In Kabul, the republic versus the emirate
On September 11, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States (US) will finally end its “longest war” in Afghanistan. The move, long-expected but specifics of which are still awaited, comes at a critical juncture that may alter the strategic contours of South Asia. From offering Pakistan increased strategic heft in Kabul via the Taliban —with little clarity about what Rawalpindi will actually do with it — to risking State collapse, major uncertainty looms in Afghanistan.
A political solution isn’t easy. Kabul’s failure to overcome factionalism underlines the political vacuousness of the Islamic republic, despite its constitutional existence. Similarly, the Taliban’s reliance on indiscriminate violence to negotiate with adversaries, and to potentially govern, indicates its near-total ideological unmooring from whatever little an Islamic emirate has to offer.
For India, which has borne the brunt of instability in Afghanistan in the past, this is a highly undesirable situation. Since 2001, New Delhi relied on the US security presence to expand its strategic footprint in Afghanistan and shore up ties with sitting presidents in Kabul, while refusing to engage with the Taliban, and advocating an impossible “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” reconciliation process. It spent over $2 billion in aid and infrastructure development and sought to ensure a strategic balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite the power asymmetry between the two.
The uncertainty of the current situation complicates India’s strategy, and risks undermining its interests. Escalation in multi-sided violence may create difficult-to-govern areas and further erode India’s presence in Afghanistan — consulates in Herat and Jalalabad are closed due to security concerns. Related spillover effects of forced migration, drug trafficking, and flourishing of transnational jihadists will impact the neighbourhood and Europe more than the US.
India, which is unfortunately facing a similar prospect of State collapse in Myanmar, doesn’t have the capacity to resolve Afghanistan’s deep-rooted problems. But, in the next four months, before the last American soldier departs, it must make certain adjustments to prevent serious harm.
To begin with, as scholars Rudra Chaudhuri and Shreyas Shende recommend in a Carnegie India report, India must appoint a special envoy to strengthen ties with allies within republican Afghanistan, and increase military (especially aerial combat) support for Kabul. The envoy should then be mandated to open channels with select Taliban figures. India has not invested much diplomatic capital on this front but cannot afford to remain aloof from the Taliban anymore.
Tactical in nature, the aim of such outreach should be two-fold. One, to gauge the Taliban’s intent and capability to exercise policy autonomy vis-à-vis Pakistan. The former’s approach towards India’s consulates, developmental projects, prevention of use of Afghan territory for attacks against India, and, relatedly, the Kashmir issue (on which the Taliban remained studiedly neutral on August 5, 2019) will be an effective litmus tests on this count.
Two, to explore and, if possible, exploit fissures within the Taliban. Despite being indebted to Rawalpindi and being temporarily united, the Taliban is likely to struggle with unity once in power. This doesn’t mean that India should undertake policy planning in expectation of an imminent Taliban implosion — which is unlikely in the short-term. But it must identify space for political manoeuvring within the Taliban in coordination with its other Afghan allies. Some figures (such as Mullah Yaqoob, who is already challenging the current leadership, and Mullah Baradar), who understand the nuances of international diplomacy, might be open to diversifying ties and reducing dependence on Pakistan once in power.
This aspect of the Taliban seeking policy autonomy vis-à-vis Rawalpindi was visible in the post-Mullah Omar period (2015-18) of Taliban infighting when Mullah Akhtar Mansour became alienated enough by Pakistan to develop a parallel channel with Iran. Tehran posed a challenge to Islamabad’s dominance in Afghanistan’s militant landscape. From opening a Taliban office in Mashhad to supporting the renegade Mullah Rasul and engaging Mansour, Tehran ensured that it had some leverage over the Taliban, despite Kabul’s discomfort and Islamabad’s pushback. The Kulbhushan Jadhav case rocked this triangular relationship in 2016 at the peak of Iran-Pakistan covert rivalry in Afghanistan.
To be sure, India is likely to coordinate its Afghanistan policy with the US in the coming years as part of Quad. But given the situation on the ground, Tehran will be a critical regional ally for New Delhi. At the Raisina Dialogue, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, in a discussion with his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar and Afghanistan’s national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib stated clearly that Tehran does not desire an emirate in Afghanistan. Like India, Iran does not view a Kabul dominated by Pakistan-supported Sunni Islamists as being in its strategic interests. Despite its alignment with China and Russia, and despite recent strains in bilateral ties, Tehran is likely to cooperate with New Delhi on this issue.
Afghanistan today is more resilient than its early 1990s avatar and is likely to offer stiff localised resistance to the Taliban. Consequently, Pakistan’s strategic wins, if one can call them that, may prove pyrrhic in the medium-term. The resurgence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has deep links with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, should, ideally, offer Rawalpindi a pause. Afghan resistance against the Taliban coupled with the endurance of nationalist Afghan opinion, which cuts across the republic and emirate spectrum, affords India geopolitical manoeuvring space.
If New Delhi plays its cards right, it can both protect its interests in Afghanistan and support Kabul to stand its ground, however tenuous, vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal
The views expressed are personal