- While the return of the Taliban to Kabul may have ended the violent warfare within Afghanistan, the geopolitical contest to own the spoils of Taliban’s victory has just begun.
- New Delhi’s attempts at forming a regional consensus to stabilise Afghanistan, although wise and timely, will only achieve limited success, thanks to the China-Pakistan coalition and its interests at play in and over Afghanistan.
- Further India’s advances to woo the Taliban and attempts to evolve a regional consensus on Afghanistan might deteriorate India-Pakistan relations and pose challenges for India in Kashmir.
IN POST-AMERICAN AFGHANISTAN
- While the recently held Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan was an important initiative to help Afghanistan stabilise, the two countries that are key to stabilising Afghanistan — China and Pakistan — decided to stay away from it.
- Russia or the Central Asian states have neither the ability nor the desire to pursue a role in Afghanistan autonomous from the larger Chinese or Pakistani designs there.
- Iran has limited interests in Afghanistan and is unlikely to go against the Chinese plan for the region, especially in the broader context of being under United States sanctions.
CHINA’S INTERESTS IN AFGHANISTAN
- While China seems to be approaching Taliban-led Afghanistan in a cautiously slow manner, it is clearly poised to be in the driving seat of the regional, if not global, engagement with the region in the months ahead.
- It is a matter of time before Beijing recognises the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and it is likely to coordinate its recognition along with that of Russia and Pakistan.
- China’s long-term vision for Afghanistan revolves around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project of which Afghanistan has been a part since May 2016.
- The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also viewed as a key component within the larger Chinese BRI project and Afghanistan could eventually become part of CPEC if and when the Taliban regime stabilises itself in the country.
- Hence, for China, there is a lot riding on the Taliban.
PAKISTAN’S INTERESTS IN AFGHANISTAN
- Even though Pakistan recognises the challenge to itself from an unstable Afghanistan, its current Afghan strategy reeks of delighted attitude.
- While it lobbies the international community to help prevent Afghanistan slide into further turmoil, it is determined to keep India as far away from Kabul as possible even though the Taliban would like India to continue the engagement and offer development assistance.
- For Pakistan, Afghanistan is the mother of all zero sum games.
DILEMMA— AID OR NO AID
- The international community is faced with a dilemma in providing aid to Afghanistan for following reasons:
- Taliban and Pakistan refer to the U.S.-led coalition as ‘colonisers’ who just vacated the Afghan territory; and on the other side they seek assistance from those very ‘former colonisers’.
- In this situation if the West stabilises the country, they would still be called former colonisers, and Pakistan and China will benefit out of it geopolitically.
- So the question before the western leaders is how to offer structured incentives to the Taliban, and when.
- Second, if the U.S. and the West indeed send aid to Afghanistan, it may or may not reach the people. And yet, if they do not help, Afghans will suffer untold miseries.
CHALLENGES FOR INDIA
- India faces dilemmas in Afghanistan to decide whether to engage the Taliban or not.
- Though the successive governments in Afghanistan, including the current Taliban regime have sought relations with India, this upsets Pakistan.
- Not too long ago, Pakistan refused to attend the regional security meeting on Afghanistan called by India.
- These instances indicate that Pakistan would not like India to either develop close relations with the Taliban or be a part of any regional set up to stabilise the country.
- More so, it is likely that the more India gets close to the Taliban, the more the Pakistani side will increase the heat (read ‘attacks’) in Jammu and Kashmir.
- Hence, this situation poses a dilemma for India, i.e.,
- if the Taliban regime is stabilised in Kabul without India’s assistance to the country, the more it is likely to do Pakistan’s bidding vis-à-vis India.
- On the other hand, the more India helps the Taliban-led Afghanistan, the more Pakistan will up the ante in Kashmir.
- However, India has little choice but to engage the Taliban.
CHANGING POLICY OF PAKISTAN
- Although earlier Pakistan showed willingness to be conciliatory towards India on Kashmir, this gesture seems to have disappeared for now.
- This is at least partly due to the Pakistani triumphalism about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
- Since then, violence data show that the backchannel understanding is withering away with violence in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) spiking gradually.
- Also there has been change in Pakistan’s conciliatory approach on Kashmir, as now it demands that India should fully revert to the pre-August 5, 2019 position on Kashmir.
- With the centrality of Kashmir in Pakistan’s foreign policy in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, it is likely to see more war of words and violence in the context of J&K.
- This will mean that any possibility of India-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan would be very hard to achieve. Beijing will play along; so will Iran and the Central Asian countries, for the most part.
- For New Delhi then, the options are to coordinate its Afghan policy with Moscow, Washington and the various western capitals while steadfastly engaging the Taliban.