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Afghanistan Shows the Limits of India’s Power

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At the dawn of 21st century, as most of the world was shutting down to celebrate Christmas Eve, policymakers in India were suddenly very busy.

On Dec. 24, 1999, Indian Airlines Flight 814, commonly known as IC 814, was on its way from Kathmandu in Nepal to Delhi when it was hijacked by five men belonging to the Islamist terrorist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. After stops in Amritsar, India; Lahore, Pakistan; and Dubai, the plane eventually landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 25. The city was a Taliban stronghold, and India, having closed it embassy in Kabul in 1996, had no officials available to talk to the Taliban. India’s top intelligence officials flew there to negotiate with the hijackers and the Taliban, and after eight days, all passengers and crew were released in exchange for three top Pakistani militants from Indian prisons: Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who went on to be arrested in Pakistan for the kidnapping and killing of the journalist Daniel Pearl; Maulana Masood Azhar, who within days of his release launched the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, the organization responsible for the suicide car bombing in southern Kashmir in February 2019 that set off airstrikes and border skirmishes between India and Pakistan; and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, who is connected to armed militancy in Indian Kashmir and is ensconced in a “safe house” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

On the Indian side, one of the intelligence officials involved in the Kandahar negotiations was Ajit Doval, who has more recently been India’s national security advisor since Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014.

The talks these men held were the only time India publicly engaged with the Taliban regime. President Joe Biden’s recent decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan must have revived those memories from 1999, particularly for Doval. At the time, the IC 814 hijacking brought home the reality that, having failed to develop ties with the multitude of powerful groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, and by backing only the Ahmad Shah Massoud-led Northern Alliance, New Delhi had little leverage in Afghanistan to seek help during a crisis. The episode also convinced New Delhi of the nexus between Pakistan and the Taliban, affirming that there was a linkage between the security situation in Kashmir and the state of play in Afghanistan.

New Delhi’s limited influence in Afghanistan, the country’s direct linkage with India’s internal security situation, and Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban are factors that remain at play even today. And they all pose a major challenge for New Delhi after Biden’s announcement. In the coming years, the U.S. withdrawal could trigger a rise of Islamist militancy in India’s neighborhood, strengthen Beijing’s position in the region, cut India out of the emerging regional geopolitical architecture, and deny India access to Central Asia.

India doesn’t have many arrows left in its quiver as the United States leaves Afghanistan effectively in Taliban control, reminding New Delhi of the real limits of its power. It is thus not surprising that India’s Hindu nationalist-led government has opted to engage with the Taliban without publicly acknowledging so. A lot also rests on whether Afghanistan is part of ongoing back-channel talks between India and Pakistan, facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, and the nature of any resulting agreement between the two countries, which have long fought for influence in Afghanistan.

Before the United States militarily overthrew the Taliban regime after 9/11, New Delhi had supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then watched Pakistan take control of the country through the Taliban even as its preferred power, the Northern Alliance, contested Pakistan’s dominance. India was relieved at the fall of the Taliban regime but was uncomfortable with the revival of U.S.-Pakistani security ties that followed. With little to contribute to the military campaign in Afghanistan, New Delhi sought a role for itself as a development partner in the war-torn country. It also shifted from opposing any sort of Taliban reconciliation to supporting peace talks that limited Pakistan’s influence. During the Trump administration, India sent representatives and officials who found themselves in the same room as the Taliban at multilateral venues but were often pushed to the margins.

India has made significant changes to its Afghan policy in the last decade, replacing its insistence of three red lines (that the Taliban must accept the Afghan Constitution, that they must renounce violence, and that they would have to sever all ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations) with refrains of a “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process. Its shift has been more rhetorical than actionable, especially because the country has not been able to overcome the constraints of geography; India can’t physically access Afghanistan without going through Pakistan or Iran. Likewise, it has only limited military capacity; there is no appetite in New Delhi to provide major military support to the Afghan national government, let alone deploy its boots on the ground. And the government is politically cautious.

As U.S. soldiers move out of Afghanistan, New Delhi has little real power to limit the Taliban’s rise, and it has to prepare for the emerging scenario where the Taliban return to Kabul, either through a civil war or through a peace deal that gives them a major share of power. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar expressed his government’s fears when he said this month: “The future of Afghanistan should not be a return to its past. The international community should take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Indian intelligence officials and diplomats acknowledge that New Delhi’s primary interest in Afghanistan is security, which plays out at multiple levels. In the February 2020 agreement with the United States, the Taliban had promised to break with al Qaeda but have not kept their word. In January, the U.S. Treasury noted that al Qaeda members remain “embedded with the Taliban.” Afghanistan could soon become a training ground for both groups, and others, and a safe haven to attack India. As was seen in the mid-to-late 1990s, many Pakistani militants—often Pashtuns from areas bordering Afghanistan—came to Kashmir to use their experience of fighting against the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

These are, however, minor challenges—after all, such training camps could be run in Pakistan, as well. And experienced fighters could bleed over from Pakistan with relative ease. The bigger issue is the emboldening of the Islamist militant organizations in the region with the so-called victory of the Taliban over the world’s lone superpower. There are plenty of extremist movements in Pakistan with the same ideological moorings that might see the U.S. departure as a green light for militancy. In an unstable regional environment, they might even attempt to entice a section of the 170 million Muslims in India, a community already feeling besieged and victimized under the current Indian government.

That’s why, for India, Pakistan remains the key to peace in the region. As talks with the Taliban gained ground, the United States had to turn to Pakistan at every stage; Taliban leaders flew back to Pakistan during critical stages of negotiations for consultations. The vacuum created by a U.S. withdrawal may be filled by Pakistan, where its military will act as the gatekeeper to Afghanistan and block New Delhi’s attempts to seek influence in that country.

Along with Pakistan, India’s other concern is China, which had previously kept its New Silk Road project out of Afghanistan, as it considered the country to be too violent and unsafe. As the United States leaves, though, Beijing is seeking to bring the country, with its rich mineral deposits, into the fold by linking it with the Pakistani segment. As Islamabad’s closest ally, Beijing will also support Pakistan’s bid for greater influence in Afghanistan. India’s access to Central Asia will become increasingly difficult with the Taliban’s return to power, Pakistan’s renewed importance, and China’s presence.

In short, India will be watching closely for what happens once U.S. soldiers leave Afghanistan. The Taliban will press their advantage, but the Afghan national government and its security forces—funded and built by the United States and, to an extent, India—will not collapse so quickly.

The Moscow-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah lasted for three years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. India will be hoping for an even longer run for the current government in Kabul. But even as it supports the national government, New Delhi has also made attempts to open lines of communication with the Taliban without acknowledging so publicly. New Delhi’s close ties with the UAE, which is mediating between India and Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia will be of help in this regard. These were the only countries, besides Pakistan, that officially recognized the previous Taliban regime in Kabul. India may eventually be forced to publicly recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political entity. Better relations with all factions in Afghanistan will require India to avoid looking at Kabul through Washington’s eyes, though; their interests in Afghanistan are now pulling in different directions.

But the unanswered questions lie in the contours of India-Pakistan talks, which have gathered pace in the recent months. The foreign ministers of both countries were in the UAE this week, after the Emirati ambassador in Washington confirmed the country’s role in the recent cease-fire agreement between the Pakistani and Indian armies. While the Indian foreign ministry has maintained an enigmatic silence, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has confirmed the UAE’s mediation. Former Indian diplomats wonder if Afghanistan will also be a part of a prospective back-channel deal between the two countries, which will definitely include Kashmir. One will have to look toward Abu Dhabi, Islamabad, and New Delhi for signs of a quid pro quo arrangement between the two South Asian nuclear neighbors.

Development work and changes in policy in Afghanistan over the last two decades have not broken the limits of New Delhi’s influence in that country. But India has considered its Afghanistan policy to be a success, measuring it on the singular yardstick of ensuring that a pro-Pakistani regime does not rule in Kabul. But much of that success has been due to factors outside of New Delhi’s control. Now it finds itself relatively powerless once more as it hopes that the U.S. troop withdrawal does not amount to a full reversal.

In the imagination of the Indian establishment, the Taliban regime is closely identified with the nightmare of the Kandahar hijacking. Having experienced firsthand in 1999 how India struggles to exert power barely a few hundred miles from its borders, Doval surely doesn’t want his hand forced again. And avoiding that will be the bottom line for New Delhi’s policy in Afghanistan.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.