Men carry the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, after it was brought back by Sikh evacuees from Afghanistan to New Delhi on August 24. Photo: AFP / Money Sharma

JAIPUR – India, with billions of dollars at stake in trade and aid projects, is struggling to work out how to deal with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers.

Trade came to a halt after the Taliban blocked the main artery through Pakistan and paralysis of the country’s banking system has left Indian companies wondering if they will be paid.

Delhi has been pumping large sums of money into the country, mainly since 2011 when their Strategic Partnership Agreement (SAP) was signed.

India’s aid since then is estimated at more than $3 billion, mostly in infrastructure, and includes more than 400 projects across all provinces. Those have included the building of the Parliament building and the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, also known as Salma Dam.

Media reports say work on 150 projects in fields such as agriculture, rural development, education and health is still ongoing. But with the situation changing so quickly with the Taliban’s lightning takeover, the future of these projects hangs in the balance.

Trade, worth more than US$1.5 billion in 2019-2020, has been upended. In Delhi alone, about US$13.5 million of business was being done with Afghanistan every year. Prices of dried fruit from Afghanistan have gone up already.

Clothes, medicines, medical equipment and auto parts go to Afghanistan from Delhi. The city’s Chamber of Trade and Industry chairman Brijesh Goyal said shipments are stranded and payments could be held up on a large scale. 

“For this, the Government of India should take immediate cognizance and some way should be found,” Goyal said.

The Press Trust of India quoted Federation of Indian Export Organisations as saying that Indian exporters are worried about their payments as banking services and remittances may face restrictions.

Resolving these issues is complicated because it is still uncertain whether India would like to have any kind of relationship with the Taliban government. Chances are high that New Delhi will not have any diplomatic links with Kabul until a democratic or “inclusive” government is formed.

Manvendra Singh, editor-in chief of Defense & Security Alert magazine, said Indian investments in projects had been determined by Indo-US calculations since Pakistan vetoed any Indian security presence.

Singh reckoned that Indian investments such as in highways, dams and hospitals helped NATO and the US to remain focused on their security agenda.

“Absence of support for these projects will allow the Taliban to let them decay and decline. Thus, denying people valuable humanitarian benefits,” he said.

There is already a trust deficit. The Press Trust of India reported that the government told opposition party leaders on Thursday that the Taliban had broken promises made in the Doha agreement.

Taliban fighters patrol a street in Kabul as last-ditch evacuation flights took off from Kabul airport on August 27, a day after twin suicide bombings on crowds trying to flee Afghanistan killed at least 85 people. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The Doha pact, signed by Taliban leaders and the US in February 2020, envisaged religious freedom and democracy with a government in Kabul that represented all sections of Afghan society.

On Thursday (August 26), India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar briefed floor leaders of all parties in Parliament on developments.

Jaishankar tweeted, “Briefed the Floor Leaders of all political parties today on Afghanistan. 37 leaders from 31 parties attended. Thank them all. There is a longstanding national sentiment on Afghanistan. Therefore, there is national concern now at developments. We are gathered with a national spirit.”

In another tweet, he said, “Our strong friendship with the people of Afghanistan is reflected in the more than 500 projects we have there. This friendship will continue to guide us. India’s footprint and activities naturally keep in mind the ongoing changes.

“We have undertaken evacuation operations in extremely difficult conditions especially at the airport. Our immediate concern and task is evacuation and long term interest is the friendship for the Afghan people.”

Experts on international affairs and relations have also expressed concern about recent developments in Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar says India has more than 500 projects in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Kenzo Tribouill

“This reinstalling of Taliban will definitely affect our foreign policy, trade policy and domestic politics also but to what extent we can only guess,” said Dr Naresh Dadhich, a retired professor of political science at the University of Rajasthan.

Geopolitical security expert Jitendra Ojha said India needed to be particularly careful as the Taliban’s takeover could spur new radicalism and organized crime in the region.

“It may not only accentuate fissures in an already fragile social ecosystem but also bring significant pressure on security forces,” he said.

India’s cultural ties with Afghanistan may also be a point of contention with the Taliban.

Bollywood movies have played a significant role in building relationships between the countries and are by far the most-watched films in Afghanistan.

Many people have had learned to speak Hindi by watching movies, and Bollywood stars have legions of fans. However, the singing, dancing and romantic themes of the movies are anathema to the severe and fundamentalist Taliban.

Any Bollywood ban is likely to add to the resentment of an Afghan population largely hostile to their new rulers.

Bollywood celebrities were the first ones to express their concern about the situation in Afghanistan. Actor Aftab Shivdasani tweeted, “The situation in Afghanistan is very concerning. My heart goes out to the Afghan people. Prayers for its stability. #AfghanistanBurning #Taliban.”