When the mujahideen fought the Soviet Union troops out of their country, and the Taliban took charge, India decided to sever diplomatic relations with Afghanistan and closed its embassy in Kabul. Pakistan went in the opposite direction. It was one of the three countries to recognise the Taliban-led regime. New Delhi aided the overthrow of the Taliban by developing strong relations with the non-Pashtun groups, in particular the Tajiks and the Uzbeks in the northeast. These two ethnic groups had formed what came to be known as the Northern Alliance. The Alliance provided foot soldiers to America’s 2001 move to remove the Taliban from power. In the twenty-year period that followed, the Indian influence in Afghanistan increased.
India was generous in aiding Kabul. It was the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance. It built over 200 public and private schools, sponsored over 1,000 scholarships, and hosted 16,000 Afghan students. The UNDP partnered with India to train Afghan civil servants. More than 60,000 Afghans returned to help rebuild their country that was left in ruins by the conflict between large ethnic groups — the Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks. India funded 400 small development projects.
Would India’s relation with Afghanistan change with the United States pulling out of the country? Would the Taliban headed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan change the position with respect to India that was followed by the regime headed by President Ashraf Ghani? According to Rakesh Sood, a retired Indian diplomat, “India’s geography will ensure our presence though our role will undergo changes. US leaves because it can, India stays because it belongs.” Sood believes that the world has long recognised that India has a role to play. “At the 2001 Bonn Conference, India was invited because it had been a key supporter (along with Russia and Iran) of the Northern Alliance that had emerged as an influential player, following the Taliban ouster. During the last twenty years, India’s economic cooperation program has earned it the distinction of being Afghanistan’s preferred development partner.”
In 2011, India became the first country to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement but New Delhi’s involvement in security matters was marginal largely due to the United States and NATO sensitivity about its presence in a major way. Pakistan used its location to lay the ground for close economic relations with its neighbour. As a landlocked county, Afghanistan depended on Pakistan as Karachi was the only port it could access. Recognising the built-in advantage Pakistan had, India sought to develop an alternative route the Afghans could use. It developed the port of Chabahar in Iran and built a 200 kilometer long highway in Afghanistan to link the port with the Iranian border town of Zahedan. According to Sood, this investment was “part of reviving Afghanistan’s traditional role as the cross roads between South and Central Asia. Chabahar became part of this regional connectivity. India also spearheaded Afghanistan’s membership into the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC)”.
Sood went on to place his analysis in the context of the enduring India-Pakistan rivalry. “India’s development role was acknowledged by the Afghans and the international community. There was one exception — Pakistan — which tried hard to limit India’s role and presence. As Taliban’s insurgency grew, India was often targeted. Indians working on road projects were kidnapped and killed, guest houses where Indians stayed were often targeted and in 2008, there was a suicide attack on the embassy in Kabul. Four Indians, including the Defense Attaché, were killed; the bombing also claimed over 50 Afghan lives. Intelligence pointed the finger at the Haqqani group.”
India attempted to work its way back into Afghanistan by agreeing to host the third Regional Security Defense Dialogue (RSDD) in New Delhi on September 10, 2021 — less than a month after the Taliban had taken over Kabul. The RSDD is an Iranian initiative which hosted the first two meetings of the forum in 2018 and 2019. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan accepted the Indian invitation issued by its National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval. There were two significant no shows: Pakistan and China. The meeting in India issued what came to be known as the “Delhi Declaration”. It asked the Taliban-led government to ensure that its territory “would never become a safe haven for global terrorism”. It stressed the need for an “open and truly and inclusive government” and ensuring the “rights of women, children and minority communities”.
China has entered the Afghan picture. It is using its enormous public savings to build an impressive road, rail and internet network that would connect it with the parts of the world that are to its west. The multibillion-dollar CPEC project was launched with this objective in Beijing’s sights. CPEC is being redefined to increase its scope to include not only Afghanistan but the landlocked countries of Central Asia.
The Taliban have built their political structure on two pillars: ethnicity and religion. They draw their support from the Pashtun population in the country and from their adherence to radical Islam. Looking at relations with India from these two perspectives, it is hard to imagine, that the warmth for India of the Ashraf Ghani era would return. In my long session with Ghani when I visited him in Kabul, I asked him whether religion was a factor in the way he looked at his country’s relations with the world outside. He said that religion did not contribute to the way he crafted his dealings with the outside world. That certainly will not be the case with the Taliban in charge in Kabul.
The New York Times wrote a report on how “the erosion of human rights in India has weakened its moral high ground in a region where ethnic and sectarian tensions are worsening. India is losing leverage in South Asia as its government tries to reshape the country into a Hindu state. In marginalising and maligning its minority Muslims at home, Mr Modi has weakened India’s traditional role of encouraging harmony in a region of many fault lines.” The newspaper looked at the distance India had traveled from a society tolerant of differences, to the one in which only Hinduism is the right way for people to order their lives. “Traditionally, how India — the largest and the most diverse of the nations — tried to manage its affairs set the tone for the rest.” That was then; now the Indian leadership has gone on a different route. “The policies of Mr. Modi’s party have chipped away at that position, not unlike the erosion of United States’ global standing during the Trump administration. His Bhartiya Janata Party has pursued a Hindu-first agenda that has often left the country’s Muslims at a disadvantage. The party has also refused to rein in hard-line elements within its ranks, sometimes leading to violence.”
Aparna Pande, director of the India initiative at Washington-based Hudson Institute, who had lauded India as a pluralistic example of governance now finds that Narendra Modi’s “neighborhood first” policy is at odds with backlashes caused by the Hindu nationalist vision at home. “If you are pushing a nationalist narrative, it is difficult to then ask your neighbors not to do the same,” she wrote in a comment published by her institute. “You will then see every country in South Asia becoming more nationalist and forget about anything else, that creates a strategic challenge for India.”