THE LARGER AFGHANISTAN QUESTION IN CONTEMPORARY GEOPOLITICS

 

Tanvi Singal*

The Taliban are at the centre stage of international order following the recent developments in Afghanistan. These radicals who were once ousted from power by the US-led forces under operation War on Terror in 2001 have seized control of Afghanistan after a rapid offensive. This sudden takeover of power by the Taliban amid US withdrawal has taken the international fora by surprise and debunked the severe failure of US intelligence systems which openly stated that it would take at least 90 days for the Taliban to seize power given the current political status of Afghanistan.

This further delineates the mistaken view of the world’s countries and the USA about the power of the Taliban compared to the US-trained Afghan forces. As the events unfolded when the US began withdrawing its troops, it panned out that the Afghan military was barely surviving on US funds and supply lines as once these were shut down, the army took no time to dissolve. City by city fell into the hands of the Taliban, ultimately leading to the lowering of the significant city Kabul on 5th August. This event ended the two-decade-long war as US-backed president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and other forces surrendered.

This unexpected rise of Taliban in such a short span can be attributed to the loopholes of the Doha agreement in February 2020- a peace deal between the US and Taliban that committed USA withdrawal from Afghanistan given the Taliban commits itself to prevent any attacks on US troops. The US could not extract huge concessions from the Taliban; one of the promises included not allowing al-Qaeda or other militants to operate from Afghan soil and strike negotiations with the Afghan government for a peace talk, to which the Taliban explicitly denied. Given the fact the US could not forge a watertight agreement with the Taliban and readily put forth a date of withdrawal, it inherently gave the Taliban a sense of victory. This was the most prominent strategic error made by America through directly engaging with the Taliban, keeping the legitimate Afghan government out of deliberation, thus, implicitly giving a sense of legitimacy to the stake of the Taliban in Afghanistan. This was similar to offering a blind check to the Taliban to go ahead and overturn the concessions made under the peace agreement, to which the US today faces criticism all over the world. [1]

It is to be noted that the ultimate objective of the US to invade Afghanistan was to fight against the Al-Qaeda (in response to the 9/11 attacks on US soil) and whoever harboured them, I.e. the Taliban. USA’s sole aim was to show to the world and these terrorist organisations that there is a heavy toll to any attack on the US territory. But this ill-considered decision of rapid troop withdrawal has overturned the USA’s invasion objective and pictured the USA as accepting its defeat after a 20-year long war with no actual outcome except for draining its wealth and causing enormous army casualties on both sides. It has exposed the follies of US decision making and has once again highlighted the utter US defeat during Vietnam War, further projecting the US as the paper lion.

Given that the Taliban has already declared an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, what holds in place for contemporary geopolitics?

Since the Taliban has acquired cynosure, countries and international organisations like the UN keep close track of all events. With altering power structures midst covid-19 pandemic and rise of the Chinese economy worldwide; what such a development means for China is a pertinent case in point, both from the worldview and India’s foreign policy.

The capture of power by the Taliban and the Chinese question can be significantly dealt with from a strategic point of view given the recent Chinese statement asserting that they are open to developing friendly relations with Afghanistan and readily recognised Afghanistan’s right to self-determination without any external influence, purposefully hinting at the recognition of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. Specific issues stimulate China to be vigilant of the Taliban actions and gear any of its negotiations with the Taliban being wary of the latter’s current stake in China’s political territory. The capture of the Wakhan corridor by the Taliban is of significant concern to China. [2]Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of territory in Afghanistan extending up to China’s Xinxiang region, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. This corridor is of utmost importance to China as its location is crucial for China- Pakistan economic corridor and its BRI. One of the pertinent concerns underlying the control of the Wakhan border by the Taliban is its link with jihadists and Islamists with Uyghur connections. This particularly haunts China as Wakhan touches upon Xinxiang, an area dominated by the Uyghur Muslims opposed to Chinese rule. The Taliban capture could escalate China’s internal political tensions given the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The recapture of Wakhan is crucial from China’s political and economic perspective. Given its economic power, China is highly likely to reach a gainful consensus with the Taliban and extract out certain concrete concessions. This holds precedence as the Afghan economy is in gutters, and the only revenue flow is through the opium trade. This will require the Taliban to look out for viable money sources for the economy and ammunition. China shows up as a great option, given the Chinese inclination towards the Taliban. Through its mercantile mentality, China will draw out meaningful concessions from the Taliban to end its support on legitimacy to ETIM or other terrorist groups posing a danger to China. It might extract benefits in material terms given Afghanistan’s rich mineral sources. Therefore, the communist regime and the Islamic regime can reach a mutual bargain. The Wakhan issue is not just central to China, but it is pertinent to India as well. It came to light amid India- China border tensions when China conducted a military drill with Tajikistan at the Wakhan border. Given that India shares a boundary of about 106 km with Afghanistan at this corridor, it needs to be wary of possible Chinese advances and not let China make any advance in this territory. This might open up some triangular deliberation channels between India, Afghanistan and China. It is highly likely that Pakistan intervenes and steers any such discussions under its influence and advantage, given its historical importance in building and sustaining the Taliban and its close ties with China. There is a high possibility that the nexus between the US and Taliban with its indefinite support to Haqqani group, which continues to be the best trained Taliban faction, causing a significant risk to Indian security given its previous attacks against Indian assets, including the Indian embassy in Kabul. Taliban has mentioned that it has no grudges against India and wants India to stay neutral. It further stated that J&K is an internal matter of India. Still, the Taliban’s words cannot be taken at face value. There is a big chance that it once again falls prey to Pakistani manipulation and host its terrorist organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc.,[3] following the historical trend when Pakistan used Afghanistan’s territory under the Taliban rule to train and harbour its militants, purportedly showing the world that it did not let any militant group flourished in its territory. A still stronger threat surfaces due to the security lapse created by the US withdrawal of troops, resulting in the rise of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), a branch of self-proclaimed Islamic state operating in the South and Central Asia. Even the Taliban is against the formation of this group due to its ability to attract and recruit well-trained defectors from the Taliban and Pakistan militant groups. It poses a real threat to India as it attracts radical Indians who, after joining such groups, further spread hate propaganda given the everlasting tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. Thus, India needs to be very vigilant with the rise of the Taliban to power and scale measures to secure its borders. [4]

Though security forms an essential aspect of Indian foreign policy, there is a larger question about how India will respond to the establishment of the Taliban regime. Also, what measures can India deploy either towards engaging with the Taliban to counter it or to follow a hybrid approach forms and other pertinent areas of discussion?

With this establishment Taliban in Afghanistan and the critical issue which emerges is its recognition by the international community, including India.[5] In a talk that occurred the week before the Taliban captured power, 12 countries, including India, UN representatives and Afghan representatives with the Taliban in Doha, issued a 9 point statement clarifying that they will “not recognise any government in Afghanistan that is imposed through the use of military force.” But this does not correspond to the current situation in Afghanistan, where the democratic government did not pose effective resistance and surrendered, given that president Ashraf Ghani left the country[6]. The larger question that arises in the face is whether these countries will consider recognition of the Taliban regime. India stands at difficult choice given its full-fledged support to the democratically elected Afghan government. Taliban, which has its allied activities with countries like Pakistan and China and has a connection with the militant groups, particularly causing the disturbance in Jammu and Kashmir and other areas of Indian territory, giving a legitimate recognition to Taliban seems confusing. Also, India’s consistent efforts in UN peacekeeping missions and its vehement human rights advocacy makes it further bewildered.

Considering India strategic interests[7], it is in the high interest of India to open up channels of communication with the Taliban given its massive investment in the country and ongoing projects in other countries, which is facilitated by the Afghanistan route, e.g. Chabahar Port in Iran. Though the Indian government had tried to establish contact with the Taliban in Doha in the past few months, these areas need to be broadened and further built upon. There is a high possibility of a positive Taliban response to Indian confidence-building measures, given that they already endorsed Indian development projects in Afghanistan. Therefore, India must seek to diversify its equities in Afghanistan and also build upon its intelligent systems. This is because any future investment in Afghanistan will rely upon accurate information reached out of the country. India cannot rely upon the US for information sharing due to specific protocols, so it needs to build its intelligence force to gather first-hand information. India’s deep ties with the NDS might help India in its investment and security interests in Afghanistan. Therefore, India must orient its policy approach considering the role of NDS in shaping its interests. [8]

Further, India’s presidency at the UN Security Council forms a powerful platform to convey its views on Afghanistan. India might also convene more Security Council sessions focusing on the Afghan issue, specifically the refugee and humanitarian crises.[9] Anything that India does needs to be passed through a double-check system. Each policy needs to be appropriately calibrated as any action will significantly impact India’s relation with Afghanistan and other countries, security, and strategic interests in contemporary geopolitics. India needs to carefully draught a detailed plan and diversify their approach towards Afghanistan in particular and the rest of the world in general. It must not let a third country hamper any of its bilateral interests.

 

 

[1] https://youtu.be/iuIx3v1AWzo

[2]https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.newsx.com/amp/world/taliban-seize-power-in-afghanistan-how-to-secure-wakhan-corridor.html&usg=AOvVaw23bKxWF5yS_xfwKoYIfXZ6

[3] https://www.google.com/url?q=https://qz.com/india/2048396/what-taliban-led-afghanistan-will-mean-for-india/amp/&usg=AOvVaw2W6D5UWTNwNSBIiulKTzwq

[4] https://english.mathrubhumi.com/news/india/us-mission-in-afghanistan-a-failure-india-needs-to-be-alert-tp-sreenivasan-former-diplomat-donald-trump-joe-biden-barack-obama-us-president-china-iran-russia-1.5917892

[5] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/taliban-takeover-5-top-questions-for-the-modi-government/article35935064.ece

[6] https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/afghanistan-crisis-live-upadates-tabliban-war-us-army-aghanistan-kabul-latest-news-terrorism-ghani-india-121081600098_1.html

[7] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/taliban-gains-complicate-indias-options/article35898057.ece

[8] CARNEGIE INDIA- Working Paper- Dealing With the Taliban: India’s Strategy in Afghanistan After U.S. Withdrawal by Rudra Chaudhuri and Shreyas Shende

[9] https://qz.com/india/2048396/what-taliban-led-afghanistan-will-mean-for-india/

(Ms. Tanvi Singal is currently majoring in Political Science and Economics from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She is interning with CPRG as Research Intern.)