Realpolitik in Afghanistan: Way forward for India

Authors:  Bhargava Reddy & Vinay N Bhushan

In August, the internationally recognized Afghan government – the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA) – led by President Ashraf Ghani completely collapsed with the capitulation of the Afghan Armed Forces against a marauding Taliban militia. The armed forces and a government built over 20 years withered away ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of the US-led forces. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan to democratize Afghanistan has come to a chaotic and humiliating end. Since then, the Taliban has gone on to institute an interim government headed by Mullah Akhund.

India had closely allied with the IRA during the period of reconstruction. India provided strong support to the Afghan Armed Forces with training and weaponry. The strategic alliance with the IRA had put India at odds with the Taliban. When the Biden administration reiterated that the US resolved to completely withdraw from Afghanistan earlier this year, the policy options before India narrowed. 

Afghanistan thus far

The Taliban, which refers to its regime as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), is an Islamist religious-political movement and military organization in Afghanistan. Many countries, including India, still regards the Taliban as a terrorist entity. Now, however, the Taliban claim that it is the only legitimate government of Afghanistan. 

The US-led alliance invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and deny safe haven to terrorism in Afghanistan for all time to come. The US displaced the Taliban from power by 2002 and brought forth a democratic government while the country remained plagued by a Taliban-led insurgency. After pouring trillions of US dollars and holding multiple elections since 2001, Afghanistan is back to square one with the potential of becoming a hotbed for global terror once again. 

India had backed the Northern Alliance that had politically and militarily opposed the Taliban regime from 1996-2001. After the overthrow of the Taliban regime, India invested approximately USD 3 billion in developmental assistance in Afghanistan – with the Parliament building and the Afghan-India Friendship Dam being the showpieces. India has been home to a significant Afghan student population, many under government sponsorship. 

Way forward for India

As the Taliban-led government is formally announced, India should look to engage with them constructively despite the issues of international recognition. Several countries have been unequivocal in their stance of not recognizing a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul. 

India, with due circumspection, should consider official recognition of a Taliban-dominated government gradually. India would be better off if it is engaged with the Taliban regime instead of an obstinate opposition to the militant group. The novel approach of promoting a democratic process does not always help in securing India’s interests. After all, India has been engaging constructively in countries such as Myanmar and Iran. Moreover, with the Taliban in power, Pakistan is likely to dominate the region strategically. It can potentially use Afghanistan as a base against India – as it has done in the past. Pakistan is alleged to have played a pivotal role in the formation of the interim government. Thus, it is in India’s interest to ensure a working relationship with the Taliban regime and retain its soft power to counter Pakistan’s influence in the region. 

India has to balance its commitment to a multi-ethnic Afghanistan with the realpolitik of engaging the Taliban regime. Also, given the Taliban’s extremist past, the Indian government will have to tread carefully while negotiating with the Taliban. The ties between the Taliban and terrorist organizations in South Asia have haunted India, as in December 1999, an Indian commercial aircraft was hijacked and flown to Kandahar, Afghanistan. 

Peace in the Kashmir Valley remains a top priority for the Indian government. Pakistan and its religious proxies in Afghanistan have strongly backed the Taliban movement since its inception in the early 1990s in the tribal Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. India’s outreach to the Taliban will have to carefully offset any anti-India behaviour that Pakistan might force on the Taliban. 

Further, China and Russia have displayed a keen inclination to officially court the Taliban after capturing most of Afghanistan at breakneck speed. Russia and China are looking to secure their interests in Afghanistan and fill the vacuum created by the exit of US-led security forces.

India, like Western democracies, tends to push the democratic value system at the cost of its strategic interests. But now that an interim government has been established in Kabul, India must look beyond the nation-building and democracy-promotion paradigms. It is in the best interest of India to re-establish a working relationship with the Taliban regime. 

(The authors are foreign policy researchers with experience spanning academia, government, think-tanks, and the corporate sector)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the individual author[s] only; the article does not represent the view of the Afghanistan Security Institute.

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