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Afghanistan: What does NATO withdrawal mean for India?

Aditya Sharma New Delhi
July 27, 2021

With the Taliban once again rising to a position of power, some fear that New Delhi might be forced to the margins in Afghanistan.

Afghan army soldiers take part in a cleanup operation against Taliban militants
Indian policymakers have been watching the rapid gains made by the Afghan Taliban with growing concernImage: Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua/picture alliance

The final stages of the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan, coupled with the Taliban's sweeping offensive, have forced regional stakeholders to recalibrate their position in the war-torn country.

One of those stakeholders is India — the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. 

India has long supported the civilian government in Kabul, heavily investing in the country over the past two decades. 

India's developmental assistance, to the tune of more than $3 billion (€2.5 billion), included the construction of dams, highways, schools, hospitals and even the country's parliament building. 

All this was possible under the aegis of US security forces. Their exit by September has forced New Delhi to reckon with the prospect of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

India and the Taliban

Policymakers in New Delhi have been watching the rapid gains made by the Afghan Taliban with growing concern. 

The Islamist militants, believed to be backed by India's archrival Pakistan, have captured district after district, threatening Indian strategic interests in the country. 

Earlier this month, New Delhi evacuated 50 Indian diplomats and staff from its consulate in Kandahar — a Taliban stronghold — as security deteriorated. 

According to The Indian Express, the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan might be next if the fighting continues.

The last time the Taliban was in power, they sheltered pro-Pakistan militants who had hijacked an Indian civilian airliner to Kandahar in 1999.

"Over the past years, India stuck to a principled position in terms of not negotiating with the Taliban," said Rani Mullen, associate professor at the College of William and Mary, Virginia, and a senior visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. 

"While admirable in terms of not wanting to negotiate with terrorists and supporting the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, this has now put India at a disadvantageous position," she told DW. 

Other stakeholders, led by the US, have been engaging with the Taliban for years, she added.

Mullen expects the Taliban to very likely be in power by the end of the year. "They are already attacking urban centers and are in de facto control of the majority of rural areas," she said.

According to reports last month, India reached out to factions of the Taliban and is willing to engage with the outfit — a significant shift in Indian policy. 

Several experts believe the decision to open talks with the Taliban is the right way to go. 

"India is wise to hedge its bets by engaging the Taliban, even as it maintains support for the Kabul government," said Elizabeth Threlkeld, senior fellow and deputy director of the South Asia program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

"The Taliban are on the rise in Afghanistan and will be looking to diversify their contacts within the region beyond Pakistan — presenting an opportunity for New Delhi," Threlkeld told DW.

According to her, Indian policymakers should continue the quiet outreach to the Taliban, while attempting to drive a wedge between the group and Pakistan.

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Pakistan's role in Afghanistan

Indian and Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of militarily supporting and sheltering the Taliban leadership and its fighters, who they say have been based across the border over the past two decades. 

Many believe that if the Taliban were to return to power, Islamabad would stand to gain the most.  

However, such a situation might also leave Pakistan "deeply vulnerable to spillover violence across its border," Threlkeld said. 

"Managing this risk will be a challenge for Pakistan, distracting it from its rivalry with India and potentially jeopardizing the security of its infrastructure projects with China," she added.

Professor Mullen also believes that Pakistan might have less pull with the Taliban than they would like others to believe. "They [Pakistan] have not been able to deliver the Taliban for negotiations over the past few years, and the Taliban now see that they are no longer dependent on Pakistan," she said. 

A civil war in Afghanistan?

Meanwhile, a resurgent Taliban has dashed hopes for peace and stability in Afghanistan, at least in the short term. The Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, has vowed to recapture the territories lost to the Taliban.

Many observers expect a civil war in the coming months.

"Afghanistan is in for a very long, full-scale civil war. But it would be far more difficult for the Taliban this time," Bharat Karnad, author and emeritus professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, told DW.

"This is for two reasons: one is that the local Hazara and Shia militias, backed by Iran, are coming up, aided, and assisted by the Afghan secret service [National Directorate of Security or NDS]. They are being amply supplied with arms and ammunition, communications equipment, among others," he said.

"The other is that the Northern Alliance is going to revive again," he added, referring to the resistance group in northern Afghanistan that was formed in late 1996 in opposition to the Taliban's Islamic Emirate.  

General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi was the commander of that military front. His appointment as Afghanistan's new defense minister last month was a "marker of the Northern Alliance coming back into the picture," Karnad said.

"[Bismillah Khan] is going to activate his contacts. The Uzbeks and the Tajiks of Afghanistan are coming back assisted by the Central Asian states, India and Russia.

"Once all these players come into action, Pakistan becomes very isolated. Their connections to the Taliban become a liability for them, but they cannot cut themselves off of the Taliban."

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'The Taliban will not gain power very easily'

Karnad also argued that India has more options and is in a far better position now than it was the last time the Taliban came to power.

"India has already established contacts within the Taliban, which is faction ridden and not a very centralized or cohesive force. Indian intelligence agencies have had long-time 'arrangements' with some of these factions," he said. 

"This time, the Taliban will not gain power very easily. A Taliban regime is not in the offing anytime soon."

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, another former envoy to Afghanistan, said the coming weeks until October will be critical.

"India will continue to support the Afghan state and people as long as there is no state collapse," he argued. "Even then, India will find ways to support the Afghan people through education and other opportunities in India."

As for a civil war, he believed that was unlikely. "There is a considerable ground to cover before state collapse and civil war. The more likely scenario is one of coordinated armed resistance against the Taliban," he said.

India’s bet, he added, could possibly be that the "Taliban will not last in power forever if they try to take over and impose a repressive emirate."