Foreign Policy Watch: India-Afghanistan

The fall of Afghanistan, the fallout in West Asia


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Geopolitical dynamics with Taliban's formation of legitimate govt

Three weeks after they walked into Kabul without any resistance, the Taliban now has announced an interim Council of Ministers.

Chord with Pakistan: Crowing of its puppets

  • Pakistan appears to have got its way. This government formation has tightly controlled the head of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
  • Afghanistan’s acting PM is Mullah Hassan Akhund, a close associate of former Taliban founder Mullah Omar.
  • Abdul Ghani Baradar is his deputy, but again, this could be a token position.
  • Baradar had been arrested in 2010 by the Pakistanis for pursuing a dialogue with the Hamid Karzai government without Pakistani sanction and jailed for eight years.
  • Pakistan’s true proteges are Sirajuddin Haqqani, the acting interior minister, and Mohammed Yaqoob, the acting defence minister, a son of Mullah Omar, who is also close to Haqqani.

The West Asian players

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran have been direct role-players in Afghan affairs for over 25 years.

  • Sheikhdom involvement: In the 1990s, the first two were supporters and sources of funding for the Taliban, while Iran was an antagonist. After 9/11, all three countries became deeply involved with the Taliban. Since 2005, the Gulf sheikhdoms have contributed millions of dollars to different Taliban leaders and factions.
  • Iran’s defiance of the US: Iran began a substantial engagement with various Taliban leaders from 2007 and provided funding, weapons, training and refuge when required. It wanted the Taliban to maintain pressure on the U.S. forces to ensure their speedy departure from the country.
  • Regional competition: In the 2010s, when the US began to engage with Iran on the nuclear issue, Saudi Arabia became more directly involved in Afghan matters to prevent Iran’s expanding influence among Taliban groups. Thus, besides Syria and Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia have also made Afghanistan an arena for their regional competitions.
  • Earliest acknowledgment of the Taliban: In 2012, Qatar, on U.S. request, allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha as a venue for their dialogue with the Americans. This has made Qatar an influential player in Afghan affairs, with deep personal ties with several leaders, many of whom keep their families in Doha.

Competitions for influence

The low-key reactions of the Gulf countries to recent developments in Kabul reflect the uncertainties relating to the Taliban in power.

Nature of the govt: Their ability to remain united, their policies relating to human rights, and, above all, whether the Taliban will again make their country a sanctuary for extremist groups.

Fractionalization within terror groups: The country already has several thousand foreign fighters, whose ranks could swell with extremists coming in from Iraq and Syria, and threaten the security of all neighbouring states.

Three sets of regional players are active in Afghanistan today:

  1. Pakistan-Saudi coalition: This has been the principal source of support for the Taliban-at-war. They would like to remain influential in the new order, but neither would like to see the Taliban revert to their practices of the 1990s that had justifiably appalled the global community.
  2. Turkey and Qatar: They represent the region’s Islamist coalition and, thus, share an ideological kinship with the Taliban. Both would like to see a moderate and inclusive administration.
  3. Iran: While many of its hardliners are overjoyed at the U.S. “defeat”, more reflective observers recall the earlier Taliban emirate which was viscerally hostile to Shias and Iran. Iran also sees itself as the guardian of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities in the country.

Options Available: The outlook for security

Linking with Israel-Palestine Conflict: The region now has two options: one, an Israel-centric security order in which the Arab Gulf states would link themselves with Israel to confront Iran. This is being actively promoted by Israeli hawks since it would tie Israel with neighbouring Arab states without having to concede anything to meet Palestinian aspirations.

Comprehensive regional security arrangement: The other option is more ambitious: The facilitators and guarantors of this security arrangement are likely to be China and Russia: over the last few years, both have built close relations with the major states of the region. i.e., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Consensus to ward away the US

  • The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states led by Saudi Arabia lifted the over three-year blockade of Qatar.
  • The discussions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and plans are in place for the next meetings.
  • Turkey has initiated diplomatic overtures towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
  • None of these initiatives involves the Americans.

Conclusion: A new order is in making

  • These developments suggest that the germ of a new regional security order in West Asia is already sown in fertile ground.

Way forward for India

  • The Indian policies are at a crossroads. Continued bandwagoning with the US makes no sense.
  • Indian diplomacy should harmonize with the regional capitals, including Beijing, which can be a natural ally on issues of terrorism.
  • The bottom line is that India’s vital interests remain to be secured.
  • Demonizing the Taliban can only be counterproductive.

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