With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by August 31 this year, the resultant vacuum is expected to be filled by a variety of powers, namely, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Iran, though the US might still be in the background safeguarding its strategic interest in Central Asia.

But the worrying aspect is that Afghanistan might become an arena of conflict between Pakistan and China, on the one hand, and India on the other.    

India and Pakistan, both with long and intimate association with Afghanistan, will play an exceptionally strong role, as they have strategic, security, ideological, and economic stakes in the country. China, which is aligned with Pakistan, is keen to develop economic ties with Afghanistan by extending its world-wide Belt and Road project.

But there is a vital difference between Indian and Pakistani engagements. While India has been using economic aid to cultivate the elected government in Kabul since 2001, Pakistan has been using military, strategic and ideological cooperation with the Taliban insurgents. In 2020, it assisted the Taliban and the US to build bridges with each other to enable a US pullout.

A Taliban-take over, expected sooner rather than later, will be a strategic victory for Pakistan. But India is unlikely to concede defeat. It has too much at stake to abandon Afghanistan to Pakistan. India has built vital roads, dams, electricity transmission lines, schools and hospitals. According to Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar India’s 400-plus projects are spread over all the 34 provinces. Among the highlights are the Salma dam, Aranj-Delaram highway, the parliament building and  improved power supply to Kabul. Indians have restored Afghanistan’s telecom infrastructure, gifted 400 buses and 200 mini-buses, 105 utility vehicles for municipalities, 285 military vehicles and 10 ambulances. Three Air India aircraft were given to Ariana, the Afghan national carrier. The Shatoot Dam in Kabul district, which will provide drinking water to 2 million, is on the cards. Indian aid totals US$ 3 billion and India-Afghan trade is worth US$ 1 billion. Eleven Indians have died in the line of duty, six of them falling to the Taliban.

However, India’s relationship with the Taliban, the emerging power, has been antagonistic. While Pakistan has declared that it will back a Taliban regime, India has said that it is not for Taliban’s monopolistic control. India is also against Afghanistan’s becoming a client state of Pakistan, its rival in the South Asian region.

Between 1996 and 2001, when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban was ruling Afghanistan, India supported the multi-ethnic anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and the US invasion of Afghanistan which resulted in the ouster of the Taliban from power. India did not want US troops to be withdrawn before putting together a government based on an Afghan consensus peacefully arrived at.

But this was not to be as the Americans were hell-bent on withdrawing and the Taliban did not want to accommodate the Kabul regime or any other group. It wanted a monopoly of power to set up an Islamic Emirate.

Many predict the revival of war between the Taliban, and the Kabul regime, and also between the Taliban and other ethnic groups supported by anti-Taliban governments as was the case between 1996 and 2001. India and Pakistan might end up supporting opposite sidesin the free for all.    

In an article in East Asia Forum entitled “India–Pakistan rivalry heating up over Afghanistan” dated May 18, 2021, Kabir Taneja pointed out that India has been linking up with anti-Taliban elements. “Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former Uzbek warlord who lent support to the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan; former Mujahideen Commander General Atta Mohammed Noor; and the Chief of the High Council for Afghan Reconciliation, Dr.Abdullah Abdullah, all recently visited New Delhi. These consultations were followed up by Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’strip to Kabul and the more recent meeting between the Afghan ambassador and the Indian army chief in New Delhi,” Taneja wrote

A recent incident in Islamabad is indicative of the times to come. The alleged abduction, torture and subsequent release of Silsila Alikhil, the 27 year-old daughter of the Afghan Ambassador Najibullah Alikhil in Islamabad, has predictably set off an India-Pakistan row. While the Pakistan government declared that the incident was staged by Indian intelligence to spoil its relations with the government in Kabul, India ridiculed the charge saying that Pakistan’s denial of the victim’s account amounted to stooping to a new low, even by their standards.” The incident resulted in the withdrawal of the Afghan Ambassador in Pakistan.

An Indo-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan will put the US in a fix. On the one hand, it needs India to achieve its larger strategic goals in the South and Central Asian region, but on the other, it is beholden to Pakistan for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and making the subsequent troop pullout possible.

However, revival of fighting in Afghanistan, whether it is a proxy war or not, will not be in Pakistan’s interest if the past is a guide. During the fight against Soviet occupation and later against American troops, more than two million Pashtun Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan causing a drain on its strained resources. And with the refugees came drug peddlers, criminals, and Islamic radicals who set up the Pakistan Taliban. The latter radicalized Pakistanis into demanding the institution of Sharia laws and prevented Pakistan from progressing on liberal and modern lines. Terrorist killings became the order of the day, affecting Pakistan’s international image. Be that as it many, despite the negatives, States tend to promote terrorism to further their narrow political or geo-political ends.  

However, there is literature on the Taliban which says that when it settles down to rule an area, it does maintain peace and allow constructive activity, including modern education, to continue. It is     hoped that the Taliban will take this path when it establishes itself in Kabul, though the skeptics vastly outnumber the optimists.

Those keen on bringing peace to Afghanistan and enable the US to pullout troops with a clean conscience, wanted India to attempt a modus vivendi with the Taliban and help tame it. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, had asked India to engage with the Taliban to “discuss its concerns related to terrorism. The US wanted India to “take on a more active role in the Afghan peace process.But India has been extremely reluctant to revise its views on the Taliban. It also sees the Taliban as a handmaiden of Pakistan.

New Delhi’s expectation that the US would stand by it on this many not be well-founded because the US would need Pakistan to prevail upon the Taliban not to give any quarter to the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS terrorists. It was the Taliban which had protected Al-Qaeda which staged the 9/11 2001 attack on New York.

Theoretically, India and the Taliban can talk to each other on developmental cooperation as a basis for a rapprochement. Once entrenched in power the Taliban would need economic assistance and only India and China would be able and willing to give it.

But this could result in a Sino-Indian conflict. China will push its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and seek to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), both of which have been anathema to New Delhi.

If indeed the Taliban occupies the seat of power, it will have its diplomatic task cut out. It will be called upon to walk the right rope. The million dollar question will then be: Can a militant group be equal to the task?



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