India has been confronting complex security challenges from unfavourable and complicated security scenario evolving in Afghanistan which are characterised by the apparent failure of the American Afghan war efforts and collapse of the Afghan-led peace process and concerns regarding the Quadrilateral Coordination Groups’ mediation efforts in which India is not a part.
The American stress on an exit policy fixing a specific time-line did not bring expected results in terms of peace dividends rather the Afghan Taliban became more resilient over the years and demanded complete withdrawal of international forces before beginning peace talks. Peace offers by the Afghan government were ignored and direct talks with the US were demanded by the Taliban as its territorial control and influence kept expanding.
Although the Trump Administration tried to stem this tide by adopting an offensive gesture through measures like increasing the number of American troops and resuming drone strikes, it failed achieve desired results and was poised to pursue direct talks with the Taliban (M. Mashal and E. Schmitt “White House Orders Direct Taliban Talks to Jump-start Afghan Negotiations”, The New York Times, July 15, 2018, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/15/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-direct-negotiations.html).
This development was likely to brew new tensions whether the peace process would be Afghan-led or would tilt in favour of the Taliban given their resilience. However, the peace hopes lost ground temporarily with the Taliban’s violence in the provincial capital of Ghajni in an attempt to project its strength and bargaining power in any expected peace negotiations.
Apart from India’s security concerns emanating from the Taliban which allegedly launched a spate of terror attacks on the Indian embassy, consulates and reconstruction sites and was involved in abducting Indian engineers engaged purely in non-military reconstruction activities, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) emerged as another non-state actor not only contributing to instability in Afghanistan, its suicide bombing terror attacks in the Afghan city of Jalalabad which killed 19 people and 17 of the dead were from Sikh and Hindu communities on July 1, 2018 pointed to the fact how the radical Islamic group would be a threat to India’s presence in Afghanistan given the religious dimension of the attack (O. Wheaton, “ISIS claims deadly suicide bombing on Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan”, Independent News, July 2, 2018, Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/isis-suicide-bomber-jalalabad-afghanistan-islamic-state-sikhs-hindus-dead-a8426476.html).
The presence of ISIS in various parts of Afghanistan and along the Af-Pak border areas indicated the rising influence of the group beyond Iraq and Syria into adjoining lawless and conflict-prone areas which could eventually pose a threat to India’s territorial integrity.
While India took up a major role in the reconstruction activities to project its soft power and earn goodwill of Afghans and it assumed a low-key security role in Afghanistan. Its security footprint has been limited to the area of training the Afghan army and supplying military equipments. For instance, the Indian government under Modi’s leadership supplied four Russian-made MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan and expressed its willingness to train Afghan police force (M. Pubby, “MI-25 attack helicopter gifted by India to Afghanistan reaches Kabul, 3 more to follow”, The Economic Times, July 14, 2018, Available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/mi-25-attack-helicopter-gifted-by-india-to-afghanistan-reaches-kabul-3-more-to-follow/articleshow/50275035.cms).
It has by now committed more than $3 billion towards reconstruction of primary sectors of the Afghan society including health, education and building of political institutions. Many opinion polls conducted to rate India’s popularity in Afghanistan projected it as one of the favourite countries for the Afghans. However, India’s enhanced soft-power image did not enhance its abilities to shape Afghan situation according its objectives as rising cases of terrorist attacks on its diplomatic presence and stakes pointed to. India’s exclusion from some of the important regional meetings held in Pakistan, Turkey and Russia to discuss security issues concerning Afghanistan indicated New Delhi’s diplomatic failure to foster ties and partnership with other regional powers sharing common concerns and stakes in Afghanistan.
India was seen failing in taking forward its partnership with Iran and develop Chabahar port as the Trump Administration rolled back the nuclear deal with Tehran and put up new sanctions. India’s strategic partnership with the US tacitly forced New Delhi to drag its feet from forging an independent policy towards Iran which led to sluggish efforts at carving out an alternative route to Afghanistan (India has been denied overland route to Afghanistan through Pakistan).
Iranian leadership accused India of not fulfilling its commitment towards developing the port (“Iran criticizes India for not making promised investments in Chabahar port”, The Economic Times, July 11, 2018, Available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/iran-criticises-india-for-not-making-promised-investments-in-chabahar-port/articleshow/64937503.cms). Similarly, India’s strategic relationship with the US without New Delhi’s serious efforts at engaging Russia led Moscow to forge close ties with Islamabad and Russia expressed its inclination to seek Pakistan’s assistance to stem the flow of radical Islamism and drug trafficking into the Central Asian region – considered as its strategic backyard.
However, in the midst of the negative atmospherics propelled by continued violence from all sides in Afghanistan, menace of ISIS has opened up possibilities of new regional configurations and India now seems poised to seriously pursue the evolving regional understanding to stem the tide of terrorism and narco-terrorism in Afghanistan as the recent meeting between National Security Advisors (NSA)/Secretaries to the National Security Council/Deputy Minister of Security from Afghanistan, China, Iran and Russia in Tehran on 26 September, 2018, has indicated. (“Press release on visit of National Security Advisor to Iran”, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, September 26, 2018, Available at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/30431/Press+release+on+visit+of+National+Security+Advisor+to+Iran).
It is significant that India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s meeting with the representatives of these regional powers is first of its kind.
Further, the Trump Administration has also indicated its willingness to ensure Chabahar port being operational to continue the supply of Indian wheat to Afghanistan. Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia said: “When it comes to Chabahar, we are in the process of reviewing the imposition of sanctions” (US will consider Chabahar factor in Indian, Afghan impact of Iran Sanctions, VIP Information Alerts – 27 September 2018, Availability https://www.vifindia.org/vifinformationalert/2018/september/27). If this statement translates into concessions, it would hasten Indian cooperation with Iran to develop the port and make it fully operational as an alternative route to get access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.