India will have to play an active role in any effort to restrain the Taliban in Afghanistan not only to secure its investments but also to prevent China from getting a firmer grip in its neighborhood.
The swift unravelling of Afghanistan which has fallen prey to the Taliban in a matter of days since the US left the country presents a stern test to Narendra Modi government’s diplomatic prowess. India under Modi has expended substantial political capital and financial investment in the war-torn country with a view to strengthening its position in the central Asian region.
The bigger concern is of China, which is eager in gaining a foothold in any part of the globe, stepping in and strengthening its position on the western periphery of India. The dragon does not have any history in Afghanistan unlike India which has a shared history spanning thousands of years. Yet, it has already reached out to the Taliban and with a strong partner in Pakistan, it is easy to understand how this can prove to be dangerous not only for India but also the world in general.
The two things that Taliban needs the most--diplomatic recognition and capital for rebuilding the economy, are something that China can offer in a jiffy. In return, China would get access to the region’s abundant mineral resources. Among other minerals, Afghanistan also has deposits of lithium--the oil of the future that both China and India desperately need.
While it may have a direct and more urgent bearing on India, in the long run, the world cannot afford Afghanistan to fall into the lap of China. It will further secure the dragon’s foothold in the central Asian region and open pathways for it to Europe and beyond. India’s options at this point are limited.
A direct outreach to the Taliban would be bad for optics, but not doing anything could be catastrophic too. Putting to use its new-found leadership stature in the world, India would have to make the pitch and so that the other powerful nations can see the potential threat.
Over the last 20 years India has spent over $3 billion in a number of infrastructure projects--from the 42 MW Salma dam in Herat, or the 218 kilometer Zaranj Delaram highway which provides India with a vital road link through the Chabahar port in Iran, the restoration of Stor Palace, or the many power and health infra projects. It also includes the high-profile Afghanistan parliament that India helped build and was inaugurated by none other than Modi himself in 2015. There are major ongoing projects too including the Shatoot dam project that seeks to provide drinking water to Kabul.
The fate of all of these is now uncertain as India shut its consulate and hurriedly flew all the members back home last week. As the world cobbles through an effective response to restore some sanity in the country--US President Joe Biden is likely to get into a huddle with G7 leaders to coordinate a coherent Afghanistan policy, India will need to play an active role to secure its investments. Inability to do so would mean two decades of friendship and diplomacy being reduced to dust.
A few important calls need to be made from New Delhi. Kabul is at risk, but it isn't alone. The changes in Afghanistan can alter the fate of South-East Asia and with it, potentially the balance of power in the world.