Foreign Policy Watch: India-Afghanistan

Needed, a more unified Asian voice for Afghanistan

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SCO

Mains level : Paper 2- Role of Central Asia in Afghanistan

Context

As the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) end their presence in Afghanistan and set off a churn in the neighbourhood, Central Asia is emerging as a key player.

Challenges India faces in playing a leading role in Afghanistan

  • Events of the past few years, and the decisions of Russia, the US and China have kept India out of a leading role in Afghanistan.
  • India’s original hesitation in opening talks with the Taliban has cut India out of the current reconciliation process.
  • India’s efforts to build on trade with Afghanistan, shore up development projects and increase educational and training opportunities for Afghan youth have been appreciated, but these cannot grow bigger due to a number of factors.
  • The end of any formal dialogue between India and Pakistan since 2016 and trade since 2019, have resulted in Pakistan blocking India’s over-land access to Afghanistan.
  • India’s alternative route through Chabahar, though operational, cannot be viable or cost-effective also long as U.S. sanctions on Iran are in place.
  • India’s boycott of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017, and now tensions at the Line of Actual Control make another route to Afghanistan off-limits.
  • The U.S. has announced a formation of a “Quad” on regional connectivity — U.S.-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan that does not include India.

Why Central Asian countries are interested in Afghanistan?

  • The hope is that the Central Asian window, with the “Stans” (five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) will open new possibilities for India.
  • Calculations of Central Asian neighbours are three-fold:
  • The first is that prosperity for these land-locked countries can only flow from access through Afghanistan to the closest ocean, i.e. the Indian Ocean.
  • Second, that all transit through Afghanistan depends on guarantees of safe passage from the Taliban, backed by the group’s mentors in Pakistan.
  • Third, each of the “Stans” are now a part of China’s BRI, and tying their connectivity initiatives with Beijing’s will bring the double promise of investment and some modicum of control over Pakistan.

Way forward for India

  • Given the odds, India’s room for manoeuvre with these five countries on Afghanistan appears limited but not without hope.
  • Work on common concerns: To begin with, India and the Central Asian States share common concerns about an Afghanistan overrun by the Taliban.
  • Their common concerns are the worries of battles at their borders, safe havens for jihadist terror groups inside Afghanistan and the spill-over of radicalism into their own countries.
  • Support financially: It is necessary for India to work with them, and other neighbours to shore up finances for the government in Kabul, particularly to ensure that the government structure does not collapse.
  • Cooperation on anti-terrorism: As part of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), India must also step up its engagement with the Central Asian countries on fighting terror.
  • India can support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in terms of airpower.
  • Better ties between neighbours: South Asia must learn from Central Asia’s recent example in knitting together this region more tightly, a task that can only be completed with better ties between India and Pakistan.
  • India’s furtive discussions with the Taliban leadership in Doha make little sense unless a less tactical and more strategic engagement with Pakistan is also envisaged.

Conclusion

Countries of Central Asia and South Asia need to find a more unified voice, as they have in recent weeks. Afghanistan’s future will affect both regions much more than it will the distant global powers that currently dominate the debate.

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