Perceptible Shift in Indian Policy on Afghanistan
India, Pakistan, Taliban on the same page
The three-week long “anti-terror operation” undertaken by the Indian Army from October 11 in the Bhatta Durrian forest in Poonch following the killing of nine soldiers, including two junior commissioned officers and two policemen, was billed as “one of the longest” in the history of the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir.
Yet, no Indian functionary or politician pointed finger at Pakistan. This is despite the fact that on October 21, Pakistan was facing scrutiny in Paris at the plenary meeting of the multilateral watchdog known as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money laundering and terror financing.
Again, the state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are looming large on the political horizon and the Bharatiya Janata Party has not so far spotted Pakistan as its bogeyman during election campaigns.
Delhi chose instead to take the diplomatic initiative to constructively engage Pakistan seeking transit facilities for transporting 50000 MT of wheat as humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The crux of the matter is that Delhi has shown a preference for the Pakistani route.
Curiously, again, this initiative also overlapped the government’s decision on the reopening of the Kartarpur corridor — interestingly enough, with some Pakistani prompting.
It now transpires that Pakistan has given the green signal for the transit request for Indian wheat’s transportation to Afghanistan. The modalities are under discussion between Delhi and Islamabad. Indeed, the Taliban leadership had earlier endorsed the Indian request for transit via Wagah border.
Without doubt, the positive Pakistani response has profound implications, since Islamabad is de facto facilitating the commencement of a constructive engagement between Delhi and the Taliban authorities in Kabul.
Put differently, Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul find themselves on the same page in regard of addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The folklore used to be that India would prop up an anti-Taliban resistance movement all over again and that Pakistan would exorcise Indian presence from Kabul. Both assumptions must now be set aside. Delhi has come to accept the Taliban takeover in Kabul as a reality and seems increasingly unsure of its dogmatic view of the Taliban as a mere proxy of the Pakistani military and security establishment.
While connecting these dots, what emerges is that the Indian government is rapidly adjusting to the undercurrents in the Western strategy to re-engage with the Taliban and Pakistan. Basically, the Indian government never really “decoupled” its policies from the US strategy.
The resumption of talks at Doha last weekend between US and EU representatives and the Taliban indicates that the Western powers are shifting gear. What gives impetus in this direction are two things — first, unless the humanitarian situation is addressed urgently and the collapse of the Afghan banking system is averted by creating liquidity in the economy, a refugee flow out of the country is on the cards.
Second, the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan are stepping up and the Taliban is hard-pressed to counter them. Both are highly consequential scenarios for international security.
Then, there is the overarching Western concern that a protracted absence from Kabul can only work to the advantage of China and Russia (and Iran). The US policy is trapped in the “legitimacy” aspect of the Taliban government.
On the contrary, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have discreetly sidestepped the contentious issue of “legitimacy” which creates space for them to develop their relations with the authorities in Kabul even without having to recognise the Taliban government.
A recent report in the Global Times disclosed that several Chinese companies are even conducting on-site inspections of potential lithium projects in Afghanistan. To be sure, the American companies who were secretly doing business in Afghan lithium under Ashraf Ghani’s watch must be getting frantic that the Chinese companies are stealing a march over them.
Against such a backdrop, Washington has knocked at the Pakistani door seeking help to work out the terms of the West’s engagement with the Taliban. Pakistan is willing to be of help. Despite Imran Khan’s strident anti-Western posturing in the past, after becoming prime minister, he has shown a remarkable degree of pragmatism — as his openness to taking help from the IMF or heeding the US demands to go slow on the CPEC would testify.
At any rate, the recent visit of a high level military delegation from the GHQ in Rawalpindi to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels and the effusive words about Pakistan’s stellar role as a military ally by the alliance’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg are strong indicators that the US expects Pakistan to play a moderating role vis-a-vis the Taliban regime similar to what Pervez Musharraf performed in the downstream of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington twenty one years ago.
Don’t be surprised if Pakistan heeds the US entreaties to give access to its bases for undertaking counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. The rumours about a new airbase coming up in Nasirabad (close to the Afghan border) refuse to die away.
Of course, the US is adept at adopting a carrots-and-stick policy. The FATF is like an Albatross around Pakistani neck — and Pakistani economy is in dire straits already. On the other hand, in a remarkable U-turn, the White House has now included Imran Khan in its list of invitees to the Summit of Democracy to be hosted by President Biden on December 9-10.
It is entirely conceivable that the Biden Administration would expect Delhi to moderate its hostile stance vis-a-vis Pakistan in these circumstances when the Anglo-American project to engage with the Taliban with the help of the Pakistani military leadership is at an advanced stage.
The good part is of course that the above trends are conducive to the easing of India-Pakistan tensions. A litmus test will probably come as the state elections in the Indian states of Punjab and UP due in February or March draw closer. Will the Hindu nationalists rake up Pakistan as bogeyman in their election campaign?
Meanwhile, the wheat shipment to Afghanistan would involve a convoy of around 5,000 trucks — something like 200 trucks crossing Wagah and the Khyber Pass every single day through a month or two in the harsh winter conditions. The epic saga is bound to be sensational and may rewrite the Indo-Pak narrative.
Indeed, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is bringing India, Pakistan and the Taliban on the same page — something that was unthinkable up until recently.