Is India losing the Great Game? There are no shortage of those forecasting a return of the Taliban less than a decade after being toppled. “The Taliban seem to be winning. If they win, we lose,” says Gurmeet Kanwal, director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.
There are two schools of thinking in New Delhi today. One is that India has left an outsize impression among Afghans and this will pay dividends in the long term. Pakistan’s present ascendancy, it argues, will not last for long.
The other argues the US will soon withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban will fill the vacuum. “The day the Americans leave, we’ll be on the next flight out,” said an Indian official. And the new Taliban regime will mean a wave of terror attacks against India.
The future of Afghanistan depends on two imponderables. The first is whether the US will withdraw its troops in a manner that lets the Taliban take over. Though it still publicly talks of leaving, the Barack Obama administration is signalling privately to India and others that the US isn’t budging. There is pressure for him to leave and pressure for him to stay, says Teresita Schaffer, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, “At the moment, that second set of pressures is what he’s responding to.”
The second is whose tune the most important Taliban leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, will dance to. Pakistan, for whom he attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul, believes he’s their man. Yet he’s been having talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for months. The US State Department sees him as “the real wild card — the only significant power who’s neither been coopted nor is completely beyond the pale.” India also believes Haqqani has more of a mind of his own than Islamabad realises.
The point is that none of this is predetermined — they will shift depending on the way the Afghan winds blow.
India’s analysis is that the situation is far more nuanced than most outsiders recognise. “There is a game of triple bluff going on in Kabul,” said one official. The US is telling Pakistan that it will never leave if that allows the Al Qaeda and the Taliban to return.
Pakistan believes the US is going to go anyway, so it safeguards its Taliban allies. Karzai talks of joining the Taliban, of setting up an alliance with northern Afghans, and otherwise dumping the Americans. “That’s a bluff. The Taliban will string him up if they get the chance,” said a diplomatic source.
Where is India in all of this?
India’s ambassador in Kabul, Jayant Prasad, says the country’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan are not Pakistan-focused. “Our first goal is the stabilisation of Afghanistan … Our second goal is to have an Afghan government that can stand on its own feet.”
The Indian calculation is that history shows that no foreigner can bend the Afghans to their will for long, so its focus has been to build goodwill across Afghan society. Polls say Indians enjoy the highest approval ratings of any foreigners among Afghans, Pakistanis the lowest. This will exacerbate long-standing tensions. Says Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Research Institute, “There have been rare moments of peace between Kabul and Islamabad.”
Sceptics see this policy as passive, with India failing to shape events in its favour. They cite how India was either not invited or blindsided at major global conferences on Afghanistan. They note how the US is succumbing to Pakistani pressure — most recently on disallowing Afghan officers to come to India to train. “We are being marginalised,” says former diplomat G. Parthasarathy.
New Delhi argues Indian hard options are severely limited north of the Hindu Kush for reasons of geography and capacity. India struggles with the logistics of maintaining its small base in Tajikistan. “We can’t function unilaterally there,” says Kanwal. “We would need international support.”
New Delhi believes that given the few cards India has to play in Afghanistan, it’s done well. “Where we were once never a player, we now have a role,” said one official.
India is less worried about US policy today. Obama has personally spurned Pakistani demands that India’s Afghan consulates be closed. “US frustration with two-facedness on the part of Pakistan military should not be underestimated,” says one Democratic Party lobbyist. Another positive for India: “The important Karzai-Obama relationship is coming out of its present crisis okay,” says Schaffer.
But with the anti-Pakistan Taliban on the backfoot and the West still wobbly in Afghanistan, Islamabad still believes it’s the favourite in the Great Game. India believes its quiet strategy will win out over time. “The endgame has just begun,” said an official.