Does India’s Afghan Policy Require Rethinking?.

Stability in Afghanistan is vital and the stakes for India are high, but the time is now over for sitting on the fence. India requires a larger strategic vision, not a blueprint for town and country planning for Afghanistan. Otherwise, it is not India but China which is likely to reap the fruit of its development efforts in Afghanistan.

Recently, the United Nations Secretariat held a meeting of the “6+2+1” group on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan. This group includes six neighbouring countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; two global players the United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.

However, India has not been invited to this peace process. The reason given for keeping India out of this regional discussions is that India holds no “boundary” with Afghanistan. However, the “6+2+1” grouping ignored India’s stand that its territory borders Afghanistan (along Wakhan Corridor) and is currently under Pakistan’s illegal occupation.

Despite all the development work taken up by India in Afghanistan over the past 18 years since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, it finds itself on the margins of international diplomacy in Afghanistan.

In this context, there is a need for India to recalibrate its Afghan policy, in order to secure its strategic and economic interest.

India’s Voice in the Afghan’s Reconciliation Process

  • In the past, due to terror activities of the Taliban, India has been very critical of the Talibancoming into power and shown resistance to publicly dealing with the Taliban.
  • Under the US-Taliban peace deal, the Taliban will be in the centre of power in Afghanistan, as the US forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
  • In the present scenario, India has never announced its support for the U.S.-Taliban peace deal. Rather, India supports the Ashraf Ghani government and backs the idea of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled process.
    • Further, in order to provide legitimacy to recently held Afgan president elections, Ashraf Ghani entered into a power-sharing agreement with former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
    • This agreement will inevitably further weaken Ashraf Ghani and subsequently undermines Indian interest in the region.
  • Due to these factors, India’s voice in the reconciliation process has been limited.

India’s Interest in Afghanistan

  • Economic and Strategic Interest:Afghanistan is a gateway to the oil and mineral-rich Central Asian republics.
    • Afghanistan’s main advantage is its geography, as anyone who is in power in Afghanistan controls the land routes connecting India with Central Asia (via Afghanistan).
  • Developmental Projects:The massive reconstruction plans for the country to offer a lot of opportunities for Indian companies.
    • Three major projects: the Afghan Parliament, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, and the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam), along with India’s assistance of more than $3 billion in projects, hundreds of small development projects (of schools, hospitals and water projects) have cemented India’s position in Afghanistan.
  • Security Interest:India has been the victim of state-sponsored terrorism emanating from Pakistan supported terrorist group operating in the region (e,g. Haqqani network). Thus, India has two priorities in Afghanistan:
    • to prevent Pakistan from setting up a friendly government in Afghanistan, and
    • to avoid the return of jihadi groups, like al Qaeda, which could strike in India.

India’s Dilemma

Due to the Taliban’s coming to power, India faces a dilemma, between:

  • Should India reconsider its current policy that a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan must come through an“Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled process” (considering that the elected Afghan Government is hardly in control of the peace process).
  • Should India, consider the option of entering into direct talks with the Taliban.But, If India does so, it would constitute a major departure from its consistent policy of dealing only with recognised governments.

Dent in India’s Goodwill

  • The building blocks of India’s goodwill are assistance in infrastructure projects, health care, education, trade and food security, and also in the easy access to Afghani citizens to study, train and work in India.
  • Above all, it is India’s example as a pluralistic, inclusive democracy, inspires many in Afghanistan.
  • However, there has been a dent in India’s goodwill, due to recent events in India, especially the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019

Exclusion of India

  • India has been excluded from the Afghanistan peace process many times including the recent meeting (6+2+1 grouping).
  • This poses a challenge for India to secure its interest in deciding the fate of Afghanistan and its people.

Road Ahead

  • India must also pursue opportunities to fulfil its role in the peace efforts in Afghanistan, starting with efforts to bridge the Ghani-Abdullah divide, and bringing together other major leaders with whom India has built ties for decades.
  • India should take the diplomatic route to press for its inclusion in “6+2+1” dialogue, to claim its legitimate role in the Afghan peace process.
  • India should leverage the United Nations’s call for a pause in conflicts during the Covid-19 pandemicto restart dialogue with Pakistan, which in turn is necessary for lasting peace in Afghanistan.
  • Also, India can learn from US-Taliban talks where two opposing parties came to the negotiating table for talks on Afghanistan’s future.
    • For India, given its abiding interest in Afghanistan’s success and traditional warmth for its people, making that leap should be a bit easier. Thus, India can consider the appointment of a special envoy and start Track II diplomacy with the Taliban.

The notion of good-bad Taliban, moderate-hardliner distinctions also proved misleading that obscured the reality.

The following critical points are essential for India:

First, Afghanistan’s unity and territorial integrity is considered vital to India since the British period. Any disintegration prospect or falling a part of it into Pakistan or fragmentation within would severely undermine Indian state.

Second, history guides that there are no winners in the Afghan end-game. Those fallen into the Afghan trap only ended up draining their resources.

Third, a core principle underpins India Afghan’s policy is to avoid any Af-Pak proximity from a zero-sum calculation. Pakistan by virtue of culture, tribal and spatial reasons will always enjoy an edge over India.

Fourth, politics suggests that Afghanistan’s irredentist claim over the Pushtun areas of Pakistan versus Pakistan’s revanchist ambitions in Afghanistan create mutual suspicion if not inherent animosity between the two.

Fifth, the Afghans always loathed being run by a puppet master, detested Pakistanis. Irrespective of frequent power-shifts, Kabul looked towards Delhi for the requisite political legitimacy and for quintessential protection against Pakistani hegemonic threat.

Sixth, whether they are Sufis, Wahabis, Deobandis or secular scholars, the Afghan craving for tracing roots and ancestry or even the severe pangs of nostalgia for Hindustan, eventually turned them to Delhi. This hurt the Pakistanis the most. The fear of Afghan protégés escaping from their cage still causes nightmares in Rawalpindi.

Seventh, the law of attraction in the case of India always worked in a reverse way. The people, societies and nations across the world always found their own ways to connect with India. India can again become the centre, instead of it constantly chasing for an influence outside.

What is required for India is remain invested in rebuilding its lost traditional links.

While India may have moved away from practising its idealistic middle-path principle, its long-cherished realist wisdom and adaptability strategy can still become the hallmark of its diplomacy.

That’s a lot easier said than done! But for sure, no one can control Afghanistan, but no one can understand the undulated layers of Afghan history better than the Indians.

Alas, Indians are uprooted from the treasure trove of their ancient wisdom and knowledge, which means lacking in self-confidence to read human diversity and cultural complexity that needs urgent reviving to deal with looming new challenges.

Yet, the challenge is to draw on India’s own historical strength which has been missing. One reason India lags behind China is the non-ownership of its historical resources.

India’s links with the land and people of Afghanistan go back to the time of Rigveda. Gandhara (fragrance) as a western kingdom finds mention in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. It was among the sixteen Mahajanapadas of ancient India.

Peshawar (Puruṣapura), Taxila (Takṣaśilā), Charsadda (Pushkalavati), Swat (Udayana), Prang (Prayag) etc were important Buddhist and Hindu learning centres. Acharaya Pāṇini referred to the area around Kabul as the Kingdom of Kapisi (Kapiśi) or Kapiśayana equivalent to Sanskrit Kamboja.

India cannot have a Pentagon-style security paradigm to deal with its Asian neighbours. For any sound and proactive Afghan policy needs to seriously underpin these historical backdrops.

As Afghanistan is nearing a turning point, New Delhi needs to deploy its diplomatic astuteness or at least revert back to the long-adhered principled policy of working with the governments in Kabul, regardless of ideology.

Things could turn around to India’s advantage if it decides to play the quiet game with the wisdom of patience and subtlety in its conduct, not necessarily amounting to playing the emotional diplomacy that Gujral had displayed.

For a cleverer geopolitical ploy, the core driver of India’s Afghanistan policy needs to centre on rekindling the Pashtun nationalist spirit that Pakistan for decades has been hell-bent on undermining in favour of spreading pan-Islamism as an antithesis to Afghan nationalism.

The problem isn’t the Taliban, but Pakistan’s devilry and its manipulation with the Pashtun sense of identity that has traditionally been a thorn in the flesh of Pakistan.

The challenge before Delhi is to deflect every sign of fundamentalism and promote the shared features and values of Pashtunwali or Pashtun way of life, their honour (namuz), solidarity (nang) and other cultural etiquettes which are older than Islam, and is still prevalent amongst the Pashtun tribes.

India needs to start thinking how over 50 million Pushtuns living on both sides of the Durand Line—35 million on the Pakistani and 15 million in Afghanistan can be reunited.

Once the Afghan infightings end, India should establish deeper and overt contact with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa based Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and also reignite the lingering Durand Line dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obviously, there is ethnic and sectarian dimension—the Hazaras, Shi’ites, Tajiks, Uzbek, Turkmen and others have been at odds with each other throughout Afghanistan’s turbulent history, but India enjoyed strong credibility with all these societies.

Only Pashtunistan question can unlock all the regional contradictions that should ultimately snowball into Pakistan’s disintegration of Pakistan, thereby reintegrating NWFP into Afghanistan, liberating Baluchistan and reverting PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan into India. This is a much-awaited policy focus that Indian can bring about.

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