The India-Pakistan border at Wagha. Indian trucks carrying wheat bound for Afghanistan will travel across Pakistan. Photo: WikiCommons

The three-week-long “anti-terror operation” undertaken by the Indian Army from October 11 in the Bhatta Durrian forest in Poonch district after the killing of nine soldiers, including two junior commissioned officers and two policemen, was billed as “one of the longest” in the history of the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir.

Yet no Indian functionary or politician pointed a finger at Pakistan. This is despite the fact that on October 21, Pakistan was facing scrutiny in Paris at the plenary meeting of the multilateral watchdog known as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money-laundering and terror financing.

Again, the state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are looming large on the political horizon and the Bharatiya Janata Party has not so far used Pakistan as its bogeyman during election campaigns. 

New Delhi has chosen instead to take the diplomatic initiative to engage Pakistan constructively, seeking transit facilities for transporting 50,000 metric tons of wheat as humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The crux of the matter is that New Delhi has shown a preference for the Pakistani route. 

Curiously, again, this initiative also overlapped the Indian government’s decision on the reopening of the Kartarpur Corridor – interestingly enough, with some Pakistani prompting

It now transpires that Pakistan has given the green light to the transit request for the Indian wheat to be transported to Afghanistan. The modalities are under discussion between New Delhi and Islamabad. Indeed, the Taliban leadership had earlier endorsed the Indian request for transit via the Wagah border. 

Without doubt, the positive Pakistani response has profound implications, since Islamabad is de facto facilitating the commencement of a constructive engagement between New Delhi and the Taliban authorities in Kabul. 

The malnutrition department of the Indira Gandhi Children Hospital in Kabul on October 13, 2021. Both India and Pakistan are taking steps to avert a food shortage crisis in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Bilal Guler / Anadolu Agency

Humanitarian crisis

Put differently, Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul find themselves on the same page in regard to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

The folklore used to be that India would prop up an anti-Taliban resistance movement all over again and that Pakistan would exorcise the Indian presence from Kabul. Both assumptions must now be set aside.

Delhi has come to accept the Taliban takeover in Kabul as a reality and seems increasingly unsure of its dogmatic view of the Taliban as a mere proxy of the Pakistani military and security establishment. 

While connecting these dots, what emerges is that the Indian government is rapidly adjusting to the undercurrents in the Western strategy to re-engage with the Taliban and Pakistan. Basically, the Indian government never really “decoupled” its policies from the US strategy.

The resumption of talks in Doha last weekend between US and European Union representatives and the Taliban indicates that the Western powers are shifting gear. What gives impetus in this direction are two things.

First, unless the humanitarian situation is addressed urgently and the collapse of the Afghan banking system is averted by creating liquidity in the economy, a refugee flow out of the country is in the cards. 

Second, the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan are stepping up and the Taliban are hard-pressed to counter them.

Both are highly consequential scenarios for international security. 

Then there is the overarching Western concern that a protracted absence from Kabul can only work to the advantage of China and Russia – and Iran.

The US policy is trapped in the “legitimacy” aspect of the Taliban government. On the contrary, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have discreetly sidestepped the contentious issue of “legitimacy,” which creates space for them to develop their relations with the authorities in Kabul even without having to recognize the Taliban government. 

The Chinese Embassy in Kabul. Photo: / AFP / Mariam Kosha

China getting ready to move in

A recent report in the Global Times disclosed that several Chinese companies are even conducting on-site inspections of potential lithium projects in Afghanistan. To be sure, the American companies that were secretly doing business in Afghan lithium under former president Ashraf Ghani’s watch must be getting frantic that the Chinese companies are stealing a march over them. 

Against such a backdrop, Washington has knocked at the Pakistani door seeking help to work out the terms of the West’s engagement with the Taliban. Pakistan is willing to be of help.

Despite Imran Khan’s strident anti-Western posturing in the past, after becoming prime minister, he has shown a remarkable degree of pragmatism – as his openness to taking help from the International Monetary Fund or heeding the US demands to go slow on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would testify. 

At any rate, the recent visit of a high-level military delegation from Pakistan to NATO headquarters in Brussels and the effusive words about Pakistan’s stellar role as a military ally by the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg are strong indicators that the US expects Pakistan to play a moderating role vis-à-vis the Taliban regime, similar to what Pervez Musharraf performed in the downstream of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon 21 years ago. 

Don’t be surprised if Pakistan heeds the US entreaties to give access to its bases for undertaking counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. The rumors about a new airbase coming up in Nasirabad (close to the Afghan border) refuse to die away. 

Of course, the US is adept at adopting a carrot-and-stick policy. The FATF is like an albatross around the Pakistani neck – and the Pakistani economy is in dire straits already.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Imran Khan invited to US meeting

On the other hand, in a remarkable U-turn, the White House has now included Imran Khan in its list of invitees to the Summit of Democracy to be hosted by President Joe Biden on December 9-10. 

It is entirely conceivable that the Biden administration would expect India to moderate its hostile stance vis-à-vis Pakistan in these circumstances when the Anglo-American project to engage with the Taliban with the help of the Pakistani military leadership is at an advanced stage. 

The good part is, of course, that the above trends are conducive to the easing of India-Pakistan tensions. A litmus test will probably come as the elections in the Indian states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh due in February or March draw closer. Will the Hindu nationalists rake up Pakistan as the bogeyman in their election campaign? 

Meanwhile, the wheat shipment to Afghanistan would involve a convoy of about 5,000 trucks – something like 200 trucks crossing Wagah and the Khyber Pass every single day through a month or two in harsh winter conditions. The epic saga is bound to be sensational and may rewrite the Indo-Pakistani narrative. 

Indeed, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is bringing India, Pakistan and the Taliban on to the same page – something that was unthinkable until recently.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.