Thursday, 26 August 2021


Indian soft power as the missing ingredient in returning peace to Afghanistan


While at the beginning of this month, apprehensions of civil war were extant, 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 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 exercise of growing economy-based soft power. 

Dangers of 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, Ahmed Shah Masood. Panjshir held out in the Soviet era and in the subsequent Taliban 1.0. Consequently, it’s reversion to a hold out status serves today to pressure the Taliban to be magnanimous in victory.

The call by Saleh that he will fight on can potentially attract the thousands of well trained Afghan National Army forces who were seemingly let down by their political and military leaderships. The Taliban have also been faced with spirited protests in multiple cities. As Taliban depredations increase the gap between their words and deeds, the resistance is set to 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 coordination council of the former regime heavyweights. International pressures are for an inclusive interim government, even if under Taliban over-lordship.

How accommodative Taliban prove will determine the levels of support from the international community and the legitimacy of the arrangement in eyes of Afghans. The Taliban may settle for such an arrangement if it enables access to funds for development by way of which they can legitimize their taking over Kabul in a military victory. The former regimes accounts – frozen for now by the West – can be unlocked by Taliban good behavior.

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 deliriant 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 since Pakistan has consistently demonstrated a deficit in strategic good sense.

Being strategic at this juncture implies acknowledging limitations by the Taliban 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 behavior in relation to women and minorities can stabilize them in power. The Taliban have made the right noise so far and an outreach to employees of the former regime to run the government.

They have already made a believable promise to keep Afghanistan free of presences of international terrorism. In fact, it is not impossible to imagine that since it is the Taliban that alone had the ability to rid Afghanistan of international terrorists of various hues – Al Qaeda, Islamic State and those bedeviling neighbours the Stans, Russia and China – the US may have played a strategic, if covert, game in midwifing the return of the Taliban to Kabul.

While a tall order in itself, now that the Taliban has been strengthened by the war material left behind by the West and acquired from the Afghan National Army, it can with characteristic ruthlessness deliver on this promise. They have invited back the Afghan air force members – who have not fled to the Stans with their planes – so that the vaunted air force can be revived.

The Taliban has the potential backing of China, Russia and Iran. Should it play its cards well, even the US 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 end up in another civil war, as succeeded the fall of the Najibullah regime. 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 in the Taliban moderating itself and more self-centeredly also going after anti-India terror elements in its campaign against international terror outfits.

Having temporarily pulled out its diplomats from Afghanistan on the basis of security concerns, India is sensibly in a wait-and-watch mode. 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. It has been tough in the Security Council, of which it has the presidency this month, by keeping Pakistan out of the two deliberations this month at that high forum, even though procedurally it could have obliged Pakistan – being a stakeholder in the region and developments – to be invited to make its pitch.

India can hold out a plausible threat that it will reciprocate Pakistani proxy war resumption in Kashmir with support of resistance forces in Afghanistan, thereby denying any gains Pakistan sought in supporting the Taliban’s return. That Pakistan will find this believable is evident from its vociferous objections over the last two decades to the presence of Indian consulates in Afghanistan.

Since the worst case is not in India’s interest either – since it returns instability to Kashmir and perhaps   in the mainland – it is a scenario best avoided. So instead of a wait and watch approach at this critical juncture, India could instead diplomatically step up to the table with an offer neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can afford to ignore.

It can incentivize its outreach to the Taliban by offering market access by Afghanistan, economic upturn being an indispensible factor in post-conflict peacebuilding. Connectivity through Pakistan can be negotiated since Pakistan also stands to make geo-economic gains, its army chief having dropped hints early this year. While the meager land trade in dry fruits on between India and Afghanistan through Pakistan is stalled for now, it can be magnified several times over when it resumes.

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, since the two – India and China – will be collaborators in returning peace to Afghanistan.

In this option, Afghanistan can be seen as an opportunity. Politics being the art of the possible, so is external politics. Collaborating with its two neighbours with whom India has strained bilateral relations over a non-bilateral issue has potential to inject eddies of cooperation into the bilateral relationship. Needless to add that diplomats will need to work in some simultaneity between India easing up on Afghanistan to enable Pakistan and China take their pickings, while the two oblige by easing up likewise on Kashmir and in Ladakh. Pakistan must be held to zero infiltration and China to settle for an agreement on the other frictions points in Ladakh.

Consequently, 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 economy-based soft power. An emerging great power cannot be a free-rider indefinitely. Wait-and-watch is a policy for those without options and cards, which does not behoove a regional power.

The case for proactivism made, a word on its feasibility. That this soft-power option has not found mention so far bespeaks less of the commentariat being stupefied by developments than aware that the option will not find traction with the right wing Indian political leadership. India’s strategic minders have ceased to assert national interest in face of the regime’s parochial self-interest of self-perpetuation in power and furthering the Hindutva political project. These twin goals require India to be at odds with its Muslim neighbours, so that the resulting media-induced polarization within polity can be used for electoral purposes. Coming as it does the Afghan crisis in the run up to crucial polls, it is not national interest that will determine India’s response, but which option is best for electoral dividend. Even so, it is important here to place the option ‘out there’ in order that if it is a road not taken and India’s security predicament deepens, we know where the responsibility squarely lies.