India must support its allies in Kabul
New Delhi must also expand its equities among different political constellations in Afghanistan
On February 21, India’s ambassador to Kabul met Afghanistan’s vice-president Amrullah Saleh to reiterate “India’s commitment to working with the new government and democratic polity in strengthening the bilateral strategic partnership”. The meeting was timed parallel to the announcement of the United States (US)-Afghan Taliban deal, commencement of the “reduction of violence” period, an expectation of intra-Afghan talks, and President Donald Trump’s India visit.
Loaded with strategic intent, India’s decision to support President Ashraf Ghani underlines the central driver of its Afghanistan policy: To strike a continuing strategic balance between Kabul and Islamabad. Over the last decade, in the light of Afghanistan’s structural weakness vis-à-vis Pakistan, New Delhi has focused on supporting Kabul in its struggle to influence, however tenuously, the terms of talks with the Taliban.
In this context, India faced twin inter-related dilemmas. One, how to ensure political coherence in Kabul where the president and the (now former) CEO Abdullah Abdullah are at loggerheads? This is important, because a split in Afghanistan’s mainstream body politic will weaken the government’s hand in its negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Two, should it engage with the Afghan Taliban or not? Regardless of Kabul’s performance in the expected intra-Afghan dialogue, the Taliban is likely to become part of the government in some shape or form. On the first dilemma, India has firmly rejected Abdullah’s idea of creating a parallel government with support from former vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostum. This decision, and its promptness, has little to do with the perceived legitimacy of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. It has to do with the fact that Ghani enjoys relatively more US support than Abdullah, has a team that India can trust to secure its interests better, and that New Delhi simply cannot afford Kabul’s collapse days before the intra-Afghan talks begin.
If anything, India will endeavour to strengthen Ghani’s hand in the intra-Afghan talks. Short of putting boots on the ground, New Delhi might further increase political, diplomatic, financial, and intelligence support for Kabul in the coming weeks. During the negotiations phase, India is unlikely to find a better interlocutor than vice-president Saleh — an established Pakistan critic, a staunch India ally, and a tough negotiator with allies and adversaries alike.
Even if the desire for political coherence in Kabul was necessary for India to support Ghani, the presence and actions of Dostum gave the decision strategic sufficiency. New Delhi has little to be wary of Abdullah and his team given how closely aligned they have been to the country. But Dostum’s posture brings back painful memories.
In April 1992, the Jowzjani militia led by Dostum scuttled India’s plan to secretly exfiltrate its ally and then-president Mohammad Najibullah. Shortly after, the mujahideen took over Kabul. In this context, Dostum’s recent manoeuvres to dislocate the government are highly unwelcome, even if India retains sympathy for Abdullah and might be pressing him behind-the-scenes to stand-down.
But the fact remains that there are limits to how much India can support Kabul given its capacity limitations, Kabul’s administrative dysfunction, and its toxic dependency on external aid. So the second dilemma remains. What must India do about the imminent comeback of the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban; engage with it or not?
In 1992, despite insurgency raging in Kashmir, India recognised the Pakistan-backed mujahideen government after denouncing them throughout the 1980s. What enabled this policy shift was a systematic silent outreach with the mujahideen (especially the Iran-based groups, but not just) prior to Najibullah’s fall. Such outreach offered India a nuanced understanding of intra-mujahideen politics and an appreciation that not all mujahideen were under Pakistan’s control or fomenting trouble in Kashmir.
Similarly, India has refused to officially engage with the Afghan Taliban. Unofficially, however, there have been intelligence-level contacts and signalling. For its part, the Afghan Taliban too has shied away from being open about these channels to avoid complications with Pakistan. But despite such contacts, there is limited evidence that India has generated granular knowledge of and access to the Afghan Taliban leadership and combatants that will enable a serious and well-planned policy adjustment if the need arises.
Especially as the Taliban re-emerges on the political front, both sides need to reassess the costs and benefits of continuing disconnect. Now, it is unlikely (and even undesirable, for it will weaken Kabul’s hand) that India will afford official recognition to the Afghan Taliban before a settlement is reached in the intra-Afghan talks (if at all). But in truth, the debate in India’s policymaking circles about whether or not to engage with the Afghan Taliban is very real and urgent.
The endurance of the US-India partnership promises New Delhi limited strategic cover in Kabul. Given the scale of US military involvement in Afghanistan, the withdrawal is likely to be complicated and tortuous. So, unlike the Soviet collapse that heightened Indian vulnerabilities in the early 1990s, the US strategic blanket is unlikely to disappear soon — but it requires proactive maintenance. To that effect, it remains to be seen how India capitalises on the Trump visit to push its agenda in Afghanistan and vis-à-vis Pakistan.
In either situation, that of relative peace or of continuing strife, the US’s interest and involvement in Afghanistan will only diminish. For that reason alone, India must be prepared to support its allies in Kabul, but also expand its equities among different Afghan political constellations — from both within the mainstream body politic as well as the insurgent landscape.