The process of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan which began a few weeks back is now nearly complete. All those who worked for a democratic Afghanistan for the last 20 years under the leadership of the United States are going to face a major setback. This includes not just NATO allies of the US, but also India.
Today, the strategic environment surrounding Afghanistan is very different from the 1990s and 2001. The Taliban are likely to take over with full recognition from major powers, including the US, China, Russia and the European Union.
The way they have swept Afghanistan in a matter of days, the chances of an imminent civil war are limited. Latest reports suggest that Kabul has also fallen to the Taliban after Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and top officials fled the country on August 15. With this the Taliban has control of virtually the whole of Afghanistan, and all the border crossings. The way the Afghan National Forces have crumbled along with negotiated deals with local leadership, the country has avoided major destruction so far.
In the coming years, India will find itself in a relatively disadvantageous position in Afghanistan. This is the prize India has to pay for going too close to the United States and certain errors in its own policy judgements.
The new security and economic architecture in Afghanistan is going to be different from the one followed by Kabul in the last 20 years. The new influencers, viz. China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran, will be happy to see that the US influence reduces further. China and Pakistan will also try to minimise Indian engagement.
The way India had positioned itself in the Afghan conflict in the last 10 years, it could not have affected the outcome in any way. Despite the US announcement of its withdrawal since 2014, New Delhi just hoped the stalemate would continue for some more years.
Even when every country, including the US, legitimised the Taliban politically by openly talking to them, Indian policy makers were still hesitant. But even if they would have talked to them, it would not have made much difference in their perceptions of each other or in the final outcome.
One of the declared core Indian interests in Afghanistan has been its importance for regional connectivity. The whole idea of the US New Silk Road Strategy was to link Central Asia and South Asia (especially India) via Afghanistan through trade, transit and energy routes. From the Indian side, investments at the Chabahar port in Iran and the Zaranj-Delaram Road in Afghanistan were part of this strategy.
Afghanistan will continue to be important for regional connectivity. But now the focus may change towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Gwadar port in Pakistan. Even under the Ghani government, Kabul has been keen on connecting itself to the BRI either directly or through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As Central Asians are already part of the BRI, they may find these developments useful.
The Joe Biden administration had recently agreed to set up a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform focused on enhancing regional connectivity involving the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. In changed circumstances, the Chinese may replace the US as leaders in regional connectivity platforms involving Afghanistan.
Compared to Biden’s ‘America is back’ foreign policy promise, the exact opposite has happened in South Asia. To counter China’s rise, India may aspire to work with the US in the Indo-Pacific, but it will have a tough time finding convergences with the China-Pakistan-Taliban combination in South-Central Asia.
Since India has not been in a position to influence the outcome in Afghanistan, it is time for New Delhi to carefully monitor the evolving situation and wait for the opportunity for new engagements. The Taliban government, will need broader recognition and economic opportunities arising from Indian linkages.
The US and its partners will face the consequences of their major foreign policy failure.
Gulshan Sachdeva is Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and headed the ADB and Asia Foundation projects at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul.