Manish Tewari | Does India have strategic interests in Afghanistan?

The fact is that India has been a bit player in Afghanistan since 1979

At a recent regional security dialogue on Afghanistan, India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval stated, “India was and is an important stakeholder in Afghanistan. Special relationship with the people of Afghanistan over centuries will guide India's approach, nothing can change this.” Reports suggest that the national security adviser also underscored the fact that India continues to stand with the Afghan people and pointed out that since August 2021, India had already contributed 17,000 metric tonnes of wheat (of a total commitment of 50,000 metric tonnes), 5,00,000 doses of Covaxin, 13 tonnes of life-saving medications and winter clothes, and 60 million doses of polio vaccine.

This is all very good but it still does not answer the core question going back all the way to 1979 when Afghanistan became the battleground once again to bring down the Soviet Union and, by extension, the Communist paradigm or even stretching further back after the Partition of India as to what strategic interests did India have left in Afghanistan post that vivisection?

However, let us start one by one. What is this “special relationship” that India has had with Afghanistan over the centuries? The answer is simple. None. It has been the gateway for over 70 invasions into India that took place between the tenth and the 17th century. According to some historians from the times of Alexander the Great — 321 BCE — India was raided and assaulted over 200 times with almost all of the invaders excluding the British coming down the Khyber Pass.

The only time that India was briefly able to occupy parts of Afghanistan was when the Sikh armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the able stewardship of Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa inflicted a series of defeats on the Afghans beginning with the Battle of Kasur in 1807 and culminating in the battle of Jamrud in 1836 where Hari Singh Nalwa fell martyr to Afghan chicanery. Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away in 1839 and the Sikh empire ceased to exist by 1846.

After being decisively defeated in the First Anglo-Afghan war from 1839 to 1841, the British were able to exercise a modicum of influence on the ruling dispensations in Afghanistan after their victories in the second and third Afghan wars in 1878 and 1919, respectively.

It, therefore, begs the obvious question, are there any civilisational ties between India and Afghanistan or is it a myth that we have created for our consumption?

More than a decade ago in November 2011, in a piece entitled “Get out, leave Af to Pak”, Shekhar Gupta had asked a very prescient question about India’s interests in Afghanistan: “It will still be a country of great strategic importance.

But for whom, is the question. It will be of no strategic importance to us. None of our supplies or trade comes to Afghanistan. None of our bad guys hide there. No Afghan has ever been involved in a terror attack on India. In fact, almost never has a terror attack on us been even planned in the more precise Af-Pak region. They have all been planned and executed between Muzaffarabad, Muridke, Karachi and Multan. Almost never has an Afghan, Pakhtun, Baluch, Tajik, any ethnicity, been involved in a terror attack in India.”

Writing again in 2021, he opined, “There is much knee-jerk paranoia in India about a new ‘Terroristan’ coming up between Pakistan and a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Pakistan has zero ability economically, diplomatically, geo-strategically or militarily to create one. If they try, it will be great for India as they will destroy themselves yet again. In the first phase of the Cold War, this blessing of geography cost them more than half their country (1971); in the second (1979-91), they destroyed their infant democracy, institutions, and brought in Islamisation.”

The fact is that India has been a bit player in Afghanistan since 1979. This reality has been further accentuated after the Americans and the West decided to hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban after brutalising them for over two decades in August 2021. The cold truth is that the West did not bat even an eyelid before rolling back 20 years of progress in national reconstruction especially with regard to women’s rights and other fundamental freedoms in Afghanistan where the US alone had spent $2.3 trillion since 2001. It speaks volumes about prioritisation of their self-interest above all else.

A recent UN report does speak of anti-India jehadi groups expanding their training presence in Pakistan: “The 13th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team cites a UN member state as saying that JeM, a Deobandi group ideologically closer to the Taliban, ‘maintains eight training camps in Nangarhar, three of which are directly under Taliban control’.”

However, this development is far from unexpected especially after Afghanistan was virtually “gifted” back to the Taliban by the West. Given that key security portfolios in the new Afghan government are controlled by the Haqqani network including the ministries of interior, intelligence, passports and migration and refugee rehabilitation, it gives them both leverage and flexibility to play footsie with their fraternal allies like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

Under these circumstances, what are India’s options? It can, of course, recognise the Taliban and extract guarantees in return that Afghanistan will not become a sanctuary for anti-India groups, given that the Taliban is desperately craving for international legitimacy notwithstanding the philosophical predisposition of Hibatullah Akhundzada, Mohammad Hasan Akhund and other hardline members of the Kandahar clique who do not favour ideological dilution even if it comes at the cost of international opprobrium.

However, given that the government in Delhi has a certain deeply held “religious bias”, would they be willing to trade security guarantees in larger national interest for calibrated recognition? This is a question that they should seriously consider.

The better option would be to just ignore the regime in Afghanistan till the time the international community does not strike a collective bargain that expects the Taliban to subscribe to a certain behaviour pattern in return for the easing of both qualitative and quantitative sanctions. In the meanwhile, we can try and cope to the best of our ability as a nation with both the scourge of terror and narcotics that may acquire a new impetus out of Afghanistan. However, what we must first do is disabuse ourselves of any fanciful nations that India either has strategic interests or can be a player in Afghanistan.

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