The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the collapse of the Ghani government, puts India’s $15-billion investments in that country in jeopardy. The time may have come for New Delhi to begin an entirely new set of conversations with Kabul.
The scene at Kabul airport was one of complete chaos. Pictures of a giant C-17 military transport aircraft belonging to the US Air Force taxiing down the runway with thousands of ordinary Afghans running alongside, as if trying to board a departing bus, has been played in a loop across TV channels in India and across the world.
The planet’s only superpower was beating an ignominious retreat from 20 years of fruitless war. The Great Game in Afghanistan, which began in the 19th century as a contest between Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia, has taken another turn.
India, which has high stakes in Afghanistan but little influence on the ground, now that the Ashraf Ghani government has collapsed, is closely monitoring the situation.
“It's not that we've abandoned people of Afghanistan. Their welfare and our relationship with them is very much in our mind. We'll try and continue our interaction with them, I can't exactly say in what form the situation is changing,” said India’s Ambassador to Kabul Rupendra Tandon shortly after landing in India on board an Indian Air Force flight that had been sent to evacuate the embassy staff.
The situation on the ground is very “fluid”, he said and informed that a handful of Indians remain in that country and the government is doing its utmost to bring them back.
“That is why Air India will continue to run its commercial services to Kabul as long as the airport in Kabul functions," he said.
The sheer speed of the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan has caught most Western observers off guard. As recently as last week, A Reuters report quoted an unnamed US defence official as saying, “Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan's capital in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90”.
Such estimates were obviously completely out of touch with ground realities in the war-torn country. Over the last two decades, the US has sunk more than $1 trillion to try and rebuild the country. A large percentage of this money was spent on training and arming the Afghan army that was expected to stand up to the Taliban and become the bulwark against its expansion.
A retired Indian intelligence officer told India Global Business: “In truth, much of the money was siphoned out by US military contractors, senior Afghan government officials and local commanders. The foot soldiers got very little. Many of them haven’t even been paid for months. So, when faced with the battle hardened Islamic militia, they meekly surrendered their weapons and watched from the sidelines as their leaders escaped with the loot they had amassed over the decades.”
Media reports suggest India has opened back channels of communications with the Taliban. Though officials deny any such contacts, retired diplomats said India’s reported willingness to talk to the Taliban, if true, could be due to concerns that a new Islamic Emirate could provide ballast to Pakistan-based anti-India groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), all of which are backed by Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The retired intelligence official quoted above said Indian security agencies should be worried given the historical relationship between these groups and the Pakistani deep state.
“India will now have to worry about the situation in Afghanistan on two counts. The first is the fate of the huge investments that the government has made in that country. The second major cause of concern is the probability of the ISI diverting some Islamic militants from the war in Afghanistan to fuel chaos in Kashmir and other parts of India,” he said.
India does have a large stake in Afghanistan. The government has poured an estimated $15 billion on humanitarian and development projects in each of the country’s 34 provinces. The largest of these is the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, formerly Salma Dam, a hydroelectric and irrigation dam project located on the Hari River in Chishti Sharif District of Herat Province in western Afghanistan. The fate of all these projects, which even the Taliban has acknowledged as being beneficial to the Afghan people, how hangs in balance.
It is as yet unclear to what extent the Taliban will consider itself beholden to Pakistan and especially its deep state, which will almost certainly want to redeploy surplus battle hardened mercenaries to its proxy war against India.
But China’s quick recognition of the Taliban government will contribute significantly to rising anxiety levels in New Delhi. However, the extent of Chinese involvement in Afghanistan under a Taliban government will be closely monitored not only in India but also in other democratic capitals across the world.
India’s reported back channel diplomacy with the Taliban is, therefore, an attempt to cap the downside risks. A retired diplomat said India’s best bet would be to carry on talking to the Taliban to preclude any direct attack on Indian interests even as New Delhi continues to cultivate those sections of the Afghan elite that has lost the power struggle in that country.
These connections could be very useful when the story of the Great Game turns a page.