s consistent position has been to avoid any engagement with the Taliban in an official capacity, as long it doesn’t have the approval of the Afghanistan government in Kabul. India has been averse to the mainstreaming of the Taliban, which it sees as a terror militia. In pursuit of what India calls its “peace and reconciliatory approach” to Afghanistan, Indian diplomats have been inclined to engage with only Afghan-owned and Afghan-led talks in an official capacity.

This, however, needed an adjustment.

In 2018, with inevitable signs of a US-Taliban deal taking shape, it was only in a non-official capacity that India sent two diplomats — Amar Sinha, former envoy to Afghanistan, and TCA Raghavan, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan — to an international conference in Moscow on the Afghanistan peace process. The conference was attended by a Taliban delegation too.

Today, accepting an invitation from the Qatar government, India's envoy to Qatar, P Kumaran, will attend the US-Taliban peace deal-signing ceremony in Doha. Even as an observer, it will be India’s first official presence at an international event which has the participation of Taliban representatives too. However, even in this official presence, India has been careful in preceding this with a visit by foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Kabul. Shringla met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and top officials.

There are a few obvious anxieties that India will carry as it comes to terms with the US-Taliban peace deal. Its concerns about the deal can take many forms, as will the avenues it might seek to deal with them. Some of the challenges that India views in the deal are obvious.

First, India’s concerns are primarily rooted in the implications the deal might have for regional security, particularly as India has been a victim of Islamist terror groups. As the then foreign secretary Nirupama Rao had clearly stated as early as 2011, there is a growing fusion of terrorist groups that operate from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and their activities in India. With Pakistan steering this deal, there is an apprehension that Pakistan’s sway over the Taliban will give a free hand in fuelling cross-border terrorism against India.

While influence over Afghanistan has always been seen as providing strategic depth to Pakistan, the means through which Pakistan has tried to achieve it has been more worrisome for India. That has implied that India has to deal with a hostile neighbour using another neighboring country as a sanctuary of terror activities against India. It’s in this context that India will be wary of Pakistan’s design to have influence over Afghan territory, through its sway over the Taliban.

Second, besides regional security, India is also a stakeholder in the Afghanistan reconstruction process, as it has already invested around $3 billion in the Taliban since 2001. A large part of it — around $2 billion — has been invested in capacity- and infrastructure-building processes. A sizeable number of Indian workers and experts from different fields have been working there. Such a scale of humanitarian aid and presence of Indians in the reconstruction process also makes India a keen watcher of political developments in its immediate neighbourhood.

Third, with India’s strained ties with Pakistan, it’s the geographical positioning that makes Afghanistan the alternative route to access Central Asia and the accompanying trade. Making use of the route, India has invested heavily in the Chabahar Port in Iran. It has been 17 years since India, Afghanistan and Iran — under the North-South Transport Corridor framework — inked the Chabahar Port agreement. The pact permits these countries to use the port as a trading point. As India renews its focus on Central Asia trade, securing its access to the region via Afghanistan becomes significant. This also implies that India will be alert to any adversarial designs that hinders its trading route.

India’s apprehensions about the mainstreaming of the Taliban as one of the key power players in Afghanistan are, therefore, historically rooted and geopolitically conscious. Besides the reasoning of regional security, it has also acquired a trading rationale. While India wasn’t in a position to wean President Trump away from a peace deal with the Taliban, it will hope that the withdrawal of forces is only gradual and not hasty, and would be happier if some form of such presence never ceases.

In countering the strategic depth that Pakistan seeks in Afghanistan, there is also a possibility that India will recalibrate its post-peace deal strategy, premised on its close association with infrastructure- and capacity-building projects in Afghanistan. Given all this, India certainly has skin in the Afghan game.