Monday December 04, 2023

India sliding in isolation after US Afghanistan pullout

July 12, 2021

India is becoming more isolated in Afghanistan as its client regime, Ghani-led government, is reduced to a mere 20 percent of territory after mounting Taliban victories on the battlefield.

Seizing upon an opportune time, India in post-9/11 Afghanistan morphed into a formidable player in scope and character after the US/Nato forces: It buttressed Ashraf Ghani’s govt in strategic, economic and political domains – Delhi was training Afghan soldiers; the spy agency (i.e. RAW) was shadowing and developing capabilities of NDS besides its indoctrination in the top military academies of India; Delhi was running its aviation systems, air assets and IT sector and induced soft power; India was also influencing the geopolitical alignment of the Kabul government in large measure through its vast array of leverages.

Pakistan was particularly the main victim of India's zero-sum game in Afghanistan. Through a vast clandestine network of intelligence operations, India turned the south and southeast of Afghanistan as forwarding base to conduct sophisticated proxy warfare against Islamabad across the Durand Line – numerous incidents of terrorism in Pakistan with the latest in Lahore blast are testimony to its prowess of indirect warfare. India blocked any attempt by Pakistan to cement closer ties with the Ghani government, courtesy of proxy elements such as Amrullah Saleh, Muhib among others.

China was also on the receiving end of negative Indian influence in Afghanistan. Since Delhi ensured "India First Principle" in the strategic policy of Kabul just like its implicit suzerainty over its South Asian neighbours, e.g. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, India thwarted Afghanistan-China collaboration. The two main interests of China i.e. investment in raw material and the westward extension of CPEC into Afghanistan (apart from any threat to the security of its Xinjiang region emanating) were effectively vetoed by Delhi. In plain words, collaborating with America, Delhi delayed Chinese ambitions of bringing Afghanistan into the BRI loop.

India also hamstrung Afghanistan's Iran policy by exclusively tinkering with the rivers flowing into Iran – its lifeline as a lower basin country; India made one dam in Herat (Salma Dam on Hari River) and another in Nimroz province (dubbed as Kamal Khan Dam on Helmand River). It was about to construct another dam Shahtoot on Kabul River flowing into Pakistan which could result in the diversion of up to 20 percent of water in the lower riparian ecosystem of KP. Thus

Thus Delhi suddenly expanded levers, almost controlling Afghanistan's river flows as an upper basin country into Pakistan and Iran. It provoked a reaction in Tehran – as a lower basin country; pushing back, Iran (via IRGC) sponsored a group of Taliban proxy to attack the Helmand River Dam and created instability in Herat to secure its interest.

Similarly, Pakistan was already worried that the central role of India on Afghanistan's rivers would make Islamabad further vulnerable since India can choke the Indus River System (rivers flowing into Pakistan from India) any time if it goes to war with Pakistan. This was in large part a raison d’etre which left Pakistan with a stark choice to put up with India's below-the-threshold multifaceted coercion using Afghanistan or formulate some response to convince Delhi of the cost incurred; therefore, the hedging of Taliban ensued past forward, the US has nearly completed its withdrawal of troops, Delhi has lost in Washington important leverage, i.e. strategic foothold in Afghanistan. It has to create a new alignment with the Taliban to secure its investment but the Taliban have no incentive to provide assurance as far as Delhi's equities are concerned.

For India, another worrying aspect of post-US Afghanistan is a decreasing loss of space to other players like Turkey–which has carved out a new geopolitical role as the US has cemented its responsibility to secure Hamid Karzai Airport. Very unsettled by assertive Turkish regional posture, Delhi sees Ankara as a closed ally of Pakistan: its stance on IOK, strategic and military alliance with Islamabad, power projection in the Middle East are host of issues giving Delhi sleepless nights.

The nightmare for India is of course a new realignment and collaboration between China and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Delhi will no longer be able to block CPEC/BRI in Afghanistan and also Islamabad's resistance in the form of potential counter-terrorism capability across the border to eliminate BLA, TTP HQs in Kandhar and Nagharhar regions operated by the RAW.

The Taliban will likely be more concerned with the interests of its most important neighbours with whom it has long borders i.e. Iran, Pakistan, China and CARs effectively eliminating a de facto "resident status" of India in Afghanistan which it enjoyed for nearly two decades.

Asides, CT-related new security worries, the possible harbouring of Al Qaeda, ISIS, TTP and ETIM by more ideologically inclined elements within Afghan Taliban potentially implicating national security of Pakistan, China Iran and Russia in particular, the Taliban for now, are consolidating their gains hence deterring by denial India's hitherto negative role on Afghan soil. Nevertheless, they better not underestimate India's intent and capability of playing spoiler after massive sliding in its clout.

Whereas the new order is about to unfold in Afghanistan, Delhi must be prepared for the roof-collapsing moment in its multilayered, long patron/client relations with Afghanistan.

(Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai)