December 2021

Allies and rivals

G. Parthasarathy assesses the regional factors at play in dealing with Afghanistan’s escalating humanitarian emergency and evolving political situation

India has no easy and assured access to Afghanistan and Central Asia by land, due to the land route to Afghanistan, via Pakistan, being uncertain, and presently closed. There is, however, substantial Indian investment in the Iranian port of Chahbahar, through which India’s exports can be routed to Afghanistan and some of its Central Asian neighbours. India has a significant and successful programme of economic assistance amounting to $3.5 billion, which includes projects ranging from construction of the 42 MW hydropower Salma Dam in Afghanistan’s Herat Province, to a long-distance transmission line that provides power to Kabul. Moreover, substantial assistance to Afghanistancame by the provision of educational facilities in India for thousands of Afghan students, as well as the building of medical centres across Afghanistan. India has supplied 400 vehicles for public hospitals and transportation, and provided midday meals for schoolchildren.

While India does not recognise the Taliban government, there has been some diplomatic contact with the Taliban in Qatar. In response to a request from the Taliban for assistance, particularly the urgent supply of wheat, India agreed to supply 50,000 tonnes of wheat through Pakistan. Grudging agreement, in principle, was accorded by Pakistan to this proposal. India has also consented to supply desperately needed medicines to Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how urgently and positively Pakistan responds to finalising agreements for the transfer of such supplies, as all trade through the land border with Afghanistan remains closed by Pakistan. The assessment in New Delhi is that the people of Afghanistan will be in dire straits if these supplies of wheat and medicines do not reach them soon.

It is evident that Pakistan and China are working in close coordination on developments in Afghanistan

Along with close consultations with the US and Russia regarding relations with Afghanistan, India has also remained in close touch with Iran, and with Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, on the evolving situation in the country. These links have existed since well before the post-9/11 US intervention in Afghanistan commenced, and consultations have continued. New Delhihosted a November 10conference involving the Central Asian countries, Iran and Russia to discuss measures to promote peace and security in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood. UnsurprisinglyPakistan and China, which were also invited, declined to attend. 

India and Afghanistan’s western neighbours are concerned, because the Taliban has created a situation whereby its ethnic minorities, notably the Tajiks, are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Iran is also feeling the fallout of the continuing Taliban persecution of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan. Adding to these concerns is the huge cache of American arms, now in the Taliban’s possession.

The 42 MW hydropower Salma Dam in Afghanistan’s Herat Province built with Indian assistance

It is evident that Pakistan and China are working in close coordination on developments in Afghanistan. While Pakistani academics and experts state that Afghanistan provided Pakistan with ‘strategic depth’, it is no secret that UN-designated, Pakistan-based terrorist groups have close ties with the Taliban.  The Taliban’s acting Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is known to have close relations with such Pakistan-based terrorist groups as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. This is a factor that India has to constantly bear in mind. It is clear that there are differences within the Taliban between the hard-core Islamist elements like Haqqani, on the one hand, and the Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was originally slated to be the Prime Minister. Baradar had to flee Kabul after being threatened by the Haqqani Network. All this was happening, even as the high-profile former Chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, was visibly and triumphantly moving around Kabul. What followed was a public spat between Pakistan’s Army Chief General Bajwaand Prime Minister Imran Khan, which compelled the Prime Minister to transfer the Army’s Intelligence Chief to command an Army Corps, deployed on Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan. The Corps Commander in Karachi replaced Lt. General Hameedas Pakistan’s Intelligence Czar.

The Taliban appears to have bitten off more than it can chew in Afghanistan

The Taliban appears to have bitten off more than it can chew in Afghanistan, and across the Durand Line. A significant section of the Taliban, calling itself the Tehriq-e-Taliban-e Pakistan, has emerged in Pakistan, following attacks by the Pakistan army on Pashtun towns across Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, bordering Afghanistan. This section of the Taliban, and in fact many Pashtuns, do not recognise the Durand Line as Afghanistan’s traditional border with Pakistan, claimingit was imposed by the British Colonial Administration.

A sketch of Afghan's new interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani issued by the FBI. He is a US designated terrorist with a $5mn bounty

India and the international community, while ready to provide economic assistance to Afghanistan, are in no hurry to accord diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government. China and Russia are presently doing likewise, though China could change tack once it is guaranteed full access to Afghanistan’s vast natural resources, including gemstones, uranium, chromium, copper, lithium, bauxite, cobalt and iron. China will seek political and strategic space to gain access to the bulk of these resources. It will invariably back Pakistan’s political and security interests in Afghanistan. As for Russia and Iran, they would seek guarantees of safety and security for Afghanistan’s ethnic and Shia minorities. But both countries will ultimately be predominantly guided by what they perceive to be in their regional interests.

G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and President of the Indian Habitat Centre in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office