While India is attempting to rebuild sagging relationships in the Saarc region, with the outcome of the exercise likely to depend on the openness of communication and intent, and in the display of transparency and approachability on New Delhi’s part, there appears to have been a damaging recent development in relation to Afghanistan, whose ominous shadow could hurt this country’s regional strategic calculus unless repair work is undertaken at the earliest, and in earnest.
It is unclear if the present dispensation in New Delhi has the national vision, political resources, or the ideological make up to undertake this delicate task since from the start it has chosen to tie itself to the apron strings of Washington in picking its way in Kabul.
This has been seen to be especially the case in the context of the play by Afghanistan’s other, influential neighbours who appear focused on the contours of their future role in a post-US Afghanistan, and have not seriously bothered themselves with the sensitivities of the major powers.
In the context of the concerted activities of the world’s major powers in the Afghan theatre, and of Kabul’s neighbours, India has shown a perplexing readiness to surrender its functional autonomy — in essence its sense of agency — in operating in a complex environment in which Afghanistan’s key neighbours — Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China — have sought to underline their single-minded purpose and sturdy independence of spirit in pre-positioning themselves for the day when US military engagement has thinned in the landlocked country.
This stands in stark contrast with India’s persistence in looking to operate in America’s shadow, and having no gameplan of its own for the post-US period, for which it could have, with relative ease, leveraged the enormous goodwill it has enjoyed in Afghanistan in the past decade-and-a-half.
On the contrary, India appears to have suffered an erosion of its stock in Afghanistan through a deeply questionable recent act which is being openly discussed in political and diplomatic circles in Kabul, and also more widely in the public domain — an act that in the minds of Afghans can hardly be divorced from New Delhi’s oft-noted subservience to Washington in the complicated Afghan arena, and also more generally.
India’s recent action suggests that it has been unmindful of its own strategic well-being in the region to pursue an autonomous path in Afghanistan — and be seen by all concerned, especially the Afghan people, to be doing so.
In a time of being wrapped up in processes relating to a historic transition that an American departure necessarily spells, the people of Afghanistan are unlikely to continue reposing their trust in India if they come to believe that New Delhi prefers to do the bidding of others. In the last 40 years, the story of Afghanistan has been a saga of making all possible efforts, first, to get rid of Pakistani dominance, and then untrammelled US hegemony.
President Donald Trump, after his secret visit last Thursday to Bagram, America’s military base just north of Kabul, for a Thanksgiving dinner with US troops there, has publicly called for renewing discontinued negotiations with the Taliban aimed at facilitating American troop withdrawal. The Taliban have signalled their responsiveness.
After nearly a year of contact, and nine rounds of negotiations in Doha, the US-Taliban tango had come close to fruition in early September, when it was abruptly called off. Only after this did the US obliquely give the green light to the long-delayed Afghan presidential election which had been held hostage to the prospect of the signing of a US-Taliban agreement.
In this election, Washington backed the incumbent President, Ashraf Ghani, against his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, probably in the not unlikely expectation that Dr Ghani might be more amenable to accept without too much fuss the return of the Taliban to the country’s power grid on the lines that America desires, while the country’s other leading public figures may advance conditions in arriving at a settlement with the Taliban for the sake of national peace.
As a major national event, the election proved to be a resounding flop. It produced the lowest turnout since the first presidential poll in 2004, with reliable recent estimates suggesting that only around 1.2 million votes were cast (total electorate: close to 10 million). The ground had just not been prepared for it since the US was busy working on a deal with the Taliban.
In the low-polling September 28 election in which the Americans had initially shown scant interest, and with Dr Abdullah’s chances being rated as more than fair, India — it is being strongly suggested in Kabul — gratuitously interfered in the ongoing counting process to help pad the votes for Dr Ghani.
Even if the allegations of Indian malfeasance have the smallest basis, then New Delhi’s action has not only been stunningly stupid but is also one that severely compromises this country’s short-term and long-term prospects in Afghanistan. It is also likely to sow doubts amongst India’s other Saarc neighbours about its trustworthiness.
Since the Taliban were dislodged from power in Kabul in 2001, no country has matched the goodwill India has enjoyed at the level of the government and among ordinary people of war-devastated, landlocked Afghanistan. New Delhi’s considerable economic assistance has been seen by Afghans as being selfless.
India has built massive infrastructure in their country, helped with development activity in the rural hinterland, strongly aided the education sector, hosted tens of thousands of Afghan students in India, and provided military training and equipment, besides doing much for that country’s trade. As a signifier of democracy, India has also built Afghanistan’s landmark Parliament building.
After the vote-padding fiasco, much of this goodwill built up with sagacity over the years is at risk of being eroded. India’s best friends among the Afghan political elite are now likely to be wary of their Indian connection.
They are likely to see New Delhi as readily taking the American view in relation to the place of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s power structure at the expense of those within the country who have been at odds with the Taliban but are now trying to reach a modus vivendi in hopes of the return of peace to the country. For their part, the Taliban are hardly likely to see India as having extended them a favour. The two have had no contact worth the name.
If India finds its status relegated in Afghanistan, the other major players in the theatre — Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan — too will not accord it first rank status any more. Pakistan will naturally be delighted at the turn of events. Since the end of Taliban rule, a key objective of Islamabad has been to limit Indian influence in Kabul. For India, a friendly and receptive Kabul has meant easy land access to Central Asia and a countervailing weight against Pakistan.