Where does India stand after US exit from Afghanistan?- Yasmeen Aftab Ali

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Agreement signed between the U.S and Taliban in February 2020 reveal an ‘informal commitment for both sides to cut violence by 80%’. Reuters reported that a total of 4,500 attacks across the board in Afghanistan took place in 45 days by the militants since the signing of the agreement.

U.S may be desperate to exit especially with elections looming ahead, however, less focus on modalities of leaving, conditions of power distribution during and after leaving has taken a back seat to the desperation of just… leaving. This ironically is making the leaving face more problems than facilitating this becoming a reality.

Leave U.S will. New Delhi is understandably concerned over what impact the drawdown will have on India. The return of Taliban in the driving seat post U.S exit means a government that is hostile to India. New Delhi does not recognize Taliban as a stakeholder in Afghanistan and had thrown in its lot with Ashraf Ghani’s government. India had also supported Northern Alliance to sustain military pressure on Taliban.

India fears that with the “official end” of war in terror in Afghanistan heralded by the departure of US combat forces, Pakistan shall launch the jihadists in India-occupied Kashmir. Nothing can be further from the truth. One; Pakistan does not “own” the jihadists as claimed by India and two; Pakistan has been fighting terrorism within its borders for a very long time.

One cannot however rule out the possibility that the impact on the youth of Indian Occupied Kashmir can be psychological. They message sent out is if Taliban can eventually drive out U.S from Afghanistan so can the Kashmiris of IOK drive out the Indians.

With China’s outreach in the region including Afghanistan, India’s space in Afghanistan will be squeezed as will her ability to influence Afghan government post Ghani era

America has to leave Afghanistan one day. No country can maintain its physical occupation of another indefinitely. India has made her moves intelligently and like an excellent chess player has positioned herself in a strategically strong position in anticipation of the happening. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan lie in the north of Afghanistan, Iran to the West, Pakistan to the South-East and China to the remote East. “A narrow stretch of Afghan territory separates Tajikistan from Azad Kashmir. The importance of this region for India’s security is huge. Tajikistan is in Central Asia, a gas-rich region in which India has developed growing interests. Tajikstan also happens to be extremely anti-Taliban. India, in order to gain strategic depth, focused on the Ayni Air Base, also called as ‘Gissar Air Base’ located 10km west of the capital of Tajikistan-Dushanbe. In the post 1979 era of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan it had served as the key air base for Soviet military air transportation of its troops to Afghanistan. It fell into disuse and neglect later. Between years 2002-2010, India invested approximately $70 million in renovations, installing state-of-the-art air defense navigational facilities. The runway was further extended. This access offers immediate strategic depth in the region to India.

The second place of Indian foothold is the Farkhor Air Base; a military air base located near the town of Farkhor in Tajikistan, 130 kilometers south east of the capital Dushanbe. In 1996-97, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) started negotiations with Tajikistan to use the Farkhor Airbase to transport high-altitude military supplies to the Afghan Northern Alliance, service their helicopters and gather intelligence. At that time, India operated a military hospital in the Farkhor region. Since Pakistan does not allow India overland access to Afghanistan, India has had to channel its goods to Afghanistan through Farkhor. The IAF airlifts supplies to Ayni, which are then transported to Farkhor and onward to Afghanistan by road. More important, aircrafts taking off from Farkhor could be over the Pakistani skies within minutes.”

India’s policies-overall, have been based more on developmental aid (barring the two major instances above) and people-to-people contact. With U.S and allies exit, India will need a new strategy to maintain her foothold in Afghanistan. How will India move on from this point?

Some realities India will have to come to terms with in context of Afghanistan will help form future policies for Afghanistan. First, Pakistan has assumed new importance with becoming a facilitator in talks between U.S and Taliban. Their importance in post-exit U.S from Afghanistan can only grow. Second, India largely banked on U.S to operate in Afghanistan failing to broaden their base for achieving strategic objectives sans U.S presence. Third, India cannot offer to U.S what Pakistan can in terms of geography and connecting with Taliban. Fourth, India made strategic missteps by supporting groups like BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal), IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) while abandoning SAARC. What this did was, India distanced itself from Afghanistan in South Asia while focusing on regionally isolating Pakistan by making short termed Pakistan-centric policies that did not offer long term gains. Fourth, unless and until, India backtracks on her policy on Afghanistan that worked during past decades to now include relationship with Taliban, India should resign herself on sitting on the fence. Fifth, India should participate in India-China-Afghanistan trilateral economic projects agreed upon in year 2018. If India does not wish to maintain relationship with the Taliban, the fence is of course waiting. Sixth, to quote Lt, Gen ® Panag in The Print, ‘To prepare for the worst-case scenario, we must engage with the non-Taliban ethnic coalition as and when it is formed and assist it economically and militarily through Tajikistan.” Seventh, with China’s outreach in the region including Afghanistan, India’s space in Afghanistan will be squeezed as will her ability to influence Afghan government post Ghani era. Eighth, India’s panic as the talks between U.S and Taliban inch forward is palpable. To quote HappyMoon Jacob in The Hindu, “New Delhi’s official statement which describes Afghanistan as a “contiguous neighbour” – meaning that India considers Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) a part of its sovereign territory – will make Pakistan and China sit up and take notice. Recall that India also made a similar claim about Aksai Chin in the wake of its August decision on Kashmir. Erstwhile rhetorical claims on PoK and Aksai Chin have suddenly assumed lot more geopolitical significance today making conciliatory approaches to conflict resolution ever more difficult.” India does not afford these faux pas.

India is on a slippery slope. Smart policy making needed. Unfortunately in the shadow of Modi’s government that carries a lot of Hindutva baggage, potential reconciliation with Taliban does not seem to be on the cards.

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: yasmeenali62@gmail.com and tweets at @yasmeen_9