Afghanistan Conundrum And India’s Strategic Fears
In February 2020, during his only visit to New Delhi, former US president Donald Trump reportedly offered Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi certain guarantees about the US decision to reconcile with Afghan Taliban. “India need not worry” is how one Indian official, as reported in Indian media, described US President’s message to Indian government as the US started to plan its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Later, the US administration continued to make efforts to assuage the fears of Indian officialdom with regards to the security nightmare that US withdrawal would likely bring for India economic assistance and intelligence operations in Afghanistan.
According to Indian media, Indian officials believe that US-Taliban Agreement amounts to sell out and indicate US willingness to leave Afghanistan at the mercy of Taliban and Pakistan—something that causes great anxiety in the officialdom of New Delhi.
Indian fears are not restricted to what will happen to their $3 billion investment in developmental aid to Afghanistan or what will happen to Indian economic interests in the country. These fears are much larger in scope—we can sum up these strategic fears under two headings in the light of what we gleaned from Indian media and papers written by strategic and foreign policy thinkers.
a) Indian fear of spillover of terror threat based in Afghanistan and reaching its territory:
India perceives most of the Sunni militant and terror groups based in Afghanistan as a threat to its security. There has been lot of mixing up of ideas and technique among the militant groups which can be described as regional and the militant and terror groups that are now based in Afghanistan but came from the Arab world. For instance, Daesh is based in Eastern and Northern Afghanistan and has interacted thoroughly with Pakistan based militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami, which is now based somewhere in Southern Afghanistan and had carried out a large number of sectarian attacks in Quetta.
Similarly, Indian fear that the remnants of Al-Qaida—which are shadow of their former self according to US officials—might get emboldened and try to become instrumental in terror attacks in Kashmir—region under Indian control where there is a lot of indigenous political unrests underway. India also perceives Afghan Taliban to be highly anti-India force. Indian officials have been visiting Tehran and Moscow recently after US withdrawal was announced in a bid to muster support against the threat of rise of Sunni militancy and terror in Afghanistan. Reportedly, Taliban representatives were also present in Moscow and Tehran when Indian officials visited these capitals, indicating that India would be facing a different political situation and might face difficulty in building an anti-Taliban consensus in the regional capitals. But that doesn’t change India’s perception and strategy of projecting Sunni militancy as a brainchild of Pakistani ISI and making an attempt to build a regional consensus against Pakistan and Afghan Taliban.
b) US withdrawal will pave the way for Pakistan control of Afghanistan:
This is India’s second strategic fear that Pakistan will be in a controlling position in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The fear stems from perception of Indian officialdom that sees Pakistan’s security apparatus in a position to dominate Sunni militancy and terror emanating from Afghanistan. Indian government has made massive investment in communications in Afghanistan in order to ensure that it has access to landlocked Afghanistan through Iranian ports, but it also has plans to further access Central Asian oil and Gas rich economies both as markets and suppliers of energy to meet the demands of the fuel thirsty and growing Indian economy. In this way, India strategic planners aim to undercut Pakistan’s strategic importance. Now with Afghanistan drifting towards a total military control of Taliban, India’s heavy investment in road and communications in Afghanistan are likely to be trashed—or so India officialdom fears.
Indian media and strategic thinkers feel that India has a lot of goodwill among Afghan population. They think that they made the right investment and in the right country, but not at the right time. In the post-2014 situation the rise of the Taliban was clearly written on the wall—this was the year when US and western intelligence and diplomatic officials started engaging Afghan Taliban in backchannel talks. The reports about these engagements started to make headlines in newspapers and media outlets across the world. The Indians simply ignored these leaks. It seems they didn’t factor post-US Afghanistan into their future planning for the war torn country. They continued to pose themselves as the most potent advocate of anti-Islamic militancy and terror.
One continuous indication of this advocacy role was reflected in their media and strategic thinkers’ writings and blogs, where they started to put all their eggs in the baskets of American military power, even in south Asian regional politics and in their propaganda efforts against Sunni militancy and terror.
Now that the US has made a deal with a paragon of Sunni militancy in our region, the Afghan Taliban and has left the region militarily, India has been completely left high and dry. It will be alone, at least militarily, to feel the heat of remnants of Sunni militancy left in Afghanistan, which, according to Indian fears, could reach their territory within no time.
However, clearly, there is nothing for Pakistan in this situation—Pakistani security apparatus should not try to exploit the situation. We have been and we would be the first victims of Sunni militancy if this menace makes an attempt to rich Indian territory. It would be better if we become an advocate of a regional solution to meet this threat. Unfortunately there is a sea of mistrust between the two countries that will prevent them from making a joint effort in this regard.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.