As I traveled to Kandahar on October 4, 2011, the day India signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Afghanistan, I was able to experience a sense of optimism and achievement among those responsible. Afghans, politicians, businesses and women’s groups in the province. There was immense hope that India would be a lasting and reliable friend. The ASP was supposed to institutionalize the ten-year gains India had made from its development aid policy.
From the saga of the IC-814 hijacking in December 1999 and negotiations in Kandahar for the release of the aircraft to the closure of its mission in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, India has come a long way to restore its presence in the war-torn country after 2001. Two decades later, however, with the closure of its consulate and the evacuation of diplomatic staff from Kandahar on July 10, India must save what little it can. two-decade commitment.
As the Taliban capture district after district, the fall of Kabul seems imminent, unless the United States (US) and the international community realize the folly of handing the country over to the insurgents. There is uncertainty in New Delhi on how to handle the rapidly evolving Afghan scenario. Responses ranged from supporting the Afghan government to supporting the peace talks and even raising awareness among the Taliban.
The Taliban, to be sure, no longer need the pretext of a peace process to seize power. This can be achieved in a matter of months using extreme violence that shatters the morale of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Kabul can only hope to delay the inevitable by garrisoning and retaining control of some of the urban centers, and allowing insurgents to capture large swathes of the country. Without external aid that looks like nothing less than the intervention of 2001, Afghanistan is poised to sink into the chaos of the 1990s.
The speed with which the insurgents continued to defeat the ANDSF underscores two disturbing facts. First, two decades of military operations against insurgents by US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces have had little impact on the operational capacity of the Taliban. Despite reported leadership feuds and factionalism, the Taliban were able to project unified leadership and recruit, regroup and arm their infantry from shrines in Pakistan.
Second, the billions spent to create a modern security architecture comprising intelligence, police and military wings have not produced the desired result in Afghanistan. In addition, in the absence of air support, it will be a Herculean task for the ANDSF to curb the insurgent attack.
President Joe Biden is unlikely to halt the withdrawal of US forces by tying it to conditions on the ground, let alone reverse his decision and redeploy withdrawn forces. With the dominance reported over much of the territory, the Taliban need not remain engaged in the peace process. Even if it does, to say nothing of the February 2020 deal with the United States, the Afghan government has little leverage to negotiate from a position of strength. With the disintegration of the ANDSF resistance, the agents of power and warlords in Afghanistan may be the last frontier the Taliban must cross to seize Kabul. Yet they too are fighting for power and influence with the support of regional representatives.
These developments are akin to the unfolding of a worst-case scenario for New Delhi, a throwback to the mid-1990s. The Taliban’s domination and the situation of civil war will effectively impinge on its plan to continue aid and development aid. . As the violence escalates, the possibility that New Delhi may even maintain its diplomatic presence in the country will be strained. India has already closed three of its four consulates. It could very well be a few months before New Delhi has to consider evacuating all staff from its embassy and consulate.
India is in the midst of frantic efforts to avoid such a scenario. Since he is ill-placed to stop the Taliban, he is said to have contacted the insurgents to open a line of communication with the likely new leaders. As a Qatari minister revealed, a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations could have taken place between Indian security officials and anonymous Doha-based Taliban leaders. However, it is unlikely that much would result from these delayed efforts to establish contact with the insurgents.
On the other hand, returning to its traditional friends of the Northern Alliance (NA) is no longer an option for New Delhi. The AN, a once consolidated and militarily influential entity, is today a poor caricature of itself. The warlords, who make up the NA, can at best hope to maintain small islands of influence with their militias, as the Taliban take over most of the countryside.
New diplomacy took Foreign Minister S Jaishankar on a whirlwind tour of Qatar, Iran and Russia. However, like his dealings with the Taliban, this is a much delayed effort that is unlikely to save the day. After pledging more than $ 3 billion in aid and development assistance to Afghanistan and operating under the umbrella of US-led security, New Delhi is caught off guard. Without focusing on long-term institution building, most projects run the risk of reversal. As New Delhi desperately tries to end its isolation from Afghan developments, it remains to be seen whether it will be acceptable to influential regional actors as a key stakeholder.
As Afghanistan sinks into chaos, New Delhi will have to regret the missed opportunities. As a result of the efforts led by the United States in the security sector and the peace process, India has made little effort since 2014 (the date announced by President Obama for the withdrawal) so far in regards to concerns the strengthening of long-term institutions, the stabilization of the security situation, the promotion of the inclusion of the peace process, the building of an intra-Afghan consensus and the preservation of its achievements. The projects and structures created by India have very little means to resist the advances and takeovers of the Taliban. While there is substantial goodwill for India in Afghanistan, failing to act quickly to help the Afghans will turn the chessboard to its disadvantage. In strategic terms, the loss of India would be the gain of Pakistan and China. In real terms, that would mean the erosion of the goodwill of a friendly neighbor who looked to India for support when needed.
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Founding Professor, Kautilya School of Public Policy, Hyderabad and Founding President, Mantraya
Opinions expressed are personal