India must support its allies in Kabul – analysis
On February 21, the Indian ambassador to Kabul met with the Vice President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, to reiterate “India’s commitment to work with the new government and democratic politics to strengthen the bilateral strategic partnership.” The meeting was scheduled in parallel to the announcement of the agreement between the United States (USA) and Afghanistan Taliban, the beginning of the “violence reduction” period, an expectation of intra-Afghan talks and the visit of President Donald Trump to India .
Loaded with strategic intent, India’s decision to support President Ashraf Ghani underlines the central engine of his policy in Afghanistan: achieving a continuous strategic balance between Kabul and Islamabad. Over the past decade, in light of Afghanistan’s structural weakness against Pakistan, New Delhi has focused on supporting Kabul in its struggle to influence, albeit dimly, the terms of the Taliban talks.
In this context, India faced two interrelated dilemmas. First, how to ensure political coherence in Kabul, where the president and (now former) CEO Abdullah Abdullah disagree? This is important, because a division in the main political body of Afghanistan will weaken the hand of the government in its negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Two, should I commit to the Afghan Taliban or not? Regardless of Kabul’s performance in the expected intra-Afghan dialogue, the Taliban are likely to be part of the government in some way. On the first dilemma, India has firmly rejected Abdullah’s idea of creating a parallel government with the support of former Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. This decision, and its speed, has little to do with the perceived legitimacy of the Independent Electoral Commission of Afghanistan. It has to do with the fact that Ghani enjoys relatively more support from the United States than Abdullah, has a team that India can rely on to better guarantee their interests, and that New Delhi simply cannot afford to collapse Kabul days before Let the intra-Afghan talks begin.
In any case, India will strive to strengthen Ghani’s hand in intra-Afghan talks. Failing to put the boots on the ground, New Delhi could further increase political, diplomatic, financial and intelligence support for Kabul in the coming weeks. During the negotiation phase, India is unlikely to find a better interlocutor than Vice President Saleh: an established critic of Pakistan, an unconditional ally of India and a tough negotiator with allies and adversaries alike.
Even if the desire for political coherence in Kabul were necessary for India to support Ghani, Dostum’s presence and actions gave the decision strategic sufficiency. New Delhi has little to distrust Abdullah and his team given how closely aligned they have been with the country. But Dostum’s posture brings painful memories.
In April 1992, the Jowzjani militia led by Dostum dismantled India’s plan to secretly exfiltrate its ally and then President Mohammad Najibullah. Shortly after, the Mujahideen took over Kabul. In this context, Dostum’s recent maneuvers to evict the government are very unpleasant, even if India retains sympathy for Abdullah and could pressure him to withdraw.
But the fact is that there are limits as to how much India can support Kabul given its capacity limitations, Kabul’s administrative dysfunction and its toxic dependence on foreign aid. This is the second dilemma. What should India do about the imminent return of the Afghan Taliban backed by Pakistan? commit to him or not?
In 1992, despite the fury of the insurgency in Kashmir, India recognized the Mujahideen government backed by Pakistan after denouncing them during the 1980s. What allowed this policy change was a systematic and silent approach with the Mujahideen (especially Iran-based groups, but not only) before the fall of Najibullah. Such scope offered India a nuanced understanding of intra-Mujahideen politics and an appreciation that not all Mujahideen were under Pakistan’s control or fostering problems in Kashmir.
Similarly, India has refused to officially engage with the Afghan Taliban. Unofficially, however, there have been intelligence and signaling level contacts. For their part, the Afghan Taliban have also avoided being open on these channels to avoid complications with Pakistan. But despite such contacts, there is limited evidence that India has generated granular knowledge and access to Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters that will allow for a serious and well-planned political adjustment if the need arises.
Especially as the Taliban resurface on the political front, both sides must reassess the costs and benefits of continued disconnection. Now, it is unlikely (and even undesirable, as it will weaken Kabul’s hand) that India allow official recognition of the Afghan Taliban before reaching an agreement in intra-Afghan talks (if it does). But, in truth, the debate in Indian policymaking circles on whether or not to engage with the Afghan Taliban is very real and urgent.
The resistance of the partnership between the United States and India promises limited strategic coverage of New Delhi in Kabul. Given the magnitude of the United States military participation in Afghanistan, the withdrawal is likely to be complicated and tortuous. So, unlike the Soviet collapse that increased Indian vulnerabilities in the early 1990s, it is unlikely that the US strategic blanket. UU. Disappear soon, but requires proactive maintenance. To that end, it remains to be seen how India capitalizes on Trump’s visit to boost his agenda in Afghanistan and with respect to Pakistan.
In any situation, the relative peace or ongoing struggle, the interest and participation of the United States in Afghanistan will only diminish. For that reason alone, India must be prepared to support its allies in Kabul, but also expand its actions among different Afghan political constellations, both within the main political body and in the insurgent landscape.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS, University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion until the US withdrawal. UU.
The opinions expressed are personal.