Why India must not abandon Afghanistan again
For India, which pledged more than $3 billion in development assistance since 2001 and accrued a huge amount of goodwill, Afghanistan is now a dramatically transformed terrain
I have visited Afghanistan several times in the last decade. One thing that kept my optimism alive since September 2014 — the announcement of the date of drawdown of international forces by United States (US) President Barack Obama — was the sense of unity that Afghans displayed when the Flag Foundation of India gifted Afghanistan its largest flag. Afghans proudly stood under it, as it fluttered magnificently on top of a high mast on the Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul.
Right before Afghanistan celebrates its Independence Day on August 19, the flag could soon be brought down, to be replaced by one of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, led by the Taliban.
The Taliban, though an astonishingly swift and largely bloodless military blitzkrieg, has occupied almost the entire country, including Kabul. The fleeing of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a host of women parliamentarians marks an abrupt rupture of the democratic experiment in Afghanistan of the last two decades. In a matter of days, the international community will have to swallow the bitter pill and internalise the reversal of its gains in the two-decades-long engagement in the war-torn country.
For India, which pledged more than $3 billion in development assistance since 2001 and accrued a huge amount of goodwill, Afghanistan is now a dramatically transformed terrain. The impressive parliament building built by India will be occupied by the Taliban. Likewise, the road and other projects built by India will now be under Taliban control.
As the US faces now less than a Saigon moment, New Delhi, too, seems to have been caught on its back foot. Having hedged its bets on the Afghan government and led by US assurances, it seems to have stripped off all leverages it had painstakingly built.
Historically, Afghanistan has demonstrated the limits of great power interventions. Could things have been different this time around? Could the Indo-US partnership, growing from strength to strength, have provided an answer to the turnaround of events in Afghanistan? Could India have played a greater role inside and outside Afghanistan to prevent the loss of a strategic partner and demonstrate its leadership role at the United Nations? More important, does India have a Plan-B to preserve its gains of the last two decades? These are some of the questions which need long-term thinking and astute diplomacy.
US Secretary of State, Antony J Blinken’s visit to New Delhi in July had raised a lot of expectations for both countries to reaffirm their strategic convergence on a host of issues. The critical issue of Afghanistan, however, was clearly not discussed adequately during his meetings with the external affairs minister S Jaishankar and ministry officials.
Notwithstanding the fact that both India and the US have tremendous stakes in the future of Afghanistan, policies of both seem to display a sense of forlorn disconnect to influence the unfolding events.
With its own select preference and isolated success in promoting and upholding democracy around the world, for the US, Afghanistan has come to represent a classic example of the limitations of great power. The experiment to set up a functional democracy in the last two decades remained extremely fragile, marred by the enduring challenges of insecurity, fraud-marred elections and also by corruption, ethnic divisions and the self-aggrandising political elite. Regional powerplay added fresh complexities. The peace deal with the Taliban concluded by the Donald Trump administration in February 2020 and implemented vigorously by the Joe Biden administration merely ended up enabling the Taliban capture of power.
In the new Afghanistan, New Delhi faces disruption to its intense engagement in the country’s development sector. Its gains of the past two decades, achieved through painstakingly built high-value and small-scale projects, face reversal. India, a regional stakeholder and an unwavering supporter of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace and reconciliation process, has struggled to find a place in the numerous groupings that seek to decide the fate of the country. Its last-ditch efforts at opening a channel of communication with the Taliban, as part of its bid to engage with all stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, too, has not yielded much result.
New Delhi faces a stark choice of engaging the Taliban or opting to completely disengage from the country. The latter would imply a return to the 1990s, where a contact vacuum facilitated events like the IC-814 hijacking and anti-India groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed finding bases in that country. A realist approach would be to reach out to the Taliban to continue aid and development assistance, and seek to link aid with conditionalities that will help in mainstreaming and blunting the extremist worldviews particularly in dealing with women, minorities and children.
Internationally, India must take a leadership role as the current United Nations Security Council chair in framing resolutions, providing relief, setting up humanitarian response teams and conflict mediation mechanisms. India cannot afford to abandon the people of Afghanistan once again without implications for its image as a reliable friend and a major power in the region.
Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is founding professor, Kautilya School of Public Policy, Hyderabad and founder-president, Mantraya. She has spent over a decade in various provinces of Afghanistan
The views expressed are personal