Afghanistan quagmire: China making moves to secure its interests but do not count out India yet

·11 min read

India's interests and stake, built over several decades, are at stake in the graveyard of empires. As Afghanistan hurtles towards political instability and turmoil €" even a civil war is not outside the realm of possibility €" New Delhi faces multiple challenges from several fronts in maintaining its presence in a country with which it shares no border (cartographic claims aside) but one that is critical to its national security.

However, the overall gloom and doom in India's strategic discourse on Afghanistan is excessively pessimistic. It is being suggested that New Delhi has reached a fork in the road. It must either sup with the Taliban or pack its bags and leave. This is a false binary.

To be clear, the manner of US exit and Taliban's ascendancy have raised critical questions of the viability of India's Afghanistan policy. New Delhi's preferred equilibrium between Kabul's nationalism and Islamabad's interventionism has been disturbed and the challenges are intensifying as India attempts to navigate the crisis.

Last week, the Indian embassy in Kabul issued a security advisory. The two-page note advised Indians "visiting, staying and working in Afghanistan" to "exercise utmost vigilance and caution with regard to security at work place, place of residence and also during movement to their places of work", cut non-essential travel and avoid venturing outside the main cities. The advisory also carried instructions for Indian media personnel, asking them to contact the "Public Affairs& Security Wing of this Embassy for a personalized briefing", including "specific advice for the locale they are traveling to," in light of the recent tragic incident when an Indian journalist, embedded with Afghan special forces, fell to Taliban bullets.

The note of urgency in the advisory betrays anxiety in New Delhi that the security situation in Afghanistan is precarious. It also suggests that India is not confident of a peaceful political resolution of the crisis, at least not anytime soon.

This isn't to say that India is fatalistic about the fall of the Ashraf Ghani government, but it remains concerned that the Taliban, which has up until now been targeting district centres and provincial capitals for territorial gains, may make a lunge for the main cities and key border checkpoints once the US troops wrap up presence by 31 August.

Part of India's diplomatic maneuver in the region, therefore, is aimed at imposing costs on the Taliban and discouraging the insurgent group from going for a military power grab. India has repeatedly made it clear that if the terror group wishes to be legitimised and normalised as a political entity, it must shun violence, terror tactics and go for a negotiated political settlement instead of aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate through the barrel of guns.

Speaking at the eight-nation SCO foreign ministers' meet at Dushanbe earlier in the month, India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said "the world is against seizure of power by violence and force. It will not legitimise such actions." The SCO nations had also issued a joint statement on the occasion denouncing the violence.

On Wednesday, at a joint press conference with the visiting US secretary of state Antony Blinken in New Delhi, Jaishankar added to his earlier statement. "The world wishes to see an independent, sovereign, democratic and stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours. But its independence and sovereignty will only be ensured if it is free from malign influences. Similarly, unilateral imposition of will by any party will not be democratic and can never lead to stability."

During Jaishankar's talks with Blinken earlier in the day, the situation in Afghanistan and regional security issues reportedly topped the agenda. Later at the presser, Blinken said that both India and the US "largely see Afghanistan the same way" and warned the Taliban that "an Afghanistan that does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people would become a pariah state." Evidently, India and the US have achieved a convergence of purpose in Afghanistan.

As New Delhi and Washington walk in lockstep on Afghanistan, the message that both sides chose to deliver holds significance. When Jaishankar talks of an Afghanistan "free from malign influences", India's external affairs minister is taking aim at Pakistan whose interests are intricately bound with the interests of the Taliban. Rawalpindi generals see Taliban's ascendancy as the moment of truth after backing, sheltering and nurturing the terror group for decades by double-crossing the US.

Pakistan hopes that the military, financial and strategic investment that it has made in the Taliban will finally bear fruit. It believes the finishing line is close and has even pressed thousands of its terror operatives into service who are fighting alongside the Taliban.

As Pakistan inches closer to its strategic goal of installing a government of Islamist proxies next door to keep out India, Jaishankar and Blinken are claiming that such an outcome is not yet obvious. But their comments go beyond sending a message to Pakistan. Both India and the US were dangling the carrot of international recognition and legitimacy for the Taliban to force it into a negotiated political settlement.

That becomes difficult if other powerful actors with a deep interest in the region cancel the trade-off by appearing ready to give the Taliban the recognition that it wants. China hopes to step into the vacuum created by the American exit. It expects the Taliban to topple the Ghani government soon and unlike India or the US, it doesn't necessarily see military takeover as morally repugnant though it would prefer a peaceful outcome. Neither does Beijing care if Afghanistan turns into an Islamist theocratic state so long as it is politically stable where China may secure its strategic and economic interests.

China also calculates that the Taliban, given India's historical role, would prefer Beijing to be its infrastructure and investment partner. Beijing has already started taking quiet steps towards consolidating its footsteps.

China eyes Afghanistan's bountiful natural resources and sees the country as a valuable link for Belt and Road projects. According to CS Monitor, Beijing has already secured a "long-term lease on a major Afghan copper deposit and has interests in developing oil deposits and mining valuable rare-earth minerals" that could be worth more than trillion dollars.

Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp, writes in Foreign Policy that "Beijing has reportedly been actively engaging with Kabul on construction of the Peshawar-Kabul motorway" connecting Pakistan to Afghanistan and is also "building a major road through the Wakhan Corridor€"a slim strip of mountainous territory connecting China's westernmost province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan€"and onward to Pakistan and Central Asia, complementing its existing road network through the region. Once completed, these new thoroughfares should enable Beijing to pursue its goals of increased trade with the region and natural resource extraction in Afghanistan."

And yet China's foray into Afghanistan is incumbent on long-term political stability. Though Beijing doesn't mind doing business with a barbaric terror outfit that aims to take Afghanistan back into the middle-ages, it would certainly not want Afghanistan to turn into a hotbed of assorted militant groups.

The Taliban, in turn, has sought to reassure China that it won't interfere in "China's internal affairs" regardless of whether Beijing has incarcerated millions of innocent Muslims or sterilized them by force. It has also vowed "not to let Afghan territory be used against other nations" in a bid to calm Chinese nerves.

Even as it courts the Taliban, the Chinese are not easily convinced. As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi hosted a nine-member Taliban delegation led by its chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in the northern city of Tianjin on Wednesday €" a meeting whose significance won't be lost on India or the US €" he promised support for Afghanistan's reconstruction and even hinted at giving the group political legitimacy while demanding that it cut ties with militant groups, specifically, ETIM.

Wang called the Taliban €" that has made >significant territorial gains in recent weeks €" "a pivotal military and political force in the country" that "will play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation and reconstruction" but demanded that the Taliban must sever any ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

"Wang stressed that the ETIM is an international terrorist organization designated by the UN Security Council that poses a direct threat to China's national security and territorial integrity€¦ We hope the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region," according to a statement released by Chinese foreign ministry.

While the Taliban made all the right noises, Wang's statement betrays Chinese apprehension over the degree of control that the Taliban, or its chief backers in Rawalpindi, may or may not exert over the assortment of terror groups currently active in the region. Taliban's ascendancy will almost certainly encourage the myriad jihadist and extremist groups operating in Afghanistan and it is not clear whether these groups enjoy a common purpose or would accept Taliban's supremacy. A recent UN report points at Taliban's close connections with Al-Qaeda and recruitment activities of Islamic State (ISIS).

As Lisa Curtis, top National Security Council official in the Donald Trump administration, writes in Just Security, "The Taliban's ascendance in Afghanistan, especially if they are able to establish control in most or all parts of the country, would almost certainly inspire Islamist extremists across the globe. As both the Taliban and al-Qaeda push a narrative of having defeated the United States and over 40 other NATO countries, extremists of all stripes are likely to reconverge on Afghanistan much like they did in the 1990s."

This could be China's biggest nightmare. The kind of long-term political stability that China seeks in order to operate in Afghanistan may only be possible through a negotiated political compromise, not a smash and grab military takeover. And China, like any great power, has heightened security concerns and low tolerance for terrorist activities directed against it.

Despite all the 'iron brother' rhetoric, it only took one terrorist attack against its citizens in Pakistan for China to call off a crucial CPEC meeting and for Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to summon his Pakistani counterpart and give him a stiff dressing down.

Given the nature of uncertainty in Afghanistan, and the severe question marks over political stability, it is not clear that China will rush in for profiteering or strategic gains as soon as US troops leave Afghanistan, or even if Taliban manages to wrest power. This is where India steals a march over China given its two decades of work as a partner for development cooperation and capacity building and its ability to stay the course through regional turbulence.

In other words, India is deeply to committed to Afghanistan. By 2019, it had completed "400 social infrastructure projects€¦ in partnership with the Afghan government" that were spread across "34 provinces of Afghanistan in diverse fields of development, including education, healthcare, infrastructure, administrative capacity, flood control, irrigation, agriculture and sports."

Last year, India signed an agreement with the Ghani government for the construction of the Shahtoot Dam to let two million Kabul residents have access to safe drinking water €" part of an undertaking of more than 100 projects worth $80 million.

If the Taliban fancies itself as an entity capable of governing Afghanistan, it will need India's help. For all the disadvantages stacked against it, New Delhi has staying power, it takes its role as Afghanistan's development partner seriously, is part of the same geography and won't leave the stage unlike the US.

Besides, Taliban's takeover isn't a foregone conclusion. India, as C Raja Mohan points out in Foreign Policy, "is not buying into the narrative of Kabul's impending fall and the Taliban's immediate and inevitable return to power€¦ Although the Taliban have gained considerable territory amid the accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Indian government is betting Afghanistan's endgame is not at hand€"at least, not yet. At the very least, there is still time for outside powers to influence the outcome."

India's intensified regional diplomacy and parleys with Iran and central Asian states are borne out of a belief that the Afghan government won't be a pushover. Some analysts have pointed out how Taliban's gains have been exaggerated for psychological gains and media have bought into the propaganda warfare.

Either way, India reckons there is space for diplomatic initiatives and negotiated outcomes and it is not ready to throw in the towel yet. With due apologies to Mark Twain, reports of Indian demise in Afghanistan are greatly exaggerated.€‹

Also See: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to begin two-day India visit today; COVID-19, Afghanistan, Quad in focus

Afghanistan, China, Quad and human rights: Key issues likely on Blinken, Jaishankar's agenda today

US secretary of state Antony Blinken to meet Narendra Modi, S Jaishankar during India visit next week

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