India intervened in Afghanistan on the wrong side of history – on the side of America and its allies’ new colonialism – under the 2011 Afghan-India Strategic Agreement. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan people are likely to forget this myopic geopolitical tactic anytime soon; and New Delhi’s schemes to undermine Islamabad’s influence in Kabul is unlikely to go down well with the Taliban who are solidly backed by Pakistan’s ISI.
What’s worse, India is a member of the QUAD, a four-country alliance led by the US that includes Australia and Japan; it began unsteadily in 2005, consolidated by 2017 and is hyped as the “Asian NATO” in the Indo-Pacific Region to “contain” rising China. By joining the QUAD, India in effect has endorsed America pursuing “Full Spectrum Dominance” – official-speak for good old Imperialism – in keeping with the “Strategic Partnership” forged under the 2008 Indo-U.S. Nuclear Agreement; the US Senate reinforced it in 2018 by passing the $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
As we know, there is no free lunch in life. The years from 2005 to 2018 are roughly the same period, beginning in 2001 to be precise, when the US sank deeper into the Afghan quagmire. The “Strategic Partner” India was sucked into the war on the side of the US.
In Afghanistan New Delhi had many irons in the fire. First it schemed to push Islamabad back by debilitating its drive for Strategic Depth; second it sought to arrest the seeping Chinese influence; third, it buttressed successive US satraps in Kabul with “soft power” to fortify Washington’s hold on Kabul. India is America’s Partner in the QUAD that challenges China in the South China Sea and, simultaneously, is a member of the China-led SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) that confronts US-led NATO.
New Delhi dignified the foreign muddle (not policy) as “Strategic Hedging”. But a former Foreign Secretary was forthright: “what we are witnessing is strategic paralysis…India has become a bystander in Afghanistan”, unable to open a dialogue with the incoming Taliban regime. New Delhi does not have a policy of not negotiating with non-State groups but self-consciously prefers to deal with apparently lawfully constituted governments. The Foreign Secretary sarcastically decried New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins as “wise men” and lamented the External Affairs Minister’s allusion to Taliban’s military successes while categorically stating (in the Rajya Sabha, July 29) that India “would never accept any outcome which is decided by force”. However New Delhi is not shy to cohabit with Washington, which has used unparalleled force to decide political outcomes in Afghanistan during the past two decades.
Moreover, New Delhi enthusiastically recognised Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s puppet regimes the “infidel” US-led NATO occupation forces installed in Kabul, although it is blindingly obvious that “elections”, stage-managed by an alien, invading army to legitimate its client rulers, are entirely fraudulent. They had no credibility among most Afghan people except for the minuscule urbanites who relied on the regime and its allied mostly foreign-funded NGOs for their survival, and whose bleats are magnified by the Western and Indian corporate media.
New Delhi’s resistance to a dialogue with the Taliban is an outcome of the practical difficulty of hunting with the (US/NATO) hounds and running with the (Taliban) hare, by applying “soft power” – constructing a parliament building, investing in education and promoting welfare programs and so on – that was expected to somehow please both sides. It has also deeper roots than a preference for the lofty Gandhian ideal of non-violence.
New Delhi’s approach is overwhelmingly influenced by the history of reliance on ideological tools in India’s mainstream anti-colonial movement against British rule. It eschewed armed struggle (except Subhas Chandra Bose’s short-lived Indian National Army) and, instead, emphasised the moral dimension, for example, in the Quit India Agitation. Mahatma Gandhi crafted the Agitation to focus on individual civil disobedience employing the weapon of Satyagraha, which was meant to civilize the oppressor, meaning here the British colonial masters, and assist as Gandhi visualized the “Orderly British Withdrawal” from India (rather than flee in disorderly retreat as Americans did later in Vietnam and are now doing in Afghanistan).
The Agitation was limited to non-violent acts of defiance: fasting to death, self immolation and long marches – acts which aimed to stiffen the British rulers’ moral fibre. But the British masters missed the subservient Indian political elite’s subtle point about establishing moral high ground; they swiftly crushed the Agitation by mass arrests (more than 100,000), public floggings and shootings and briefly imprisoning Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party leadership.
However, over time London ascertained through its travelling Missions for constitutional reform that the Congress Party – founded by a senior British colonial bureaucrat A.O.Hume to politically organize the Anglicized Indian elite who ruled on Britain’s behalf – merely sought to rule directly and will protect British economic and strategic interests. Thereafter London cheerfully made arrangements to place the Congress leadership in charge of India (and Muslim League leaders in Pakistan).
In essence, India’s freedom movement did not seek to defeat Britain’s military power and, therefore, it’s rarely regarded as a war of liberation, for example, fought by Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini. As a result India’s independence came not from winning in battle but through London’s benevolent Transfer of Power, which, crucially prevented the Indian political class from learning vital lessons in realpolitik that are forged in the crucible of war. It’s no surprise then that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru acquiesced to the arch British colonialist Lord Mountbatten taking over as the first Head of State (Governor-General) of the new Dominion of India.
In the absence of a military victory, Indian historians imagined independence was “won” largely by the strength of moral persuasion. That legacy deeply ingrained and entrenched a self-righteous thinking in the formulation of India’s State policy, especially of foreign policy.
A case in point is Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s intervention in Sri Lanka under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. Rajiv Gandhi categorically (and unnecessarily) announced that the Indian military will be withdrawn at President J.R.Jayawardene’s request – a stance that revealed the South Block’s clouded thinking, which oscillated between pressing its military advantage to the hilt on the one hand and striving to preserve India’s assumed moral stature on the other. In contrast American realpolitik adopts moral postures – for example, imposing democracy or highlighting human rights in Iraq – fully conscious they are merely instruments to advance US interests and would be discarded when convenient.
The Indian High Commissioner took great pains to explain at an informal dinner in Colombo, a week or two after the Accord, that Jayawardene appreciated India’s principled commitment to withdraw its forces at Sri Lanka’s request and confidently predicted the President would in turn accommodate New Delhi’s interests, by which he meant the issues spelled out in the Annexures to the 1987 Accord. That, we suspected, was more diplomat-speak and less an analysis.
Nevertheless we interjected that among countries bordering India, Sri Lanka is the only one where the dominant elite does not speak an Indian language and therefore its political culture and value system are beyond the ken of the South Block; and we clarified that the Sinhalese political class will incrementally sabotage the Accord, imposed under Indian military occupation and widely viewed by Sinhalese as symbolic of national humiliation. The High Commissioner appeared unconvinced but the subsequent tragic history of the Accord’s (non)implementation is well known.
Two consequences flow from New Delhi’s lack of mindfulness and an impractical view of politics. First, the worldview of India’s political class is hobbled by a nebulous moral position, which, therefore, prevents that class from recognising and honing the realpolitik it is actually practicing in Afghanistan.
Second, the willed blindness to realpolitk often led to acute misjudgements and, counterproductive actions. For instance, unaware of the deeply anti-Indian mindset of the Sinhalese political class, New Delhi forfeited its leverage – the LTTE – by providing military assistance to the Sinhalese armed forces to decimate the Tamil LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). New Delhi’s expectation that Colombo would thereafter gratefully take its subordinate place within India’s sphere of influence was nothing more than a rosy mirage that shattered as China rapidly made inroads into the Island.
Nevertheless Indian strategic planners apparently anticipated a favourable reception from Ghani’s regime in Kabul, believing their exercise of “soft power” and the popularity of Bollywood films have endeared India in the hearts of many Afghans. The belief may contain a kernel of truth though a Taliban spokesman alleged India used “hard power” too, when Indian planes bombed government buildings and a hospital.
Perhaps the first indication that all is not well surfaced when US President Donald Trump excluded President Ghani – a “friend” of India – from the February 2020 Doha Talks between the US administration and the Taliban leadership. The Agreement between the two for US withdrawal hung Ghani and the Northern Alliance out to dry.
The cyberspace is humming with Indian strategic planners’ inevitably contradictory assessment of New Delhi’s complicated position. In their attempts to negotiate the self-inflicted political minefield they cleaved into the “Be Active” and “Be Patient” schools before the Taliban rolled into Kabul on15 August. Thereafter New Delhi appears mired in a “damned if you do” and “damned if you don’t” dilemma, juggling factions within the interim regime, remnants of the Northern Alliance and perhaps sections among the Taliban.
Meanwhile HRW (Human Rights Watch) has urged an investigation into Taliban’s human rights violations. Beijing on the other hand has invited UNHRC to examine violations of human rights by foreign armies.
The general belief is that the Taliban regime is short of financial and technical resources in the war-ravaged economy, on which the US-manipulated IMF has put the financial squeeze. To make matters worse, the Central Bank has been drained of its meagre dollar reserves before Taliban took power, apparently by fleeing Ashraf Ghani.
When the Taliban announced the intention to re-activate the TAPI project the US energy majors smacked their lips, confident that the new regime bereft of money and technology would soon cave in to their demands. President Biden’s administration freezing the Afghan Central Bank’s New York reserves increased Taliban’s vulnerability. The US administration piled on the pressure: it despatched CIA Director William Burns to meet Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul, before the Taliban leader could hardly rearrange the furniture inside the presidential palace.
Washington has not disclosed the reason for the hasty visit; however we surmise that US intelligence is back in Kabul to arm-twist Taliban to approve the re-entry of American investors in TAPI and mineral extraction. If the Taliban resist, the CIA is likely to wield the big stick: as before, unleash torrid media propaganda about Taliban “atrocities” and “oppressed women”, of which the CIA-indoctrinated Taliban have an atrocious record, and spur anti-Taliban groups mainly within the Northern Alliance. Disturbingly, the CIA Director had “visited Jerusalem and met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad director David Barnea earlier”.
The Taliban, however, appear to have a range of sponsors to choose, from US and allied investors in the West, Qatar and UAE in West Asia and the SCO in the East, in which Afghanistan enjoys Observer Status.
Nevertheless the horizon is not free from dark clouds. India is facing China on three fronts: in Afghanistan, in northern India along the McMahon Line and across the South China. Sea. It leans on the extra-regional power US in its confrontation with China rather than evolve a regional dialogue within South Asia that could address China’s interests. In contrast the smaller ASEAN countries have not bought into the QUAD and intend to dialogue directly with China.
Not surprisingly Beijing reacted to ratchet up the pressure on India; it issued revised maps in 2014 that include India’s Arunachal Pradesh as China’s South Tibet, seemingly more to shock Indian military planners to their senses rather than covet territory.
New Delhi is left on the side-lines clutching at straws for now in Afghanistan. As the new Taliban government settles in, a delegation comprising Special Representatives from China, Russia and Pakistan is in the forefront recalibrating their cooperation with Kabul. Tellingly India is not included in the delegation while its entanglement in the QUAD has vitiated relations with key ASEAN nations. Peace in South Asia and perhaps beyond crucially depends on New Delhi’s maturity to negotiate directly with China to structure a new Asian Order.
* Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Cambridge. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies, New Delhi, taught at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi University and is an award winning filmmaker.