Tuesday, 24 August 2021


Afghanistan Crisis | India must deploy its economic soft power

While at the beginning of this month, apprehensions of civil war were extant, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s throwing in of the towel at a great reputational cost appears to have averted the contingency for now. However, even though the Taliban is now in control of Kabul, and Afghanistan, prospects of instability persist.

At this delicate juncture with regional security poised to go either way, India, the gentle regional giant, can play a critical role in averting insecurity by moderating the Taliban through an exercise of its growing economy-based soft power.

The dangers of a continuing military tryst in Afghanistan stem from the traditional holdout at Panjshir being revived by the former regime’s deputy, Amrullah Saleh, tying up with the son of the former Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The call by Saleh that he will fight on can potentially attract the thousands of well-trained Afghan National Army personnel who were seemingly let down by their political and military leaderships. The Taliban have also been faced with spirited protests in multiple cities. As the Taliban depredations increase the gap between their words and deeds, the resistance may acquire momentum.

Currently all players await the outcome of peace-making deals on at the presidential palace, Arg, between the incoming Taliban, buoyant from their sudden victory, and an ad hoc co-ordination council of the former regime. International pressures are for an inclusive interim government, even if under the Taliban over-lordship.

The Taliban’s uninspiring record so far lends pause to any guesses as to how the situation will pan out. Having won a seemingly decisive victory and delirium from downing a superpower, hubris might get in the way and they may encash their cheque too soon. Triumphalism in Pakistan, their major backer, might also derail their applecart.How accommodative the Taliban prove will determine the levels of support from the international community and the legitimacy of the arrangement in the eyes of the Afghans.

Strategic good sense at this juncture involves acknowledging their limitations in running a modern State and their need for assistance. Reconciling to the gains of the last 20 years and keeping their promises on good behaviour in relation to women and minorities can stabilise them in power.

As it contemplates its decision, the Taliban has the potential backing of China, Russia and Iran. Should it play its cards well, even the United States will fall in along-side. The UN in situ is already on standby to lend a hand with the peacebuilding to follow. Pakistan is well aware that it does not have the heft to sustain an Afghanistan that is not at peace with itself.

Therefore, it is not inevitable that Afghanistan will revert to war. This best-case scenario can be made a self-fulfilling prophecy if one key player — India — steps up and lends a hand, but by extracting in collaboration with its international partners a quid pro quo: Taliban moderating itself.

Having temporarily pulled out its diplomats from Afghanistan on the basis of security concerns, India is sensibly in a wait-and-watch mode even as it speedily evacuates stranded Indians and Afghans wanting an Indian refuge. Even so, India is warily trying to keep Pakistan from prematurely anticipating gaining of strategic depth and turning back the tide towards normalcy in Kashmir by stubbing out Pakistani hopes of a UN Security Council appearance in the two discussions on Afghanistan this month with India in the chair. India could go further and if push comes to shove reciprocate Pakistani proxy war resumption with support of resistance forces in Afghanistan.

India would do well to avoid this worst-case scenario by stepping up to the table with an offer neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can afford to ignore. It can incentivise its outreach to the Taliban by offering market access by Afghanistan, economic upturn being an indispensable factor in post-conflict peacebuilding. Connectivity through Pakistan can be negotiated since Islamabad also stands to make geo-economic gains, its army chief having dropped hints early this year.

An Indian peace offensive can preserve India’s interests in Afghanistan and make good its sentiment in regard to the plight of the Afghan people. It will preserve Kashmir from the feared blow-back if Afghanistan dissolves into civil war and becomes a site of proxy war. It can turn the breeze of a peace outbreak, witnessed early this year on the Line of Control, into a gale. This will not only allow India a breather from its two-front predicament, but ease arriving at a fresh arrangement with China on the Line of Actual Control, collaboration elsewhere easing bilateral ties.

Instead of hard power that finds mention in the commentary on its options, India must instead seriously consider staking out its interests by deploying its economic soft power.