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Dramatic Power Shift in Afghanistan Seen as Strategic Setback for India

An artist from Gurukul art school works on a poster in Mumbai, India, Aug. 27, 2021, paying tribute to victims of deadly attacks at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Less than six years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Afghanistan’s Parliament building in Kabul — a landmark symbol of the fledgling democracy that New Delhi hoped would become a hedge against its rival, Pakistan.

But with the dramatic power shift after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, India faces a strategic setback in a region where it confronts Pakistan and its other rival, China, along tense borders.

Analysts say with Pakistan once again in a dominant position in Afghanistan and China seeking to boost its clout in the South Asian region, India could see testing times.

“The changing equations in Afghanistan present a challenge for India,” Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said Sunday, addressing the Defense Services Staff Colleges.

Key concerns

One of India’s key concerns is that Afghanistan will become a haven for militants from Pakistan and that the Taliban victory will embolden anti-India terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, which have been at the forefront of a three-decade-long violent separatist insurgency in Indian Kashmir.

“There is no doubt that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is going to have an inspirational effect on Islamist opposition everywhere, including Kashmir,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, the former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. “India will have to be on guard not only in Kashmir but the rest of India, too, where an Islamist victory in the neighborhood could fire up fringe elements.”

For India, the huge gains it made by building “soft power” in Afghanistan in the wake of the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country could be in jeopardy.

New Delhi has invested $3 billion in development projects that included schools, roads, dams and hospitals in all of Afghanistan’s 34 districts in the last two decades.

Afghans studying in India hold placards and stand outside the U.S. Embassy asking for help, in New Delhi, India, Aug. 28, 2021. The students say they aren't able to receive funds from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of the country.
Afghans studying in India hold placards and stand outside the U.S. Embassy asking for help, in New Delhi, India, Aug. 28, 2021. The students say they aren't able to receive funds from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of the country.

India gave scholarships to thousands of Afghans to study in India and established close links with ousted Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. India also helped organize trade routes to the landlocked country.

“No matter how you slice it, New Delhi has been dealt a strategic blow. Not only will the Taliban be in control, but India's rivals, Pakistan and China, will be poised to step up their role in Afghanistan,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center in Washington. “It’s a pretty major change for India. Once Afghanistan's closest partner in South Asia, India may well not even have a formal relationship with Kabul.”

Analysts say China could step in to fill the gap in providing much-needed economic assistance as it seeks to expand its influence deeper into Central Asia.

Meanwhile, India has no option but to wait and watch and keep channels of communication open to the Taliban.

Domestic media reports say the country opened a line to the group in June, but New Delhi has been criticized for doing it too late. India has evacuated its embassy in Kabul and is still trying to bring back citizens left behind.

Much of India’s hopes on continuing to play a role in Afghanistan will depend on the policies that the Taliban, which have been projecting a moderate public face, put in place, analysts say.

The Taliban, long an anti-India group, have made an outreach saying they would like New Delhi to continue its development work in Afghanistan. In a statement on the group’s social media platforms, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, deputy head of the Taliban’s office in Doha, said Sunday the group gives due importance to political, economic and trade ties with India and wants these to continue.

Some analysts say such statements show that the “game is far from over.”

“There are windows open, and let us see if they can be converted into doors,” South Asia expert Sukh Deo Muni said in New Delhi. “All is certainly not lost. Let us see what kind of Taliban regime emerges. I would not rush to this conclusion that India has lost. It’s a fluid situation.”

Indian officials have made no comments, and New Delhi will remain cautious.

“It is to be seen if Pakistan tries to prevent such overtures or sabotages them,” Mukhopadhaya pointed out. “Pakistan seems to want to bring in China to reinforce its control over Afghanistan by economic means.”

How ties shape up between India and Afghanistan will hinge on the Taliban, experts say.

“India can have leverage if the Taliban feels that a relationship with India is something worth pursuing,” according to Kugelman. “The Taliban may conclude it's better off engaging commercially with countries it's more comfortable with, like China, Pakistan and Turkey.”

Skepticism on whether the Taliban will change runs deep in India, which has bitter memories of the group that in 1999 gave safe passage to Pakistan to the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane that had landed in Kandahar. New Delhi also remains deeply wary of the Taliban’s close links to Pakistan’s military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

“It is hard for a leopard to change its spots. The true nature of the Taliban and its control by Pakistan will show up, especially down the rank and file,” said Mukhopadhaya.

But as equations change in South Asia, where Beijing has long been challenging its predominant position, New Delhi has indicated it will continue to firm up strategic alliances with the United States and other countries that have been working together to counter a rising China.

“We are changing our strategy, and the formation of Quad underlines this,” Defense Minister Singh said Sunday.

The Quad is an informal grouping of India, the United States, Japan and Australia.