The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will heighten anxieties in New Delhi predominantly in two areas: firstly, its impact on India’s continuing presence in Afghanistan and ability to carry on with its aid-only policy; and secondly, its potential consequences for India’s national security, given the impact of regional proxy warfare and civil war in Afghanistan and the ungoverned space that will be once again available for anti-India and international terrorist groups to operate in that country. The coming four months will unveil how Afghanistan may change. The period may also see New Delhi preparing for the eventualities.
In spite of its inevitability, New Delhi has refrained from fine-tuning its policies to the reality of the return of the Taliban to the power center of Kabul. This is principally because it still views the Taliban as a strategic asset of the Pakistan intelligence establishment, mindful of the memories of the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999 and the Taliban’s continued links with anti-India groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Further, it does not want to weaken the negotiating power of the Afghan government, in which it has invested for the last two decades. Not surprisingly, New Delhi has adopted a policy of lending its support to an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled peace process” in sharp contrast to support for any externally mediated peace agreements.
In spite of the repeated calls from former diplomats and analysts to open a line of communication with the Taliban, the very idea behind New Delhi’s “wait and watch” policy is not to resist the return of the insurgents, but to ensure that the eventual domination of the Taliban over the Afghan polity isn’t complete. New Delhi has refrained from any unilateral outreach or negotiation with the Taliban so as to not undermine the democratic government led by President Ashraf Ghani. The decision to pull out U.S. forces could be a serious setback to such a policy objective.
Of late, the Biden administration has pushed for India’s expanded role in the peace process and New Delhi now has a seat in the proposed talks in Istanbul. However, that is unlikely to help address India’s apprehension that any change in its Afghan policy could bestow some level of legitimacy on the insurgents and weaken the beleaguered Ghani government. New Delhi has reasons to believe that the process is still in an ultra-fast-track mode and the announcement of withdrawal will further strengthen the negotiating power of the Taliban. Without a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire agreement accompanying the peace process, the Taliban has a clear upper hand.
This persisting policy dilemma and an accompanying sense of being a mere spectator to the sweeping changes potentially occurring in Afghanistan are likely to produce some level of anxiety in New Delhi’s diplomatic establishment. However, it is unlikely to lead to any major changes in its “wait and watch” policy. New Delhi may still place its bet on yet another extension to the withdrawal of international forces, beyond September 2021, amid spiraling violence in Afghanistan and the absence of conditions that favor a peace settlement.
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is the founder and president of Mantraya, an independent research forum, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, where this article was published.