India risks losing big in Afghanistan
Despite New Delhi’s official foreign policy on Afghanistan, which consists of an exclusive relationship with the Afghan central government regardless of who controls Kabul, it has hustled to diversify its political investment in the context of four decades of conflicts in the country.
In fact India’s economic and military rise as the regional hegemon in South Asia and its strategic partnership with the United States have created a unique opportunity for the Indian government to reassert its historical and traditional influence in Afghanistan, and beyond in Central Asia. However, recent developments in Afghanistan and in the region indicate that India might lose the benefit of its investment in the country.
India, like most of Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers, has learned the hard way how to reach out to various warring parties in the country. For instance, despite being a close partner of the former communist regime in Kabul, New Delhi had little choice but to reach out to the various mujahideen factions in order to safeguard its traditional place in Kabul even before the demise of the communist regime in 1992. However, it was unsuccessful in establishing a meaningful contact with the Taliban when they took over in 1996, which undermined its ability to intervene when Indian Airlines Flight 814 was hijacked and grounded in Kandahar in December 1999.
Meanwhile, after the US and NATO military intervention, followed by the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, New Delhi has emerged as one of the most valuable regional partners for the United States and an influential ally of the Afghan government, as well as the biggest regional donor for Afghanistan. In addition, it has won a unique place in the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans through its cultural and soft-power influence and tremendous investments in reconstruction of Afghanistan economic infrastructures.
However, India’s mishandling of local Afghan politics over the past 17 years has significantly reduced its influence among major political parties in Afghanistan. While the Afghan people continue to appreciate its contributions to the reconstruction and development of the country, its traditional allies who fought against the Taliban in the 1990s have distanced themselves from India and are being wooed by Pakistan.
Recently, all major regional powers, except India, have been trying to carve a niche for themselves in the future of Afghanistan in the context of an ultimate political settlement.
For instance, Russia has taken the diplomatic initiative to build a regional consensus through organizing major regional conferences on Afghanistan in Russia and allied countries in Central Asia. A planned peace conference, which was set for September 4 but was postponed on a personal request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, is an indication of Russia’s growing cloud in shaping the future of Afghanistan, because even the Taliban approved of Moscow’s initiative and indicated their willingness to attend the conference.
Similarly, China has sped up its engagement in Afghanistan. Aside from its unique role in the Afghan peace process through its strategic partnership with Pakistan and because of its improved ties with the Taliban, it has established for the first time bilateral security cooperation with Kabul.
The Chinese military has been assisting its Afghan counterparts in anti-terrorism operations and capacity building for the Afghan forces. Meanwhile, the latest announcement of Beijing’s decision to build a military base in the strategic Wakhan corridor bordering China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir is considered a bold move and an unprecedented decision by the Chinese leadership to intervene militarily in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, India’s efforts to open a transit corridor to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Iran’s Chabahar port, thus bypassing Pakistan, came to a standstill because of the renewed US sanctions on Iran. This is by far the biggest setback in India’s strategic investment in the context of regional competition for access to tremendous energy resources in Central Asia.
Furthermore, the US decision to seek an acceptable political outcome in Afghanistan and to negotiate directly with the Taliban has caught India off guard. In addition, India’s main regional rival Pakistan will play a key role by accommodating an ultimate political settlement in Afghanistan and in exchange will demand important concessions from the United States and the Afghan government.
Knowing that any political settlement in Afghanistan will require the blessing of all major regional stakeholders, India will rely on the United States to have a say. India will not have any direct influence and will not receive a VIP invitation to the negotiation table, because its political allies in the Afghan government have become irrelevant.
Also, India stands alone in the region and has been isolated within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As I wrote in an April opinion article for Asia Times, we are increasingly witnessing open competition between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the SCO in Afghanistan, and India will have little influence in shaping the outcome of SCO’s decisions on Afghanistan.
Hence India’s 17 years of tremendous investment in Afghanistan is at great risk, and it might be the only regional power sidelined from the peace negotiations, because it has lost its influence among Afghan political forces and is unable to influence other regional players.