Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Photo: AFP / Kenzo Tribouill

If one thing is clear from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, it is that India will defend herself against external threats and the increased dangers of terrorism that may come from Afghanistan through Pakistan and is perfectly capable of acting in its own interests – both on land (Kashmir or Ladakh) and at sea (the Indian Ocean). His address can be taken as further evidence of the new multipolarity that is rapidly reshaping global politics.

India will not sacrifice its sovereignty to accommodate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s reported itch for war games against the Taliban from Indian territory.

Despite pressure from neocons and Mackinderites (those who believe that Anglo-American maritime power should promote conflict and division among the major Eurasian land powers), it will be nearly impossible to persuade India to grant NATO “over-the-horizon” rights to strike Afghanistan from Indian territory. India can smell a skunk in the garden and will be cautious. 

On September 17, Arindam Bagchi, spokesman for India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, uncharacteristically obfuscated when asked about discussions concerning “over-the-horizon” strikes against Afghanistan: “I would not respond to media reports on this issue.” Bagchi’s caution may indicate back-channel discussions had been taking place.

India understands that just as it was a mistake for the British Empire to launch wars over Afghanistan (in 1838-1942, 1878-1880, and 1919) and in Tibet (1903-1904) from British India, so today it would be an even greater strategic blunder for India to allow NATO to attack Afghanistan from bases in India. Our Mackinderites might welcome such an adventure, but New Delhi would not.

Whatever NATO might offer to India in exchange for setting up drone bases on its territory, India realizes that there will be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but rather further regional dislocation and serious trouble with near neighbors.

From all indications, India does not want war, and it certainly does not want another conflict with Pakistan, despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s aggressive address at the United Nations (which is worth listening to). 

While it is true the Taliban are “no friends of India,” as the Taliban leadership declared this month, and Pakistan remains a perennial foe, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is too savvy to fall for NATO’s arguments in favor of non-Indian-flagged “over-the-horizon” air strikes against Afghanistan. 

Furthermore, India, which provides development assistance to many countries, knows that the Taliban cannot be bought off with offers of oodles of development aid, as confirmed most recently by the hundreds of billions lavished on Afghanistan since 2001 to no apparent avail.

Nor is development assistance likely to seduce the Taliban away from their attachment to radical Islam.

In this connection, Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official, coolly dismissed questions regarding the possibility of Afghanistan plunging even deeper into chaos if all aid were to be cut off. Paraphrase: “Don’t you guys get it? Our Islamic principles, whether you like them or not, are more precious to us than bushel baskets full of cash.” Neocons and Mackinderites are no less committed to their theories and ideological hobbyhorses – and India knows it. 

Nevertheless, Jaishankar questions whether Taliban leaders will be able to control the myriad terrorist offshoots and renegade fighters operating within Afghanistan’s borders despite their declared intention to do so.  

Jaishankar is right to be skeptical. He insists that “the Taliban’s commitment not to allow use of Afghan soil for terrorism in any manner should be implemented.” 

Moreover, India has established red lines, which were evident when Modi told the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Dushanbe that “together, we should ensure that the territory of Afghanistan is not used to spread terrorism in any other country. SCO member countries should develop strict and agreed norms on this subject.”  

China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Iran are all in agreement with India. 

Modi appreciates the danger of India using its military to nation-build. Others have tried it to their grief. Smart diplomacy works better than geopolitical bullying, even when disguised under a thick overlay of humanitarian concern and ideological democracy promotion.

A bad idea is that much worse when it informs aggressive policies vis-à-vis near neighbors. India will intervene in its neighborhood if and when diplomacy fails and for a clearly defined purpose, as it did in the Bangladesh Independence War (1971) and in the Sri Lanka Civil War (1987–1990).  

Western foreign-policy elites need to reassess their thinking. The Wall Street Journal’s Sadanand Dhume, usually a good analyst, erred badly in his 2012 opinion piece “India needs a neocon foreign policy.” Although written some years ago, it can be taken as emblematic of an approach that sounds good to ideological adepts, but bears scant connection to reality.  

He called for India to “export” democracy – “It’s time to bring democracy-promotion in from the proverbial cold” – and hand over infrastructure development to the Chinese. “This means leaving infrastructure to the Chinese and focusing instead on the principles of free speech, minority rights and independent institutions such as the judiciary and election commission.” 

India’s diplomats have been watching this line of reasoning unfold over the years and have not bought into it. 

India’s primary goal in engaging the Taliban has been to persuade them to set up an inclusive government and to make it clear to them that India will not tolerate terror activity emanating from Pakistani soil. 

As further evidence that India is serious, the meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – that was scheduled for September 25 in New York was canceled because member states could not agree on who should represent Afghanistan. Pakistan insisted it be the Taliban, which was a no-go from the get-go, especially since the Taliban did not represent Afghanistan at the UN General Assembly.  

India, like France under Charles de Gaulle, is too savvy to get sucker-punched into surrendering its national sovereignty. To illustrate the point, consider this recent report in the Indian media: “There has been no ceasefire violation along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir since the reiteration of the agreement between the armies of India and Pakistan in February this year [2021].…

“General Officer Commanding the Army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps or Chinar Corps, Lt Gen D P Pandey, said there have been some infiltration attempts, but unlike previous years they have not been ‘adequately supported’ by ceasefire violations.…

“‘We are totally prepared for ceasefire violations; if anything happens, we are all set to respond appropriately. But frankly, there has been no instigation from across the border,’ he said.”

Modi and Jaishankar know that India can handle its own affairs. It will not allow NATO-flagged “over-the-horizon” strikes into Afghanistan, even as it exercises diplomatic tact in its public utterances about Afghanistan, the Taliban and Western policy.  

Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.