Monday, 30 August 2021


India’s Afghanistan policy in regime security terms

Foreign minister Jaishankar informed the recent all-party meeting on the Afghanistan situation that India’s policy is one of ‘wait and watch’. Whereas a policy-in-the-works is justified, a regional power should instead be pushing for an outcome it prefers in Afghanistan.

Diplomatically, it has at the two Security Council meetings joined the international chorus calling for moderation on part of the Taliban and to ensure a broad representativeness in the new government. As incentive, the mid August reference to Taliban among the armed groups has been removed in the late August Council resolution. Sticks to extract good behavior of the Taliban in power remain in the form of diplomatic recognition and sanctions’ lists procedures, on which India will likely fall in line with the Western powers. On the ground, having pulled out its diplomatic staff, it has limited possibilities of influencing the situation. This action willy-nilly acknowledges the preexisting deficit in India’s Afghan policy that resulted in India being kept out of the plethora of forums – the troika plus and quadrilaterals - that have come up as the peace process wound its way over the past two years.

While India’s intelligence moves are not known, these can be expected to include an outreach to the Afghan resistance shaping up at Panjshir holdout. By reassuring the resistance leadership of India’s continuing support, India can strengthen their hand. At the table currently with the Talban, they have the confidence to wrest their due in terms of representation in the new Taliban-led dispensation. If the Taliban’s ongoing tactics of coercion-with-talks fail to persuade their challengers at Panjshir, it provides India a leverage it could exploit depending on how the situation pans out.

An intelligence dominant Afghanistan policy

It is likely that the intelligence prong of strategy, even if invisible, is more active than its diplomatic one, since India’s Afghanistan policy has been intelligence-led. There have been multiple exchanges between the intelligence establishments of India and the former regime, especially since mid 2017, when President Trump decided to wind down the American commitment in Afghanistan. India’s Afghanistan policy is entwined with its Pakistan and Kashmir policies, making it a subset of its national security policy and therefore, the domain of the national security adviser.

However, despite this privileging of the intelligence prong of strategy - and perhaps because of this - not unlike most other states, India was unable to gauge the rapidity of collapse of the Ghani regime. Limiting its outreach to the Taliban eventuated in India being marginalized. Consequently, India surveys uncertain national security prospects in case the Taliban return to power. The threat is not so much from the Taliban, as much as from the unreformed and triumphalist Pakistan, that would be able to return its attention to its traditional preoccupation, Kashmir.

Kashmir returns as a conflict trigger

In Kashmir, it appears to be lull before the storm. There is enough tinder in Kashmir only waiting for the proverbial match stick. The recent outreach of the prime minister to the mainstream parties has not resulted in a breakthrough. Absent a promise of return to statehood prior to the elections, this remains unlikely. Such as reversion to statehood, albeit minus the earlier autonomy, would likely only be in case the elections are won by the ruling party at the Center. Consequently, the developments in the neighbourhood have potential for instability for national security, if and when the Pakistani state and non-state elements currently absorbed in returning the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, turn their attention to Kashmir.

In case unrest revives in Kashmir and presence of battle hardened Pakistani mercenaries resets the insurgency back to terrorism, India is liable to take harsh actions in Kashmir, besides being militarily firm with Pakistan. The current hiatus of relative stability, such as the Line of Control ceasefire reiteration in February, will likely unravel.

Prospects of wider insecurity

The fallout may not be limited to Kashmir. From the overdrive of the pro-right wing media on contrived linkages between Indian Muslims, Pakistan and Taliban is evident that already-frayed social harmony is set to suffer. Resulting polarization can be taken political advantage of by the right wing. ‘False flag’ terror operations implicating Muslims as perpetrators- as was the case in several terror incidents in the 2000s - shall heighten the political dividend from insecurity for the right wing.

It is by now well known that electoral advantage is sought by the ruling dispensation from India’s security showing. This remains true for how India will view its Afghanistan policy.

Since Kashmir remains delicate and a potential site for resumption of proxy war, India would perhaps prefer a like handle on the other side of Pakistan, not only to deter it but to get back at Pakistan in case of proxy war revival. Therefore, India may not be averse to instability continuing in Afghanistan. This explains lack of energy and dexterity in its diplomacy – exemplified by the term ‘wait and watch’ - in working for the presumed preferable outcome of returning stability and security to Afghanistan over the uncertainty of civil war.

The regime security calculus

In other words, not only has an intelligence-led Afghanistan policy failed India already, but is set to fail India once again in an impending unraveling of its Kashmir policy. That this has domestic political advantage for its political masters makes for ambiguity as to whether this is at all seen as a failure. On the contrary the powers-that-be may see an intelligence success through their parochial-political lens. Contending externally with the Taliban and its supposed sponsors, Pakistan, has internal political dividend in keeping up polarization. With the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections due soon, and their outcome’s implications for national elections in 2024, they primary prism for gauging national security policy is how any such policies influence political fortunes.

When national interest is defined as perpetuation of the right wing electoral majority for sustaining the Hindutva project in the unmaking of India as we know it, national interest articulation in traditional and conventional terms is futile. India is thus poised to move from being a free-rider to a spoiler for regime security and at the cost of national security.