India’s Future in Afghanistan is Bleak
When the Taliban negotiated with the Trump administration in Doha prior to America’s withdrawal, India grew increasingly concerned. It was not happy with the agreement as the Taliban would affect its interest. India had a significant role in post-9/11 Afghanistan, where it had America’s backing in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. India’s engagement in Afghanistan ended with the shutting of the last Indian consulate in Mazar Sharif in August 2021. India’s opposition to the return of the Taliban was logical as its relationship with the group had never been particularly great. Even though India reopened its embassy in Kabul in late June, India’s future remains bleak in Afghanistan for a number of reasons.
Historical distrust is a significant factor that would keep both parties quite cautious regarding any significant cooperation. India opposed the Taliban in the 1990s, going so far as to back the Northern Alliance. When the Taliban were toppled in 2001, India stepped up its engagement in the country. India put a premium on building soft power, which was achieved to a large extent. At the same time, India supported U.S. efforts to dismantle all remnants of the Taliban. India believed real peace could only come to Afghanistan once all terror groups were eliminated. Fast forward to 2021, the Taliban was unlikely to forget India’s efforts to keep them from power.
Pakistan is also a factor in India’s engagement with the Taliban. If India and the Taliban develop any sort of working relationship, it would affect Pakistan’s interests. Pakistan mistakenly assumed that the return of the Taliban would help its grim security situation as the Taliban have pledged they would not allow Afghan soil to be used against any state. However, following the Taliban takeover, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan stepped up its attacks inside Pakistan, a pretty unexpected move for Islamabad. Hence, Pakistan will not allow India to establish a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban needs Pakistan more than India, and Pakistan will not allow them to cooperate with India.
China is another factor that makes India’s future prospects look bleak in Afghanistan. This doesn’t mean that China would block India from playing any role in Afghanistan, but China will not allow it to play a profound role that could affect its own interests in Pakistan. China plans to expand CPEC to Afghanistan, and its Belt and Road Initiative has to pass through Afghanistan.
Religion is also a factor that will affect India’s deep engagement. Inculcated with the Wahabi ideology, the Taliban would not believe in what India has promised them. Ideologies play a role in relations between states. The Taliban are extremist Muslims; hence, they will not go for unlimited cooperation with non-Muslims. The element of religion is deep-rooted in Afghans. Since the 1970s, religion has been the main driver of politics and conflict.
Similarly, Mohammed Daoud Khan had a tough time after his bloodless coup in 1973 because his policies were influenced by communism. Likewise, religion played a vital role during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Moreover, the post-9/11 struggle against the U.S. was also based on “We want to get the infidels out of our country,” Suhail Shaheen, a prominent member of the Taliban, told me during a discussion. Hence, the Taliban would not tolerate any state that wanted to dictate its policies. India would not be able to have a free hand in Afghanistan in the future to pursue its strategic interests.
In Afghanistan, there is no imminent partner for India who will support it. If there was Indian sway in post-9/11 Afghanistan, it had America’s blessing. India would not hugely invest in Afghanistan as there is no guarantee of stability and certainty under Taliban rule. Besides, all political leaders who had close relations with India are out of power, which puts India in a weaker position.
India’s future in Afghanistan is desolate. It will take quite some time for India to overhaul its relationship with the Taliban. However, there could be three scenarios where India could play a minor role in Afghanistan: India could cooperate with China to invest in Afghanistan; a gap between the Taliban and Islamabad may allow India to assert its influence in Afghanistan; and, direct cooperation between the Taliban and India.
One could argue the last scenario is somewhat likely in the light of the Taliban asserting that there is “no issue” in sending its security forces for training to India. In either case, the Taliban have a number of options, while India has fewer. Nevertheless, all these three scenarios are unlikely to happen anytime soon.