Indian nationals sit aboard an Indian military aircraft at the airport in Kabul on August 17, 2021, to be evacuated after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Stringer

The US and India withdrew disgracefully from Afghanistan. America’s “traditional” foe, Russia, and “competitor” China, filled the vacuum created by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US and India evacuated their embassies in Kabul, but China and Russia kept theirs open.

India has been implementing a kind of “Monroe Doctrine” in South Asia to maintain its regional hegemony. It projects itself as a future global superpower. What does the disgraceful exit from Afghanistan mean for India in the region and beyond?

First, as the humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan has tarnished its global credibility and eroded global dominance, India also lost its regional credibility and dominance in South Asia. India’s claims that it has a strategic role in rebalancing global power has been proved to be psychedelic hubris by the Afghan episode.

India is nowhere in the world strategically, and will have no role in global politics for at least the next 20 to 30 years. India has to make significant advances economically, strategically, and technologically to achieve global rebalancing power.

Second, Indian strategists claim that India has forged a strategic partnership with the US and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to counter China. However, any claim that India is exercising strategic autonomy in global affairs has been proved to be an exaggeration. On the contrary, it has lost its strategic autonomy.

India has proved to be merely a strategic partner of the US. The Afghanistan episode illustrates that India and the US have the same Afghan policy. A statement issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on August 17 on the Afghanistan situation and evacuation of its Kabul embassy mentioned the US only. It made no mention of Russia or any other player of Afghanistan.

Third, after the Afghan fiasco, New Delhi’s regional dominance in South Asia is confined to Bhutan, a de facto Indian protectorate. Although India has also dominated another landlocked country, Nepal, that domination has been eroding. Kathmandu signed many agreements with Beijing ending India’s control of Nepal’s trade and transit and access to the high seas.

Indian strategists believe that Nepal’s political parties are cannot go against their interests. But none of Nepal’s political parties can risk reversing the Sino-Nepalese agreements because of solid anti-Indian sentiment in the country. Thus India’s regional hegemony in South Asia now rests solely on Bhutan. None of the South Asian countries except Bhutan support India.

Fourth, India has lost Afghanistan as a strategic location from which to contain its traditional enemy, Pakistan.

Indian media have been reporting that India is launching intelligence operations in Pakistan’s Balochistan province through Afghanistan. The operation is reportedly meant to counter the Pakistan-sponsored separatist movement in India-controlled Kashmir. The Afghan debacle is a severe setback to the Indian intelligence operation in Balochistan. The Indian departure from Afghanistan provided significant strategic leverage to Pakistan.

Fifth, and most important, India has lost access to West and Central Asia because of its strategic alliance with the US. Pakistan has replaced India in the region. India will also lose the opportunity to be a part of the economic and strategic alliance that will develop the Eurasian landmass in the future. China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan are planning to establish an economic and strategic partnership in the region.

Russia did not include India in the Troika Plus meeting on Afghanistan recently because of New Delhi’s divergence with Russia but convergence with the US. This exhibits India’s isolation.  

Sixth, China and Russia have put forward essential concepts for the reconstruction, stability, and development of Afghanistan: de-dollarization. India cannot participate in this because of its strategic alliance with the US.

Waste, hubris, and bad bets

India has invested more than US$3 billion in Afghanistan since 2001. Indian investment looks like “pouring water into the desert sand.” That money could have been invested in food, health, and education for Indian children suffering from hunger, malnutrition, and lack of education. Instead, New Delhi squandered the money to fulfill the hubris of senior officers of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) to portray themselves as global strategic players.

The question of why India felt the need to flee while China and Russia remained in Kabul is worth mentioning.

Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lapdog media have been trying to cover up his foreign-policy failures, now the opposition parties have been trying to hold the Modi government accountable for India’s diminishing international posture. Indians are beginning to feel that India’s shrinking status on the global stage is Modi’s foreign-policy failure. And in fact, Modi committed several blunders in the last seven years.

First, he linked Indian foreign policy only to his personality. He himself was under the illusion that hugging and shaking hands with the leaders of the superpower countries such as the US president was a foreign-policy success.

Second, when Modi took office as prime minister in 2014, he was inexperienced in foreign and strategic affairs. His previous post was as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

Subramanian Swamy, a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) member of the Rajya Sabha, upper house of the Indian Parliament, has repeatedly criticized Modi for lacking economic and foreign-affairs knowledge.

He also accused Modi of neither hiring qualified or capable people nor even believing in expertise. Modi overly relied on the ex-bureaucrat duo Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and national security adviser Ajit Doval.

Taking advantage of this critical weakness, senior IFS officers dominated decision-making after 2015.

Jaishankar is a leading figure of the pro-Western outlook and was an Indian ambassador to the US. Modi appointed him as foreign secretary in 2015.

After his appointment, India signed the Logistics Management Agreement with the US in August 2016. Within four years, India had signed four foundational agreements with the US and became a strategic partner.

Jaishankar’s speech at the Fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture in 2019 is an important document. In this lecture, Jaishankar argued that there was a risk of allying with the US. He said, “Taking risks is inherent to the realization of ambitions.”

Jaishankar said, “Risk-taking is an inherent aspect of diplomacy, and most policy judgments revolve around its mechanics. It is also a natural accompaniment to hedging. When we look at this fourth basket, it is evident that a low-risk foreign policy is only likely to produce limited rewards. On occasions when India departed from this mode, some risks paid off while others did not.”

He added: “Not all risks are necessarily dramatic; many just require the confident calculations and determined to follow up of day-to-day management, but their aggregate impact can result in a quantum jump in global positioning. To a certain degree, we see that happening today.”

Thus India’s decision to pursue an alliance with the US was a calculated risk.

Third, there is a famous proverb in the Nepalese language, “Tadhako devata bhanda najiko bhoot Kam Lagchh,” roughly translated as “A ghost in your neighborhood is more useful than a distant deity.”

But Modi made the mistake of choosing a distant deity, the US, to counter China. And the fact is, China is more that a ghost in the Indian neighborhood. China can help India’s economic development and poverty alleviation by providing market access, technology transfer, and foreign direct investment.

The Indians were under the illusion that China would be afraid of the Indo-US strategic alliance and act as India wants. But the situation did not develop as the Indians anticipated. They took a calculated risk, but it looks like Jaishankar is poor in math, and he miscalculated. India’s risk-taking turned into a bad bet. The result is the current Indian isolation and stature shrinkage.

On June 24, 2020, I wrote in Asia Times, “Modi will find no constructive friends in need in the future by putting all his eggs in the American basket.” Modi is found to be in the same situation that I surmised less than 14 months ago. He is paying the cost of his myopia.

India has no choice but to reach out to China if it wants to re-enter Afghanistan and West and Central Asia.

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.