Top strategic expert decodes what Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for India, other stakeholders

Professor Harsh V Pant says global jihadist networks are celebrating Taliban victory and they are very likely to attack countries like India

Nandini Paul October 22, 2021 17:38:40 IST
Top strategic expert decodes what Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for India, other stakeholders

Representational image. AP

While the world is watching the developments in Afghanistan with bated breath ever since the Taliban takeover on 15 August, it's time to step back and examine the larger picture.

Sporadic insurgencies and instances of bomb blasts leading to numerous deaths are fueling a perpetual sense of doom among the people of Afghanistan who have been on the receiving end of one humanitarian crisis after the other.

While Afghans stare at an uncertain future with most certain curbs on personal freedom, what does the Taliban-helmed interim government in Afghanistan mean for India in relation to other stakeholders?

Firstpost's Nandini Paul interviewed Professor Harsh V Pant — director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

He holds a joint appointment with the Department of Defence Studies and King's India Institute as Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.

What would your opinion be regarding Afghanistan’s strategic importance?

Afghanistan is critically located in central Asia in a manner in which if you are a major power trying to gain ground in that part of the world, then the country becomes very important. Major powers who have tried to assert their role in that region have found Afghanistan to be a very tempting country in terms of power projection, location and geography.

Tell us a bit about the history of power struggles in Afghanistan.

The Great Game, a political and diplomatic confrontation between the Russian Empire and the British Empire, was in vogue for most part of the 19th and the initial part of the 20th Century. The British were scared that the Russians would come in from the north to take over Afghanistan, which the former deemed to be their share of influence in South Asia. The Russians too were wary of a siege by the Brits from the south. All of this to answer one big question, who would be in control of South Asia?

Thus, Afghanistan came into the line of fire from the Russians in the north and the Brits in the south.

It is common parlance that Afghanistan has always been viewed as a geographical pawn in the Great Game because the Soviet Union was at the helm of all the central Asian countries during the Cold War (1947-1991). Naturally, Russia naturally thought Afghanistan should also join the ranks in their arsenal.

What is the major reason behind instability in Afghanistan?

The major reason behind instability in Afghanistan can be attributed to a lack of a stable leadership/government in the country.

At one point in time, the Afghan regime was really friendly to the West and that was a problem for the Soviets. The Soviets, thus, tried to destabilise the government there because in their eyes Afghanistan was an extension of the central Asian countries that they wielded power over. Any sort of Western influence was a threat to their supremacy in Central Asia.

This caused a lot of political instability in Afghanistan during the Cold War and ultimately the Soviet invasion resulted in Russians trying to dislodge a pro-West government.

This, in turn, led to America using Pakistan and the Mujahideen to counter Soviet forces.

What was Pakistan’s role in fueling Afghan instability in tune to Western influence?

In terms of contemporary history, this phase has had long-term strategic consequences for Afghanistan and the world. Because, it was during this time that Pakistan officially became an exporter of terrorism and a country which relied on extremism and terrorism as an instrument of State policy.

Pakistan started viewing Afghanistan as a country which was important for strategic depth vis-a-vis India. Pakistan’s interest in having a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul dovetailed with Americans not wanting Russians in Afghanistan.

So the US and Pakistan worked together and chalked out a modus operandi where the former would supply the money and the resources and the latter would train the Mujahideen so that the extremist group could fight the war for America against the Russians.

This eventually led to Russians getting defeated but it never led to any stability in Afghanistan. Once the Russians left, a high degree of political instability, different factions, different regions vying for political supremacy, rocked the nation. At the end of the day, the Mujahideen became the most important players and extremism became the dominant strain in Afghan society.

From the time of Russians leaving to the Taliban coming to power in 1996, high levels of political instability dominated the region.

What did the first Taliban takeover mean for Afghanistan?

During the first Taliban takeover (1996-2001), many viewed it as a sign of stability. The regime was brutal but Afghans felt it would provide a certain amount of security to them. This is how the Taliban gained the trust of some Afghans, the first time around.

The Taliban murdered women and children, opposition members and anyone who dared defy them or their ideals. No place was safe. Killings took place at playgrounds, stadiums and roads. It was chaos but the international community was far from bothered because they did not identify the Taliban. No attempt was made to either sanction or isolate the Taliban.

Back then, three countries identified the Taliban regime, Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Afghanistan thus became one big ungoverned space. Pakistan transferred all terrorist training camps there, where they trained terrorists against India (plausible deniability). Afghanistan became this area where attacks were staged against India.

Then, with Al-Qaeda entering the scene along with other extremist groups, these terrorist groups turned their attention to the US. The direct fallout was the 9/11 attack.

Americans were swift to take military action and dislodged the Taliban government. The US then tried to bring in a democratic government with Hamid Karzai as president.

Did American control over Afghanistan help the country? Was the US goal of a democratic Afghan government achieved?

From 2001 to 2021 many different figureheads ruled Afghanistan but none wielded any real power so to speak. There were elections but they were not as clear-cut as in normal democracies. Women too were getting used to it. Minorities were getting some protection.

The governance trajectory was different but the challenge was that many felt that it was an imposed government and not an organic one. The Afghan government did not inspire confidence because officials were inefficient, corrupt, and inadequate in their endeavour to build an Afghan national consciousness. The reason? Afghanistan was still divided along tribal lines.

The highly tribal society of Afghanistan comprising Pashtuns, Hazara, Tajhiks, Shia, Sunni, Jirgas etc and various tribal elders, were barely taken into account as a factor. The government was not connected to the grassroots of the Afghan consciousness as everyone selectively identified themselves in relation to their sect/tribe. The challenge of governing a country like Afghanistan thus came to the fore.

Where did America go wrong?

Americans, while they were fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, were not fighting the Taliban in Pakistan. The Taliban thus went to Pakistan, got necessary support and resources and ultimately targeted Americans.

The domestic political flavour in Afghanistan slowly but steadily turned towards withdrawal. From the time of Obama’s presidency and finally with Biden at the forefront, the dramatic US withdrawal from Afghanistan finally happened almost overnight after Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August.

This might have long-term consequences for America.

The blanket assumption of all stakeholders was that since the West was part of this peace process for so long, socialising the Taliban to the ways of the world, they would be more amenable to political outcome.

With the London Conference (2010) and the Doha Conference (2012), America thought the Taliban would get more acclamatised to the ways of the world. But as the present situation would suggest, that was far from the case.

Fray among the Taliban

Strongly wedded to the Sharia ideology, rifts have exposed themselves within their own ranks. With Mullah Baradar being sidelined, regional players were in shock.

Regional stakeholders are now looking for international support. Russia and China have already extended their support. India has only partially engaged with them. Pakistan has expressed exuberance but has not taken any official stance yet on the Afghanistan issue.

Using Afghanistan as a smokescreen - what is China’s stance, what does it mean for India?

China’s stance is a roundabout one, where it believes that it is a rising power with the power and potential to challenge the USA’s supremacy.

China views Afghanistan as important for projecting power in Eurasia. With the US withdrawal, China feels it has added geography to work with.

Then there is the internal problem of Xin Jiang and Uyghur Muslims. China wants Pakistan to keep tabs on the Taliban to a certain extent. At the same time, China also wants the Taliban to respect them and restrict terrorrism and extremism within their borders so that it does not travel to Chinese territory.

China has an interest in trade, mining minerals, cultivating copper mines and more. Extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, to enhance engagement in Central Asia is also on the cards.

But China has to view their ambitions from the perspective of their ability to shape Afghanistan’s future. Going by history, foreign powers or external players have limited capabilities in Afghanistan due to the lack of a stable government.

Unless there is stability, a lot of the plans that China is making will come to nought because they won’t be able to do business or invest in infrastructure in Afghanistan for the fear of local insurgencies and resultant destruction and turmoil.

China is hoping against hope for stability in Afghanistan and that’s why they were the first country to recognise the Taliban and declared aid, because they are hoping to make headway.

To a certain extent, China’s vows also resemble white noise. Economic and military bandwidth are all that matters to China but on the business front they can’t do anything in Afghanistan. Looking at it from the perspective of a Great Game. In their eyes, the Americans are out and they are in.

China, in my opinion, will continue with their current strategy while they wait and watch.

They never invested during the Ghani government and they are not going to until and unless they can ascertain a steady return on their investment.

Why can’t Pakistan resist the lure of Afghanistan?

Pakistan's foreign policy is only about India. For them, for the last two decades, the Kabul government being friendly to India was not exactly appealing to them.

Pakistan is treating the reinstatement of the Taliban as a victory, and that’s surprising. Because, a terrorist leadership in Afghanistan means that Pakistan’s also in the cross-hairs of terrorism.

Coupled with the fact that Pakistan’s economy is shrinking and is actually smaller than that of Mumbai’s, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan should be concerning for Pakistan.

Pakistan is viewing the situation as a deterrent to smooth ties between India and Afghanistan, as had been in the past 20 years, and that is solely a great victory for them. They are barely bothered about anything else.

The situation in Afghanistan may be a short-term victory for Pakistan, but they can’t get any long term advantages out of it.

Afghanistan gives Pakistan strategic depth vis-a-vis India. What that means in operation terms one doesn’t know.

Even if there is a government in Kabul that is half autonomous, there is a fundamental fault line between Pashtun nationalism and Pakistan. Ultimately differences will emerge there.

Pakistani policy elites have never been rational. Their ideological predisposition has always been against India and they believe in utilising terrorism as an instrument of State policy.

Pakistan's strategic moves against India have always drained their economy. In the past two decades they got money and resources from America. They think China too will extend a helping hand in this regard but the chances are close to nil. China is not going to invest without any returns. Toning down CPEC (due to blasts etc along the corridor) is such an example.

Is India at risk?

In the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter. India is playing a different game. India is playing in a different league, as is evident from some of the recent high-level interactions with USA, the Quad Summit, the BRICS Summit, the SCO Summit and so on and so forth.

India is the closest neighbour, with goodwill among ordinary Afghans, as India has helped Afghanistan in the past without expecting anything in return.

The world has changed in 20 years. It has limited capacity to absorb terrorism. Post-9/11, countries are willing to come down heavily on those promoting terrorism.

Optics are also important to them. If the Taliban don’t govern Afghanistan well, it will provide fodder to the insurgence of various kinds of terrorist factions on Afghanistan’s soil, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, ISIS and others will set up base.

The long-term solution to the Afghanistan crisis is a stable government in Afghanistan while the short-term way out  would be to enhance deterrence capacity. In that sense, India did well.

Global jihadist networks are celebrating Taliban victory and they are very likely to attack countries like India. There is pressure on internal security in India, in Kashmir, there is real danger there.

But the world has also changed and so has India’s ability to tackle terrorism.

The world opinion is by and large with India. India has been able to marginalise Pakistan to an extent where Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said USA will have to re-ascertain its Pakistan policy.

India’s engagement with major powers is ensuring that Pakistan remains in the focus of international communities so that major powers can continue to observe what Pakistan is upto and that it is not allowed to wreak havoc on India’s security like it did in 1990s by using Afghanistan as a base.

India's only option is to build domestic capability, to keep the world in its favour and largely build a positive image of itself.

India’s actions will have to be more sagacious than Pakistan's behavior.

Professor Pant's current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy: Theory and Praxis (Cambridge University Press), India’s Nuclear Policy (Oxford University Press), The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Handbook of Indian Defence Policy (Routledge), India’s Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins), and The US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process and Great Power Politics (Oxford University Press). Professor Pant writes regularly for various Indian and international media outlets including the Japan Times, the Wall Street Journal, the National (UAE), the Hindustan Times, and the Telegraph.

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