A new Afghan war
The war will persist and there will be instability. Whether this instability remains confined within Afghanistan’s border or spills over to Iran or Central Asia or Pakistan itself or Kashmir, or all of the above, is to be seen. India has a limited role, but must continue to support the Afghan government in this war while engaging with all relevant actors to secure its interests.
Afghanistan’s civil war is having a tangible impact on India. After drawing down its diplomatic presence from consulates in Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar, India evacuated personnel from its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday. It also issued an advisory to all Indian citizens to return home, and Indian companies to withdraw their employees from project sites. India’s move comes in the wake of the Taliban’s capture of key provincial capitals and border posts. The Afghan government is putting up a resistance and has no intention of letting Kabul fall — but is constrained by depleted international support and a sham of a United States (US)-engineered peace process, which legitimised the Taliban without the group giving up violence.
There are many moving parts to the fluid situation in Afghanistan. While there is little domestic appetite in the US to stay on militarily, the Taliban’s relative success has generated criticism against US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, for appeasing the militant group. A forcible Taliban takeover will force the US to make some hard choices. Iran is talking to the Taliban but is uncomfortable with its aggression in the north, and has more in common with India than publicly perceived. There are voices in Pakistan which point to how the obsession with the idea of gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan through the Taliban could well lead to further instability. But despite this, with Pakistan, China and Russia broadly on board, and the US in exit mode, the Taliban believes that it can change the facts on the ground enough to be able to exercise political dominance.
India was acutely aware of the Taliban’s intentions, capabilities and how it would use the peace process. It was also aware of Pakistan’s game of pretending to be a responsible peacemaker while sponsoring terror. But India’s leverage was limited and Delhi could not really tell Washington to continue fighting — even though there is a legitimate debate on whether India could have reached out to the Taliban early enough to secure its own interests. India’s preference is for a stable, democratic and inclusive Afghan government which has a balanced foreign policy. But this is unlikely to happen. The war will persist and there will be instability. Whether this instability remains confined within Afghanistan’s border or spills over into Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan itself or Kashmir, or all of the above, is to be seen. India has a limited role, but must continue to support the Afghan government in this war while engaging with all relevant actors to secure its interests.