India’s Cautious And Tactical Afghan Policy In The Post-US Withdrawal Scenario – Analysis


Amid the protracted wars – one between Israel and Hamas and another between Russia and Ukraine, it is perceptible that the attempts to find workable solutions to Afghan impasse do not get as much attention as they need from the major powers which have had stakes in the country. There is also stalemate in terms of granting recognition to the defacto regime. Concerns about persistent threat of terrorism which regional powers perceive still emanate from Afghan soil and issues of human rights specially gender discrimination and discrimination against minority groups have impeded the defacto regime’s striving for legitimacy.

Notwithstanding more or less similar concerns, the major powers with stakes in the country have not undertaken collective efforts to put enough diplomatic pressure on the defacto regime to accept principles of democracy and human rights.

India does not seek Strategic Influence in Afghanistan

The major powers also appear not being much worried about the evolving political scenario considering lack of strategic activities of other contending powers. The competition for strategic influence has come to a lull. 

India was deeply concerned with likely Pakistani activities in Afghanistan once the US would withdraw from Afghanistan given the nexus between the country and the Afghan Taliban. However, looking at certain events contradicting Pakistani influence in the country in the post-US withdrawal period, India became less concerned about wielding strategic influence in Afghanistan. As it became evident that the attacks launched by the Tehrik-i-Taliban from Afghan soil spawned conflictual relationship between Pakistan and Afghan Taliban, India understood it as the sign of Pakistan’s inability to exploit its long-standing relationship with the Taliban.

It is nevertheless true that Tehrik-i-Taliban and Afghan Taliban also have ideological affinities. The Afghan Taliban and Pakistan shared the strongest bonding specially in the times when they united against any third country. Now, at a time when the Afghan Taliban is battling for international recognition for its legitimacy to rule, the bilateral problems with Pakistan, border issue and tensions with its interventionist role have resurfaced. Further, Pakistan has imploded from within due to sustained economic and political crisis. China is concerned with the threats posed by and presence of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan. Despite China’s and Pakistan’s plans to include Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and holding of a trilateral meeting towards this end, the prospects for actualising it look gloomy for the above-mentioned reasons.

India’s Catious and Tactical Approach

India has adopted a cautious and tactical approach towards engaging with the Taliban with no hurry to establish full-fledged diplomatic channels with the country under the defacto authority. India has opened its embassy in Kabul partially and the consulates remain vacant and defunct. Compared to India’s role prior to and following the US-led War against Terrorism when it provided calculated assistance to the Northern Alliance group as an antidote to the Taliban, sought to ensure the threat of terrorism was substantially minimised in Afghanistan and in its place broad-based governance with institutions and principles of democracy and pluralism triumphed, its role in the post-US withdrawal scenario has been quite meek which in no ways seeks to impede the governance of the defacto regime by working to formulate a collective voice against the undemocratic governance of the regime.

On the other hand, India’s actions somehow coincide with the Taliban’s interest. For instance, its refusal to grant asylum to the elites and politicians from Afghanistan who sought shelter in India after the Taliban takeover in 2021can be seen as playing according to the Taliban’s playbook.The vexing challenges that the cultural ties and people-to-people contacts between India and Afghanistan which had been the pivot of bilateral relationship faced once the Taliban seized power were related to issuance of new visas for Afghans, renewal of visas and release of scholarships for Afghan students in India, impediments faced by Afghani citizens residing in India and the uncertain status of Afghan refugees in India.

The Indian government’s failure to address the visa and scholarship issues overlaps with the Taliban’s approach to higher education, educated masses and its gender discrimination policies. Most of the students getting education abroad were disenchanted with the Taliban’s fundamentalist rule and many of them were also girl students who were excluded from higher education by the defacto Taliban regime.

The Indian government started discussing various ways and means to minimise the threat of militancy to its soil, its investment in Afghanistan and to its aid to the country with the Taliban. Going by the Ministry of External Affairs of India’s statement in August 2021, Deepak Mittal, the Indian ambassador in Qatar, officially met with Shir Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, one of the senior leaders of the Taliban, in Qatar in which the latter assured the former that India need not be worried in this regard.

Capitalizing on the assurance, a team of officials led by Joint Secretary (PAI), Ministry of External Affairs, JP Singh, traveled to Kabul in June 2022 to hand over India’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. This was the first official Indian visit to Afghanistan since the Taliban wrested power in Afghanistan in August 2021. Diplomatic channels with Afghanistan were partially restored with India’s “technical team”reaching in Kabul to oversee and coordinate aid and humanitarian assistance. By sending the team, India in a way took cognizance of the Taliban’s governance.

With a desire to cement relationship with India, the Defense Minister of the defacto Afghan regime Mullah Yaqub was recorded remarking “the Taliban is interested in entering into military and strategic cooperation with India”. India responded to such positive gestures from the regime by entering into a new agreement with the Taliban in October 2022 that enhanced the volume of trade between the two countries through an air corridor.

India’s Aid, Assistance and Construction Projects

While not worried for strategic influence in Afghanistan or for any ideological principles, India, however, continued with its long-standing provision of humanitarian and soft aid to the needy Afghans. Which was evidenced from New Delhi’s announcement of food aid – 50,000 MT of wheat to Afghanistan and it signed an MoU with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in April 2023 to ensure proper distribution of wheat in the country. This crucial measure to allay the sufferings of starving masses was not only appreciated within different quarters of Afghanistan, it was acclaimed by the Taliban as well.

This apart, India has also supplied essential medical aid which included “nearly 200 tonnes of essential medicines, Covid-19 vaccines, anti-tuberculosis medicines and medical and surgical items such as paediatric stethoscopes, mobile sphygmomanometers with paediatric blood pressure cuffs, infusion pumps, drip chamber sets, and nylon sutures”.Since 2001 till the defacto Taliban’s regime’s rule, India had earned goodwill of Afghans by making investments over USD $3 billion in many key areas including health and education empowering ordinary Afghans.The country has continued to provide substantial amount of assistance even after the US withdrawal with the amount of aid for Afghanistan being USD $24 million for the year 2022-23.

However, India’s ongoing construction and reconstruction projects have been paused following the US withdrawal partly because of adverse security conditions and more so because Pakistan and China are not involved in any mega construction projects which could have led to diminution of India’s strategic influence in the country. Following a trilateral meeting held between Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China, and Afghanistan’s Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Islamabad in May 2023, a decision was taken to extend the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) till Afghanistan was taken and this could have invigorated the competition among major powers for strategic influence.

However, continuing economic and political crisis in Pakistan, Pakistan’s volatile and often hostile relationship with Afghanistan and China’s perception of threat from the Uyghur Muslim militants in Afghanistan make any such projects unlikely to take off. By the end of withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, India had also completed some key infrastructure projects contributed to India’s goodwill among Afghans. India not only handed over a new Afghan Parliament to President Ashraf Ghani in December 2015, the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam), Doshi and Charikar substations works were also completed. Apart from these, “restoration of Stor Palace, establishment of new diagnostic centre and construction of decentralised waste water treatment system at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health (IGICH) and establishment of Afghan National Agriculture Science and Technology University in Kandahar” are remarkable achievements of India in the area of infrastructure-building.

Further, India was engaged in various other infrastructural projects which have been paused such as “the construction of a 218-km road from Zaranj to Delaram for facilitating movement of goods and services to the Iranian border, the construction of 220kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul, and a sub-station at Chimtala, upgrading of telephone exchanges in 11 provinces, expansion of national TV network by providing an uplink from Kabul and downlinks in all 34 provincial capitals for greater integration of the country”.

In sum, it can be argued during the Afghan Civil War, India sought to weaken the militant groups such as the Taliban and provided calculated assistance to the Northern Alliance group before the group got sufficiently weakened as an antidote to the Taliban to prevent it from assuming power and then during the US-led War against Terrorism, India provided all-out support to the war in order to ensure that the threat of such groups get minimised as much as possible. India sought to strengthen institutions and values of democracy and pluralism in Afghanistan.

However, India’s stance on the Afghan Taliban has softened and it developed a tactical and pragmatic approach to dealing with the Taliban after it became the defacto regime of Afghanistan. It has been assisting the Afghans through aid and humanitarian assistance but it has not taken the people-to-people contacts to a level that would be considered an affront to the Taliban as the rows over the issuance of visas demonstrated. Without the US to hem in the Taliban and Northern Alliance no more existing as a united body, India cannot and does not seek any strategic influence in Afghanistan. Other major powers with stakes in Afghanistan also maintain strategic silence and in this larger context, India does not seek any strategic influence and it has also paused the reconstruction activities not to give vent to such a strategic game.

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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