India sees strategic threat in Afghanistan after Taliban victory

New Delhi has long supported anti-Taliban groups to counter Pakistani influence

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The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan will cause a tectonic shift in the geopolitics of South Asia and have a significant impact on India, experts say.

New Delhi’s main regional rivals, China and Pakistan, are vying for influence in the war-torn nation.

The Taliban walked into the Afghan capital, Kabul, unopposed last week, ousting the New-Delhi allied and West-backed government of Ashraf Ghani and regaining control of a country that for decades has been a battlefield for world powers.

India doesn’t need to be scared but India needs to be aware, smart, very alert, and India needs to engage with the Taliban
Jitendra Nath Misra, former diplomat

India has invested heavily in previous Kabul regimes to counter the influence of its arch-rival Pakistan. It has pumped more than $3 billion into development projects in Afghanistan since the US-led coalition toppled the first Taliban government in 2001.

The hardline Islamist group’s control of Afghanistan looks almost complete.

New Delhi fears its strategic interests are at risk under the new regime, which it believes is backed by Islamabad, a close ally of Beijing.

“With China and Pakistan together, our challenges get much more difficult,” Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, told The National.

China and Pakistan will be riding piggyback on each other. Pakistan will depend on China’s strategic heft and economic muscle. China will depend on Pakistan for its eyes and ears,” he said.

Kashmir tension

New Delhi is engaged in tense border disputes with both Islamabad and Beijing over Kashmir.

India and Pakistan each hold a portion of the contested former kingdom, and a decades-long armed insurgency is raging in the part New Delhi rules.

Its biggest concern, however, is the growing bonhomie between Beijing, Islamabad and the Taliban.

China intends to invest in Afghanistan, a mineral-rich country, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The project, a transcontinental trade and economic corridor, will connect Central Asia with the Indian Ocean through Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

New Delhi views the BRI, particularly the $50 billion patch known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as a threat to its sovereignty because it passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India claims as its territory.

Indian experts say China’s willingness to engage with the Taliban and its plans to invest in Afghanistan will consolidate Pakistan’s rule of the portion of Kashmir that is under Islamabad’s rule.

“China has a direct interest in stabilising Pakistani control over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which we don’t recognise,” Jitendra Nath Misra, a former Indian diplomat, told The National.

“We can expect Sino-Pakistani pressure from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.”

A Belt and Road opportunity?

India also fears that the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and close co-operation between Pakistan and China in the region will boost the armed insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority region.

Several armed groups in Kashmir are fighting Indian troops with the aim of merging with Pakistan or creating an independent country.

India has accused Pakistan of training and arming them, a claim Islamabad denies.

New Delhi fears the Taliban’s victory will spur a fresh wave of militant violence in Kashmir as Islamabad will push battle-hardened Taliban fighters and Pakistan-based militants to the Himalayan region.

Experts say the Taliban has close ties with several Pakistan-based militant groups that operate in Kashmir. They include Jaish-e-Mohammed, whose founder, Masood Azhar, was released in exchange for passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane taken to the Taliban stronghold Kandahar in 1999.

“There is a threat … there is a possibility of incursions of hardcore Islamist militants and terrorists into Kashmir and elsewhere in India. Pakistan will want to use them against India to ease the pressure from the east, which is their policy,” Mr Misra said.

In the past, New Delhi tried to counter Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan by arming insurgent groups such as the Northern Alliance, a coalition of anti-Taliban militias. This prompted Pakistan to accuse New Delhi of using Afghan territory against it.

Now Kabul’s post-2001 regime has collapsed, experts say India has fewer options to safeguard its interests in the region and may be forced to engage with the Taliban.

New Delhi has spurned the group for its hardline Islamist ideology, and claims to fight similar elements in Kashmir. But the drama of last week has left India in a tight spot, for major regional players, including Moscow and Tehran, have already warmed to the Taliban.

India has so far maintained silence following the sudden fall of Ashraf Ghani’s government and has mostly focused on rescuing its citizens and diplomats.

Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said he was “very carefully following developments in Afghanistan”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has called a meeting of all opposition political parties on Thursday to discuss the crisis and its potential fallout for India.

“India doesn’t need to be scared but India needs to be aware, smart, very alert, and India needs to engage with the Taliban because they are in control and we have to deal with them,” Mr Misra said.

“We have no choice.”

Updated: August 24th 2021, 1:28 PM