Emerging situation in Afghanistan; options for India
by Jaibans Singh on 11 Jul 2021 9 Comments

A few days ago, the US left the ancient city of Bagram in Parwan province of Afghanistan where they had maintained an air base for almost two decades. With this, 90 per cent of the US forces in Afghanistan have left the country. The contingent remaining now is for guarding the United States Embassy in Kabul and Kabul International Airport. Along with Bagram Air Base, the US has officially handed over seven facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defence. 


As the withdrawal continues, the Taliban, in complete disregard for the understanding that it has with the US, is busy taking over the areas being vacated. It is reported that its various factions have already taken control of more than 120 districts, thus expanding its influence from 73 to 195 districts.


The Government of Afghanistan is putting up a brave front even as its inability to stand against the Taliban onslaught is becoming quite apparent. It does not have money to operate its Air Force; its soldiers are crossing over to Tajikistan to escape the wrath of the Taliban.


The emerging ground reality is that the Taliban will play a bigger than expected role in the politics of Afghanistan, even to the extent of gaining absolute control. This is not good news for India since the country has backed the existing Government of Afghanistan to the hilt, both politically and economically. Also of concern is the close relation of the Taliban with the fundamentalist elements of Pakistan and the ISI. Pakistan’s continued influence cannot be denied despite its claims that it no longer has any leverage over the Taliban.


It is imperative to recall the times from 1996 onwards when Taliban was in complete control of Afghanistan. When Russia withdrew from Afghanistan, the ISI had in its training camps more than 20,000 highly motivated and well-trained Islamic Mujahideen hailing from across the world. A considerable number among them were diverted to Kashmir after organising them into terrorist groups like Al Badr, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen etc. They boosted the existing strength of ISI assets in Jammu and Kashmir, like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen etc. This was the time when terrorism attained its peak in the region. It has taken the Indian security forces almost two decades of sweat and blood to contain and bring down the terrorism to the existing levels where it is almost neutralised.


The ISI with its strong contacts in the Taliban and especially with the Haqqani group is very likely to attempt another build-up of the terrorist network in Kashmir. While the US-Taliban agreement states that the Taliban will prevent terrorist outfits from operating on Afghan soil, there is little clarity on how the agreement will be verified and enforced. The threat therefore remains very real and very potent for India.


India also has considerable assets and infrastructure in Afghanistan, created to assist the government of the country. These assets have already been targeted by the Haqqani group.


The international community is seized of the grave security scenario building up in the entire South Asian region due to the US withdrawal. Pressure has been and continues to be exerted on Pakistan to dialogue with India. Pakistan however has played a very smart game; it has agreed to a cease-fire on the LoC but in the matter of talks it has laid down a condition of reversal to the pre-August 2019 status of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan knows that the Government of India will never agree to this demand. It has, therefore, kept open the option of increasing the threshold of violence in Kashmir when assets created with the help of the resurgent Taliban are in place.


The Indian government recently explored the possibility of moving internally by holding a meeting with the leadership of Jammu and Kashmir under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The success of the meeting has sent alarm bells in Islamabad; the Drone attack in Jammu is a direct consequence of the same.


In India’s favour is the fact that the Taliban presently is more interested in stabilising its control over Afghanistan and is amenable to talks. India needs to leverage this window of opportunity to broaden engagement with the more moderate and pragmatic elements of the Taliban and of course the Government of Afghanistan. Care has to be taken to ensure that those being approached are not proxies of Pakistan. The reported meeting of Indian representatives with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, is a step in the right direction.


Indian representatives should be present in all international meetings, including those which involve Pakistan and Iran, apart from Afghanistan. The backdoor channels must remain activated. The assistance being provided to Afghanistan must continue, especially in training Afghan Army personnel.


As the process of engagement with all players in the Afghanistan imbroglio continues, it would be realistic to expect considerable security disruption in Kashmir in coming days. The silver lining is that the security forces led by the Indian Army are ready for any challenge posed by the militant proxies. Foreign terrorists attempting infiltration will not find it easy. The possibility of overall decline in the security situation in Kashmir is thus remote. The Government of India can move through the diplomatic and political process without worrying too much about the security situation.


It is in the interests of Pakistan and India to ensure a stable Afghanistan. Pakistan’s position is more tenuous since it will emerge as the fall-guy nation should Afghanistan descend into chaos yet again. Hopefully, Islamabad will understand and work in the right direction instead of pursuing parochial, outdated goals.


(Jaibans Singh is a geo-strategic analyst and columnist)

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