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

“Any country’s foreign policy is determined by its geography.” – Napoleon Bonaparte  

In the case of South Asian countries, as well as foreign policy, domestic policy is affected by geography. The unfolding events in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power in August changed the dynamics of internal politics of all South Asian countries, especially India and Pakistan. For Pakistan, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan offers significant opportunities, while for India, it’s a serious challenge to its national security.  

In New Delhi, the Taliban’s ascendancy in Kabul is seen through the lens of the India-Pakistan conflict and the increase of China’s influence in South Asia. New Delhi’s strained ties with Beijing and Islamabad have seriously impacted its prospects in Afghanistan.

India is currently one of the region’s most disadvantaged players. An unofficial alliance among the Taliban, China and Pakistan is going to play a central role in Asia’s geopolitics centered in post-American Afghanistan. Both China and Pakistan have welcomed the Taliban back to power. 

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan may feed a long-simmering insurgency in the disputed region of Kashmir. There is a strong notion in the Indian establishment that the Taliban could be used as a proxy for organizing militants’ attacks in Kashmir. As well, the policies of China and Pakistan on Taliban-run Afghanistan are broadly aligned with each other. 

But one gray area where interests clash is the specter of the Taliban allowing Afghanistan to be a platform for international terrorism. Separatist movements in China, especially in Xinjiang, could get a major boost in that case. It would also test the longtime friendship between China and Pakistan, which is always quoted as higher than mountains and deeper than the ocean.

Recently Pakistan launched a global campaign to legitimize and garner support for the Taliban-led government, with senior officials making a pitch for engagement through speeches, op-eds and interviews. Pakistan has called for immediate development assistance to the country as well as sanctions on the regime to be removed.

But the Taliban haven’t indicated that their fundamental ideology has changed. The civilian casualties that took place after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan are a clear testimony. 

Meanwhile, violence has increased in the South Asia region. There has been a rise in militant attacks in Kashmir recently, especially against minorities. Last Thursday, two teachers were killed in Kashmir, both of whom belonged to minority communities in the region, one Hindu and one Sikh.

The police did not identify the attackers but the Resistance Front, a little-known militant group operating in Kashmir, has claimed responsibility. These incidents could be just the beginning of a new insurgency in the region.

India has long aspired to play a bigger role in world affairs but the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has put into serious question its influence in South Asia. Much of the blame must be given to India’s top leadership and Foreign Ministry, which were not quick to evaluate the situation. 

Slow diplomatic approach

India wasted a lot of precious time as the situation unfolded in Afghanistan. There was a considerable time lag between former US president Donald Trump starting negotiations with the Taliban and US troops pulling out. 

The Indian establishment’s approach to the crisis was apathetic and glacial. India seemed reluctant to recognize the reality on the ground that the Taliban were a legitimate stakeholder even though the group was conquering key regions of Afghanistan. 

But when the Taliban stormed into Kabul on August 15, India had to change its stance and publicly establish an official dialogue with the group’s leadership. But if Delhi had prepared in advance, there would not have been any flip-flops in the policy. 

India might have been in a much better position in Afghanistan if the government had a proper institutional framework for playing out different scenarios well ahead of time including the likely case of a Taliban takeover.

The policy of wait and watch as situations evolve only makes the situation worse as time passes, the crisis worsens and the options and space for favorable action decreases. The policy of catching up hardly serves the country’s interests in a better way.

The current biggest challenge for India is whether to recognize the Taliban government or not in its current form. 

India needs a proactive response

What could be the new course of action to engage various stakeholders in Afghanistan? India has already invested around US$3 billion in Afghanistan’s infrastructure, capacity- building, and more. So disengaging is not a likely option on the table to safeguard the country’s interest and stability in the region. 

Continuity of India’s capacity-building and development work in Afghanistan will be the only way to maintain influence and goodwill among the Afghans. But New Delhi has to walk a diplomatic tightrope while acknowledging the fact that the Taliban will never embrace India’s support of democracy or women’s rights yet at the same time opening up the country for travel and education for Afghans.

A pragmatic approach such as responding positively to the Taliban’s reach-out initiative on a case-to-case basis is called for, while at the same time the Taliban must accept the fact that improvement in relations will only happen if they protect India’s key interests vis-à-vis spillovers of violence into Kashmir. Any statement or action questioning India’s national security will make the case worse for them.

A defensive and offensive diplomatic strategy by India depending on the situations evolving in the region will be counterproductive. More important, New Delhi needs to build a proactive approach and come up with policy options for different scenarios, including a three-front war in the future, well ahead of time. 

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.