The gruesome death of photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, at the hands of the Taliban in Spin Boldak a couple of weeks ago, now seems like a warning, if one was needed. India better forget its ambitions about shaping and achieving a proper outcome in Afghanistan.
According to The New York Times, Siddiqui’s body was badly mutilated in Taliban custody and his face was unrecognisable. The Taliban didn’t care that he was a fellow Muslim, they just saw him as an Indian.
In fact, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who had earlier denied Siddiqui was killed by the group, is now taunting New Delhi, saying “Indian aircraft (were used) to destroy civilian and government facilities,” including a hospital, in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which is at the crossroads of several routes leading to Kandahar and Herat.
The key question, especially in the wake of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Delhi last week, is whether India wants to get involved in the bloody mess that America is leaving behind in Afghanistan.
The ‘stay active’ school
The facts on the ground are clear. The Americans are exhausted from a 20-year-long war in which more than 2,000 US personnel have been killed, thousands more injured and more than a trillion dollars spent. They want out. It doesn’t matter to the Americans that the Pakistani military establishment is filling the vacuum the US is leaving behind – latest reports suggest Pakistani fighters are supporting the Taliban in mounting the ongoing fearsome attack in Herat.
One school of thought in New Delhi – mostly consisting of former ambassadors to Afghanistan who have seen things at very close hand and know the terrain well – is advocating a more vigorous policy. That is, short of putting boots on the ground, India should play a more energetic role. This would include reactivating the 2011 Afghan-India strategic partnership agreement, which would mean a stable flow of financial aid and weapons to the Afghan defence forces now fighting with their backs to the wall.
“India will lose out in Afghanistan if it doesn’t act now”, is the catchphrase of this school.
According to the Long War Journal, US withdrawal has meant the withdrawal of more than 80 per cent of US air assets, which is often the difference between victory and defeat. Of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the Taliban controls 223, while 116 are contested; the Afghan government controls 68. Of 34 provincial capitals, the Taliban controls 17.
According to this “stay active” school, India is in danger of endangering its presence built up over the last 20 years if it doesn’t assert itself now. Worse, the Pakistan military establishment will step right back in, as it did between the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the US invasion in 2001, and not allow India to reenter the region.
None other than the outspoken Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh has this weekend accused NATO of not naming Pakistan behind the insurgency in Afghanistan.
“You can’t fix a leaking roof by painting over it…we are under an invasion from the other side…Pakistan,” Saleh said.
For India, staying alive in Afghanistan will also entail the hard work of persuading rival Afghan leaders (like Ashraf Ghani, Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Marshal Dostum, Amrullah Saleh, etc.) to form a united front against the Taliban, and explaining that if they don’t stand together, they will fall apart.
Moreover, there is the geo-economic great game that Pakistan, with more than a little help from China, is now playing. Work on a Pakistan-China-inspired Central Asian corridor that bypasses most of Afghanistan is on the anvil; one only need look at a map to see how Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan connects northwards with the sliver of Afghan territory called the Wakhan Corridor and onwards to Badakhshan province, currently in the hands of the Taliban, into Tajikistan.
The weird Wakhan Corridor most likely resulted from an Anglo-Russian deal to end the “Great Game” in the 19th century. #Afghanistan #Pakistan #Tajikistan #China #CPEC #CAREC https://t.co/6oGdVbiMFP pic.twitter.com/Fainc8WAlR
— Riaz Haq (@haqsmusings) June 14, 2020
Of course, the Chinese are building a road across the Wakhan, which enters Afghanistan from the Xinjiang province. Meanwhile, Chinese goods reaching Central Asia via several cargo trains, now need simply take this side land route via Badakhshan and reach the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar.
The ‘strategic patience’ school
Meanwhile, the other school of thought in New Delhi advocates “strategic patience”, a phrase that is fast catching on in the capital’s corridors. This means waiting it out, not getting your hands dirty. Since a civil war is inevitable in Afghanistan, why should India extend itself?
This school believes that despite their traditional caution, the Chinese are likely to get embroiled in the Afghan whirlpool, not just because they are intent on enhancing influence through the Belt-and-Road infrastructure, but courtesy their chief client, Pakistan – the intent behind the invitation to Taliban leaders in Tianjin last week.
That’s why the focus on diplomacy. Sitting next to Antony Blinken last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stressed the need for a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict; Blinken noted Afghanistan would become a “pariah state” if the Taliban did not adhere to democratic norms on their path to power.
Clearly, India is going along with the US belief that if enough countries refuse to accept the Taliban – and Pakistan PM Imran Khan has since said that Pakistan doesn’t speak for the Taliban – then it will be difficult for the group to take Kabul and exercise power. In fact, it seems the US is hoping that if the Taliban finds it difficult to reach Kabul, then Taliban soldiers will switch sides and join their Afghan brothers, this time in the defence forces. It’s not clear if India thinks the same, but it’s a thought that the “strategic patience” school believes is worth considering.
One thing is clear – moral pressure will only work if major gains against the Taliban are made on the battlefield. That’s why US B-52 bombers are in the air over Herat, as a fierce battle rages for the city. The Americans, however exhausted, realise they cannot hand Afghanistan over on a platter to the Taliban and Pakistan.
What of India? The cogitation over the ‘should we-shouldn’t we’ dilemma continues this week.
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.