The President of the United States, Joe Biden announced in April 2021 that the United States military forces would be withdrawing from Afghanistan by September 2021, after several rounds of negotiations and agreements. Reeling from the terrorist attacks on American homeland on September 11, 2001 (9/11), the USA launched Operation Enduring Freedom to combat Al-Qaeda soon after, which was succeeded by Operation Enduring Sentinel in Afghanistan. From 2001 to the present day, more than 14000 troops have been deployed in the region, with more than 1210 missions having been carried out.
Bidens’s Call and its Result
Predictably, after Biden’s announcement, the gradually resurgent Taliban which had continued to occupy and contest swathes of territory across Afghanistan despite ongoing peace talks with the Afghan government, intensified their attacks against the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and swiftly began to annex more and more territory. The troop withdrawal which was accelerated in May 2021, had been completed almost 95% by the end of July 2021, with only 650 troops left behind at the US Embassy in Kabul. The Taliban offensive rapidly exacerbated, as they continued to threaten urban areas and border crossings (that were previously under government control), which finally precipitated into direct attacks on multiple urban areas including Kabul and Herat in August 2021.
The Fall of Kabul
The first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban was that of the southern Nimruz Province on August 6, 2021, after which several more fell in rapid succession with the Taliban capturing more than ten other capitals including Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad in the next few days, with the exception of Kabul. Finally, on August 15, 2021, the Taliban breached the capital, returning after several decades. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban released a press statement announcing that they had occupied the presidential palace, taken control of the capital and were establishing security checkpoints to maintain law and order. Reporters from the Associated Press recorded government workers fleeing the building as Embassy staff destroyed important documents. The US government recorded its shock at the speed at which the ANDSF and the Afghan government collapsed despite preceding intelligence assessments of the same and the several hundreds of billions of US and NATO dollars having been poured into the ANDSF.
The Biden administration deployed 6000 additional troops to aid in the evacuation of American and allied personnel, including thousands of Afghan citizens who were desperately attempting to flee. The conditions in Afghanistan were already those of humanitarian crises, but the visuals that flooded mass media in the weeks that followed – of frantic Afghan citizens clinging on the wings of American military transport aeroplane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, of a massive exodus of refugees who knew that their continued presence in the country would endanger their lives, of terrified Afghan women lining up to withdraw their life savings – horrified the international community. The Taliban had allegedly committed to a peaceful transition, but as the levels of violence and panic increased, the US government warned Americans to not attempt to reach the airport, even as helicopters landed in the US Embassy compounds to transport diplomats to a new outpost at the airport. On August 17, 2021, the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) detonated a twin-suicide bomb attack outside Kabul airport killing more than 95 citizens and 13 US troops. Though US-led forces did evacuate more than 124000 foreigners and vulnerable Afghans eventually, several thousands were left behind in what began to be compared to the ill-planned American withdrawal from Vietnam.
Failure of Retaliation
As the US continued to pullout from Afghanistan, there began to emerge fears about the equal rights of women under the new oppressive Taliban administration, as small groups of women took to the street in protest. Several other small demonstrations occurred across Kabul, which the Taliban violently suppressed. In the Panjshir Valley, 150 kilometres northeast of Kabul, an anti-Taliban guerrilla movement led by Ahmad Massoud began to mobilize. This movement owes its origins to the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s led by Ahmad Shah Massoud (Ahmad Massoud’s father) who was assassinated in 2001 by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Massoud’s present guerrilla force included ousted government officials, including deposed Vice President Amrullah Saleh (who declared himself caretaker President of Afghanistan) and ex-Defence Minister Bismillah Mohammadi. Though the strategic location of the Panjshir Valley that isolates it from the rest of Afghanistan has often been decisive in Afghanistan’s military history, the Taliban claimed control over that region as well.
The New Empire and its Control Over the State
On September 7, 2021, Mullah Hasan Akhund was named the head of Afghanistan’s new government, with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as deputy. This was unsurprising as the former was a close associate of Mullah Omar (the founder of the Taliban), and the latter was the head of the Taliban’s political office. The son of the founder of the Haqqani Network (a terrorist organization designated by the USA and almost all of the international community), Sarajuddin Haqqani was appointed as the minister of the interior. The structure of the new government does not differ substantially from the ousted one, as the head religious leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada was declared Afghanistan’s supreme authority despite not having an official post in the government. Akhundzada summarily released a press statement instructing the new government to uphold Sharia law and Islamic rules in Afghanistan, while also urging that they ensure “lasting peace, prosperity and development.” The Taliban has held talks with former government officials and other important stakeholders to form an “inclusive government” which seems to have the support of all sectors except the still-defiant Panjshir valley. The government had also announced that educational institutions would have to institute separate entrances for male and female students, and that women would have to follow a strict dress code and wear hijab while attending classes where they would be segregated from their male counterparts. Recently, the international community has been deeply concerned by the prohibition of girls from secondary schooling and women from most work outside education and health. Indeed, the Taliban has replaced the women’s affairs ministry with the ministry for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue – their most violent enforcers. Attacks against journalists also increased exponentially. Though the Taliban seized a swift formal victory, they seem to be unable to convert it into a stable and durable peacetime government, as the Afghan economy is in shambles despite billions of dollars spent on development over the last few decades. Though the Kabul airport become functional in September with assistance from Qatari officials, long lines are visible outside banks with a daily withdrawal limit of 20000 Afghanis having been imposed, and ad hoc goods-for-cash markets have mushroomed across the country.
How is Taliban II different from Taliban I?
The Taliban now (Taliban II) have inherited a functional State structure with functional governmental organs, unlike their predecessors in 1996 (Taliban I). Indeed, bolstered by American military presence, several billions of dollars had been poured into Afghanistan over the last decades in either military aid (from USA, which the country shares with Pakistan), or development aid and infrastructural assistance (for instance, the parliament building was made by India). Taliban II has moved swiftly to reject Wahabi Islam and Saudi Arabia’s role in Afghanistan’s politics. For its supporters, this shift from the identity of a failed anarchical State – surviving on Arab drug trade, and held as illegitimate in the international community – to one that seems to be desirous of adhering to international norms of behaviour (subject to the limitations of their ideology and the Sharia law), has been a welcome development. Even the Taliban’s strongest supporters – Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, China and Russia – would have found it difficult to commit to the regime in the international fora. Though the Taliban II have proclaimed that they have granted “general amnesty” to all those who collaborated to oppose them, most in the global community are wary of the violent reprisals that they will exact from those who defy them, especially as news of criminal excesses against human rights based on the Sharia has become common knowledge. Indeed, recent reports of ethnic and religious minorities being driven from their homes have added to worldwide apprehension. The Taliban II’s short-term strategy seems to be an effort to satisfy all preconditions to garner widespread international legitimacy. However, given their violent history of brutal oppression and terrorism as well as their proclaimed objective to be the leader of the Islamic Umma, have led many in the international community to fear that they would only be strengthening their radicalism further in the years to come.
The conditions in Afghanistan are rapidly becoming a grave threat to regional security and human rights. As India is hastily attempting to determine its foreign policies and diplomatic strategy under these new circumstances while it focuses on its ambition to become a guarantor of regional security, the purpose of this article is to assess the challenges, possibilities and prospects of engaging with the Taliban in Afghanistan, especially in the light of Russian and Chinese engagements with the new Taliban administration. It will first analyze the Russian and Chinese engagements with Afghanistan, along with the concerns that both these governments are also considering. Second, it will study the myriad challenges that have emerged with the evolving scenario in Afghanistan, including the security challenges of Kashmir and an unstable Afghan government. Finally, it will consider the prospects and possibilities for a more constructive yet restrained engagement with the Taliban, including the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and other policy recommendations.
Russian and Chinese engagement with new Afghanistan
For most of the West, the prevailing conception is that the main beneficiaries of the American exit from Afghanistan are Russia and China. Scholars believe that the power vacuum left behind therein would be utilized by both the countries to expand their political influence and potential exertion of power. Though this perspective is somewhat true as European allies have been compelled to follow USA out of Afghanistan as it seeks to transform its global strategy, which has in turn convinced Moscow and Beijing that the Western alliance is progressively weakening rapidly (as is the ideals of Western liberalism dominating international ideology) – Russia and China are also encountering real threats to regional security from Afghanistan that could injure their interests.
For Russia, the US withdrawal is yet another signal of the decline of American hegemony, and of the fact that the world is becoming more multipolar, with USA visibly under Chinese pressure. Moscow believes that this kind of premature exit is symptomatic of a deepening crisis in American identity and of instability and vulnerability in Western democracies, and that the divided West devoid of American leadership will find itself unable to export democracy through regime change policies globally. The fact that the NATO troops have followed the US withdrawal indicating a new unreliability exposed in the latter in the eyes of the former (and other global allies) concerns Russia specifically because of the situation in Ukraine. Russian observers have viewed this as further proof that the European Union is incapable of acting independently as the latter’s disappointment at the failure of the Biden administration to successfully revive the transatlantic partnership and to constructively resolve the Afghan crisis, has been very publicly expressed. Additionally, divided perspectives on the number of Afghan refugees to be accepted in Europe have put the future firmly in the hands of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran. Russia is pursuing a few main pillars in its Afghanistan policy. It is attempting to use the security vacuum left behind by the West in the allied Central Asian Republics (that are now in danger of destabilisation) as an opportunity to emerge as a security guarantor for the region. Russia is worried that the instability in Afghanistan will spill over into Central Asia with uncontrollable migration and drug trafficking, which will endanger Russian security as well. It is aware that the majority of opium and heroin consumed in the vast country flows from Afghanistan, and that opium cultivation is a major source of Taliban revenue. It is also aware that the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has severely weakened Central Asian economies, exacerbated by the fall in oil and natural gas prices in global markets and decreasing money transfers from labour migrants in Russia. Since Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia is keen to combat any military invasion from across the border, especially as a vulnerable Central Asia could make labour migrants vulnerable to recruitment, radicalization and insurgency. Russia has been victim to several Islamist terrorist attacks over the years, attributed to a nexus of groups from Russian North Caucasus, returnees from Syria, IS-K and Al-Qaeda. Russia is determined to prevent these terrorist groups from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Indeed, in 2015, Russia also quietly but prominently supplied the US-led coalition in Afghanistan by allowing NATO to transport equipment and supplies through Russian territory, under the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). It has also held joint multilateral training exercises to combat Islamist terrorism through the CSTO, including even Uzbekistan which had so far resisted participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).Though the Taliban was proscribed in Russia in 2003, the political leadership has been in both covert and open contact with the group since the mid-2000s as a breakaway from Western-dominated diplomatic initiatives in the region, and because they realized that Taliban’s resurgence was nearing despite US and NATO presence. Indeed, Taliban representatives have been visiting Russia for talks since 2018. Thus, though Russian foreign policy has characteristically refrained from commenting on the political instability or deterioration of human rights in Afghanistan, and the Russian security community is divided in their assessment of the new conditions in the region – it is evident that it is viewing the Taliban as a future primary contact for realizing its primary regional security goals. However, the painful history of the years of conflict that began with the Soviet Union’s invasion to prop up a friendly communist government in Afghanistan in 1979; cost the lives of more than 15000 Soviet personnel; destroyed the Soviet economy; brought USSR into conflict with the Mujahideen who were funded by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, Iran and USA; made USSR an international pariah; and eventually led to its dissolution in 1989 – has ensured that Russia is offering and expecting less from the new Taliban. Nevertheless, Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov met with a Taliban representative two days after they took over Kabul, and alongside Moscow’s United Nations representative Vassily Nebenzia, assured the international community that the Taliban were keen to end the “many years of bloodshed” without any violent reprisals. Though Russia has not yet recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government, President Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has clarified that they prefer negotiating with the new Taliban than with Ashraf Ghani’s “puppet government.” Russia is keen to develop economic relations with the new Afghanistan, but is also aware that it cannot financially compete with China there or in Central Asia. It is also attempting to maintain its close ties with India while fostering closer ties with Pakistan, Taliban’s main sponsor. Russia has hosted several high-profile talks with the Taliban since they seized power, emphasizing that formal recognition of the regime and economic aid would be conditional on a more inclusive, broader cabinet and better protection of human rights
For China, the US-NATO withdrawal signals proof of a narrative that it has been furthering for decades in the context of global systemic competition – that as the West is declining, the world will witness the “peaceful rise of the East.” China has also utilized the Afghanistan situation to caution other neighbouring countries (especially the Central Asian Republics) that the USA should not be relied on and that instead, it should be viewed as the guarantor of regional security. However, China is also concerned with the US pullout because the latter has officially stated that one of the main rationales behind this is to focus all resources on the conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific where there are several competing zones of influence. Though the country is pursuing possibilities for engagement with Afghanistan, it is also aware of the myriad regional dangers that could arise from the “spill-over” of radical Islamic terrorism and drug trafficking causing insecurity in Chinese borders. Beijing is anxious that the political insecurity in Afghanistan would affect the deeply contentious Xinjiang autonomous region, where they believe that the Uighur Muslim minority are potentially being trained to become Islamic terrorists, as part of a larger nexus with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has publicly sought Xinjiang’s independence. In 2015, the IS-K established itself in Afghanistan, and China fears that they have also occupied the Badakhshan province on Chinese borders, and have joined the ETIM nexus as well – which had, in the late 1990s under Taliban I also violently supported Xinjiang’s independence. This is the most significant threat to national security for China, and it has therefore taken a range of widely condemned security measures such as forcefully mandating “re-education (internment) camps.” Though the China-Afghanistan border at the end of the Wakhan corridor can be easily patrolled, and Chinese security forces have been present across the border in Afghanistan since 2017, the border with Tajikistan is more concerning because it offers an easier crossing for terrorist groups to infiltrate Xinjiang. China has therefore, pursued counterterrorism exercises with Tajikistan, Pakistan and until recently, Afghanistan. China was the first to seek diplomatic contact with the Taliban after it had occupied Kabul. The Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan HE Wang Yu clarified that because “Afghanistan is all but abandoned by the United States”; China – which had provided millions of dollars of aid to build hospitals like the Jamhuriat Hospital and a solar power station in the Bamyan province – is “ready to assert itself as the most influential outside player in Afghanistan.” This is not the first formal diplomatic contact that China has had with the Taliban, as it has sought dialogue through minilateral and bilateral formats several times in the recent years. In 2016 for instance, it utilized the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan and USA) to lay the groundwork for the recent exchanges between the representatives of both the countries. In July 2021, Taliban representatives met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin signalling that China was willing to recognize a stable Taliban government, under the reciprocal guarantee that it would engage in joint counterterrorism initiatives to prevent IS-K and ETIM from influencing Xinjiang. However, given the “ideological coherence” based on “common struggle and intermarriage” between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda according to the 2021 UN Report on Afghanistan, China is cautious of completely trusting the Taliban’s promise of prohibiting extremist groups detrimental to Chinese security. China is also eager to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, though the highways have already been targeted by terrorist groups within and outside Pakistan. It understands that a Peshawar to Kabul motorway as part of the CPEC would provide a much shorter and convenient land route to markets in the Middle East for Chinese goods, as well as bypass India’s reluctance to join the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. It believes that economic investment into Afghanistan would incentivize the Taliban to work to secure political stability and reconciliation. China possesses several advantages over Russia and USA in Afghanistan. Most importantly, it lacks a history of military intervention in the country, and is in close collaboration with Pakistan that is also desirous of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It hopes that Pakistan’s inextricable ties with the Afghan Taliban, Quetta Shura, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ETIM would allow it better control over these extremist groups, and China-Pakistan cooperation would reduce regional terrorist activity, bolster OBOR initiative and support Chinese strategic interest against India. If China provides economic support to Afghanistan, it expects a friendly Taliban government to allow it to exploit Afghanistan’s immense lithium natural reserves in return for ownership arrangements and mining rights. China dominates the worldwide market for lithium-ion battery production, and seeks to develop long-term contracts with the Taliban for this purpose. Afghanistan also possesses extensive reserves of copper, gold, bauxite, oil and natural gas, chromium, iron ore, zinc, lead, gemstones and rare earths, talc, travertine, sulphur, gypsum and marble – which have all been recaptured by the Taliban as they returned to power. Thus, where Afghanistan can offer China infrastructure and industry-building opportunities as well as $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources, the latter can offer the former “economic investment and political impartiality” according to Zhou Bo, an expert on Chinese strategic thinking. Thus, for both possibilities – extending CPEC to Afghanistan and investing in Afghan infrastructure and resource extraction – there are major security risks at play, and until the Taliban is able to stabilise the country, China will remain cautious. China and Russia are also undertaking joint military exercises in northwest China, east of Xinjiang.
Indian Engagement with New Afghanistan – Concerns
Because of India’s long tradition of strategic ambiguity when it comes to foreign policy, it is difficult to be certain about the myriad consequences of the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. The complex nature of regional geopolitics and competing spheres of influence have rendered India’s future in the region difficult to guarantee, as there are several factors that could evolve into either concerns or prospects and possibilities in the engagement with Taliban. One of these is Russia’s deepening relationship with the Taliban over the years. It has recently expanded its contacts with Pashtuns in Afghanistan, moving beyond Uzbeks and Tajiks in order to preserve its influence in the region even if any of the forces collapse. In this process, it has also pursued closer ties with China and Pakistan – both of which are opposed to Indian regional superiority. On August 25, 2021, Putin met with Prime Minister Imran Khan to discuss several issues given their collective strategic interests in the region. Indeed, Russia-Pakistan talks to control Central Asian terrorist groups (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which tried to enter Tajikistan and Uzbekistan from northern Afghanistan) have been regular since 2012, which was broadened to include China in 2016. Russia and Pakistan also met for the third round of Russia-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) on September 29, 2021, where they discussed the issue of active Uzbek and Tajik insurgents in the Farkhor and Ayni airbases in Tajikistan. It is concerning that India was not invited to this meeting, especially as it had helped refurbish the airbases during the 1980s. Meanwhile, India has been specific about engaging only with an elected government in Kabul unlike other key stakeholders in the region. This, while understandable given the recent history of cross-border terrorism through the Pakistan-Taliban nexus, has also severely impinged upon India’s ability to negotiate with the group on its own terms. It has signalled its interest toward a political settlement of the Afghan dispute and engagements with friendly regional partners together with backchannel negotiations with various Afghan groups. Regardless of this, India was not invited to the Moscow-led talks with the Taliban on August 11, 2021 in Qatar, where Russia, China, USA and Pakistan participated. India is concerned that even though the USA has expressed interest in bringing India into Taliban-related discussions, all the other countries neighbouring both itself and Afghanistan are keen to marginalize it. Indeed, India is vigilant that its absence from the evolving political discourse will cement further China-Russia-Pakistan ties – on drug trafficking, terrorism, Asian and African trade, exploitation of marine resources in the Indian Ocean – to obvious Indian disadvantage. This is worsened by the fact that the India-China enmity in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) contravenes most possibilities that it could work through that group to manage the Afghanistan issue, including cross-border terrorism. Essentially, India is becoming increasingly aware that Russia cannot be fully depended on at this juncture, because the latter is pursuing a balancing strategy between India and Pakistan to secure its larger regional interests, especially those in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific. Thus, though Russia is exploring deeper ties with India to gain a deeper presence in the region, intensify commercial and maritime activities, and develop closer relationships with neighbouring littoral countries; it also understands that alienating Pakistan will not amount to much. Though India was looking to develop develop the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) launched by Iran, Russia, and itself (2000), as well as the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor – in order to better stave off regional security crises emerging from Afghanistan; it has become evident that Russia seeks to establish itself alternative centre of regional influence, not as a counterweight (alongside India) to other active powers.
Indian officials are also gravely concerned about the possibility of the instability and radicalism in Afghanistan spilling over into Kashmir, understandably unconvinced by the Taliban’s assurances that they would not intervene into Indian territory. On October 24, 2021, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat commented that the military and citizens have to prepare for the “overflow” of the conditions in Afghanistan in Kashmir. He reiterated the importance of sealing and patrolling the borders, and that such “overflow” could disrupt the lives of Kashmiris as well as the safety and security of tourists in the region. Though one of the four pillars in the agreement between the erstwhile Afghan government and the USA was to ensure that “the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals” is categorically prevented, it is unclear whether the Taliban will maintain this promise. This is especially because the Haqqani Network is deeply entrenched in the new Taliban administration, and this elite armed and trained Taliban group has repetitively emphasized on an anti-India agenda, even bombing the Indian embassy in Kabul. Regardless of the Taliban’s reassurances, the close ties between the Haqqani and the IS-K that would only be bolstered in the security vacuum left behind by the USA, have worried India that it would attract, recruit, radicalize and train individuals from Kashmir and all over India. The instability in the Taliban government as different officials present different public perspectives, has made it virtually impossible for India to reasonably predict any stable engagement with Afghanistan. If India is unable to secure such engagement, it is unavoidable that it will not be USA’s first choice in regional security discussions and agreements, thus allowing Pakistan an undesirable leverage.
The billions of dollars that India spent on development and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan were indicative of a dual hard and soft power approach pursued by the former in the region, and has made the country one of the largest regional donors to Afghanistan. India’s enduring approach towards Afghanistan has been to ensure that it “doesn’t fall into the hands of Pakistan supported Taliban”, as reiterated by former ambassador VP Haran at a 2017 lecture series about Modi’s Neighbourhood First foreign policy. Now that the Taliban has seized power in Afghanistan, these fears have become real and India is struggling to determine the way forward in engaging with the current administration in Afghanistan. Though India has invested significant amounts in the region, commentators believe that this has not put it any favourable position to either leverage its support or manage the risks. Though India had emphasized that its aid to Afghanistan was purely out of goodwill with no expectations of reciprocity, S Jaishankar clarified recently that India should “get value in return” for its investment in “friendship with Afghan people.” These assertions do not amount to much however, because India has failed to operationalise several reconstruction projects in the country, including the $11 billion Hajigak mine in the Bamyan province. Even the much-vaunted Chabahar Port in Iran that was expected to open up trade routes between Afghanistan and Central Asia, allowing India to bypass Pakistan, has been stalled due to COVID-19 and threat of sanctions against Iran. These difficulties have become worse under the new Taliban, and India is now looking at all the investment being rendered unviable.
India is most immediately anxious uneasy about the thousands of Afghan refugees that are gradually entering Indian territory, especially as anecdotal reports prove that most feeling Afghans prefer India to Pakistan as a refuge. New Delhi has a bustling Afghan population – former students, those seeking medical treatment – and expects a large influx to follow now that it has offered fast-tracked emergency free visas to Afghans. The Modi government earned severe international condemnation after statements that India will prioritize Hindu or Sikh Afghans over others, and it is yet unclear if that is the official policy that will be followed. In any case, it is historically evident in India that unmitigated influx of refugees can lead to domestic instability arising from competition over resources, unemployment, outsider-insider politics and relative deprivation gaps. Indian Engagement with new Afghanistan – Challenges
Indian Engagement with New Afghanistan – Possibilities and Prospects
Though India is concerned about Russia’s growing closeness to Taliban and China, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has also noted that both the countries have common interests in the region, and should cooperate to ensure that the “economic, social and democratic progress made in the past years is preserved.” Both countries are desirous of halting the spread of Islamist extremism and radicalism beyond Afghan borders, are equally concerned with IS-K in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and are not in favour of an Islamic emirate. Soon after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, Putin met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, followed by a meeting between Secretary of Russian Security Council Patrushev and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, to discuss the emerging threats to regional security. Both countries resolved to coordinate their approaches to Afghanistan in various multilateral fora, and enter into information-sharing agreements to prevent the spill-over of violence and radicalism into both countries. Indeed, Russian envoy to India Nikolay Kudashev also stated that there is not much difference between the positions of both the countries in their approach to Afghanistan, as both are resisting from recognizing the Taliban unless certain conditionalities are met. India may pursue political dialogue with Afghanistan through Russia, which would also benefit the connectivity projects of both the countries. India may also seek to employ the existing format of multilateral engagement through the SCO to better engage in dialogue with Russia over Afghanistan – especially as the direct involvement of the Central Asian Republics deeply concerned with threats to regional security, makes the group much more representative. India may also coordinate with the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group which brings regional partners as well as the Afghan authorities into negotiation and discussion, which is essential to its foreign policy. It may also pursue the common concerns of radicalism and terrorism through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). On October 20, 2021, the Indian delegation led by JP Singh (joint-secretary heading Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk at the Ministry of External Affairs) met Taliban officials face-to-face for the first time in a Moscow Format meeting seeking to focus on the deteriorating security conditions and the formation of an inclusive Afghan government. Though India had found itself largely alienated from extended troika meetings thus far (with Russia, China and Pakistan participating in them), the pulling out of the USA from the meetings for “logistical reasons” provided space for Indian participation. Singh has signalled India’s interest in engaging with the Taliban delegation through informal contacts to resolve the developing humanitarian, political and security crisis. Indeed, India expects to utilize the Moscow Format that was established in 2017 involving Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Pakistan and itself as an important means to engage meaningfully with evolving regional dynamics. Evidently here too, India is cautious about the degree to which cooperation and dialogue with Pakistan and China especially is possible, given their conflictual imaginations for the future of the Indo-Pacific.
India has also, over the last few decades, invested over $3 billion in development aid to reconstruction activities in Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban, and is cautiously hopeful that this will allow it to be a key stakeholder in the peace and security process in the country. S Jaishankar announced at the Afghanistan 2020 Conference in Geneva between November 23 –24, 2020 that India is considering several new commitments in the region, including more than 100 high-impact community projects worth $80 million. India has undertaken major reconstruction projects such as the $90 million construction of the parliament building (2015), renovation of the 19th century Stor Palace (2016), a 218 kilometre-long Delaram-Zaran highway connecting Afghanistan to Iran, a 200 kilometre-long transmission line, and the Salma (India-Afghanistan) Friendship Dam in the Herat province (2016), 75000 tonnes of wheat and 20 tonnes of lifesaving medicines during the COVID-19 pandemic; and is seeking to sign the agreement to build the Shatoot Dam which will measurably improve access to clean drinking water for residents of Kabul. Thus, India expects that its demands for a more inclusive and peaceful government will be heeded by the Taliban, though the leverage that Pakistan holds over the latter concerns the Indian administration gravely.
Observers suggest that India learn from China’s strategy of appropriately analyzing risk and reward through its OBOR, and aim to strategically engage with the Taliban in order to successfully counter the intensifying geopolitical challenges. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Working Paper (2021) noted that India can no longer afford to discount the imperative of “being more engaged in international negotiations” and communicating with some sections of the Taliban “as part of a broader diplomatic initiative.” It is essential that India therefore, revise its purely soft power-based policy in Afghanistan to one that is more conflict and effective, at the earliest.
- (2021, October 24). Afghanistan situation overflow can happen in Jammu and Kashmir: CDS Bipin Rawat. Zee News .
- (2021, August 30). Taliban are back – what next for Afghanistan? BBC News .
- Biddle, S. D. (2021). War in Afghanistan. Global Conflict Tracker .
- (2021, August 30). Will India’s investments in Afghanistan amount to anything? Livemint .
- Chauhan, L. G. (2021, August 16). India post-Taliban takeover in Afghanistan assessing the risks. Financial Express .
- Express Web Desk. (2021, Septemebr 16). One month since Taliban takeover: Here’s everything that has happened in Afghanistan. The Indian Express .
- Fischer, S., & Stanzel, A. (2021). Afghanistan – The West Fails – a Win for China and Russia? Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) Comment .
- Gupta, K. (2021, September 2). Explained: Why China is looking at a larger role in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Indian Express .
- Kapoor, N. (2021). The Afghan conundrum: Russia, India, and the difficult road ahead. New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation.
- Kozlov, P., & Rynda, A. (2021, August 21). Afghan crisis: Russia plans for new era with taliban rule. BBC Russian .
- Laskar, R. H. (2021, October 20). India, Taliban to meet today at Moscow Format in Russia. Hindustan Times .
- Pradhan, S. (2021, October 6). Russia balances ties with India and Pakistan: Decoding the Russian overall strategic objective. Times of India .
- Yang, J. (2021, August 19). China’s Political Calculations and Potential Options in Afghanistan. The Diplomat .