Indian commentators are acknowledging that keeping a distance from the Afghan Taliban was a mistake. Now that India has closed down its consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat, they are realizing that there are no permanent friends or enemies – only national interests matter.
The second lesson for India and everyone else is to avoid undermining one's adversaries if a temporary gain at the diplomatic level has been achieved, such as the one gained by India in Afghanistan after 9/11.
Significantly, three thousand Indians have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, which is the highest number India has had anywhere associated with its diplomatic missions abroad. However, some personnel were involved in developmental projects in the country.
India claims to have invested $3 billion in various projects in Afghanistan and carved a niche within the Afghan government circles. In the garb of development assistance, India laid out a spy network along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and lured Afghan tribes with connections in Pakistan to their bidding.
This also proves that in its single-minded pursuit of keeping Pakistan under pressure, India forgot that keeping all eggs in a single basket has never been a good idea, certainly not in politics. After almost two decades of death and destruction and approximately two trillion dollars in losses in Afghanistan, Americans also realized their mistake. The American decision to negotiate with the ‘Taliban terrorists’ must have been a rude shock to the Modi government.
Another fact which must have dawned upon the Indian policymakers would be the geographical advantage that Pakistan enjoys. Despite India's pumping of resources into the Afghan intelligence, NDS, or its financial and material support to some Baloch separatists and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the situation in Afghanistan has taken a turn that is opposed to the Indian objectives. Therefore, Pakistani officials are gearing up for India's alternative strategy to harm Pakistan, including sabotaging the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Indian hand is clearly visible in last week's attack on the Chinese engineers working at the Dasu Hydro-power project.
Of late, Indian media have disclosed that India has attempted to establish contacts with the Taliban in Qatar. It is not clear how far the Indian attempt has succeeded, but the Ashraf Ghani government would certainly not like it. However, for India, the Taliban are a reality and it wants to have a working relationship with them if they protect Indian investment in Afghanistan.
While the struggle for power between the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani government continues, Western media reports suggest that the Taliban are winning the battle. The 300,000 strong Afghan National Defence Forces (ANDF), established during the past two decades by the Americans at the hopping cost of $ 87 billion, have failed to defend the existing order under President Ghani's leadership, leaving his external supporters, including India, in the lurch.
Would India give up its competition with Pakistan on Afghan soil, especially when it is as old as both countries' independent lives? This competition started soon after the issue of ‘Pashtunistan’ was raised by Sardar Daoud in the late 50s. When the communists toppled Sardar Daoud, India supported the change led by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
Subsequently, when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan, India was at the forefront of supporting the Karmal and Najibullah regimes and dubbed Mujahideen as ‘terrorists’. After the fall of Najibullah, India succeeded in cultivating former president Burhanuddin Rabbani to find a foothold in Afghan politics. However, the Taliban's ascension into power set back Indian efforts to influence events in Afghanistan. The post-9/11 period has been a boon for the Indian strategists to malign Pakistan in the power corridors of Afghanistan. Times have changed again if the closure of three Indian consulates and withdrawal of its advisors from NDS and Afghan defence ministry are an indicator.
On the diplomatic front, Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar's recent visit to Tehran and Moscow was aimed at reviving the Russia-Iran-India nexus that existed before 9/11. However, Russian and Iranian commentators believe that Mr Jaishankar could not break much ice due to changed realities in Afghanistan and India's newfound love in American arms.
The changing mosaic in Afghanistan is bound to force Indian policymakers to revisit the drawing board and develop a revised strategy to deal with the emerging situation in Afghanistan. Indeed, the American-infused democratic order has failed to dent the centuries-old conservative landscape of the country. And the Indian democracy, steered by the Hindutva dispensation, also cannot be a role model for the Afghans, especially when the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) forbids Afghans from getting political asylum or citizenship in that country. Therefore, the credibility of Indian love for Afghanistan is already a question mark for the Afghans, including those currently supping with President Ghani.
All is not lost yet. A change in the mindset holds the key to creating a conducive environment to transform the existing competition between Pakistan and India on Afghan soil into cooperation. India needs to look at the new paradigm of geoeconomics propounded by Prime Minister Imran Khan for South and Central Asia. It implies inclusiveness, including India, while creating connectivity between regions.
For that to happen, India will have to be part of CPEC-BRI and revert to the negotiating table to address the core issue of Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Failing this, the competition with India will continue. If India persists with the competition and creates unrest in Balochistan or financially supports the TTP, over a dozen insurgencies across India offer a lucrative pasture for Pakistan.
The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to Iran and UAE.
He currently works as senior research fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).
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