THE fall of virtually the whole of Afghanistan to the Pakistan-backed fundamentalist Taliban couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for India, with the foreign mercenaries holed up in Jammu and Kashmir upping the ante. Now, India is bracing itself to face a possible threat from the Taliban, which may unleash more battle-hardened Islamic rebels to wage Pakistan's proxy war.
What's worse, the implications of the Afghan developments are not confined to Kashmir. The Taliban's run will also impinge on India's interests in Central Asia, its ties with a far more triumphant Pakistan and, in all probability, also give a fillip to cross-border narco-terrorism. And India has only itself to blame for neglecting its Afghan policy.
But Indian officials defended their watchful policy saying that in the light of the US bombing on rogue Arab terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden's base in Afghanistan, complications would arise in the dynamics of the relationship between the Taliban and the Pakistanis. Agreed P. Stobdan of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA): "These strikes inside Afghanistan will change Afghan politics in significant ways. It might be the beginning of the assertion by the Taliban. They might hold Pakistan responsible for these attacks, for having allowed them. The Pakistanis are involved on both sides. It adds a new twist to the situation. But we can't afford to be complacent".
India is carefully monitoring the situation. The Tomahawk missiles which struck at various places in Afghanistan overflew Pakistani territory. Apart from raising questions of international law, it has a bearing on US-Pakistan relations—specifically, the inherent contradiction in Pakistan's dual allegiance to Islamist movements and its old role as a frontline state for American interests. It also reinforces India's case that Pakistan has been sponsoring terrorism in India from bases in its own territory and Afghanistan. According to initial reports by a Pakistani news agency, quoting militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, five Pakistanis training to fight in India were killed in the strike on a training camp near Khost about 90 miles south of Kabul, not far from the Pakistani border. New Delhi has innumerable times drawn world attention to training camps operating out of Afghan and Pakistani territories, mostly run by the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI. The US administrations have, as a general rule, chosen to wink at the evidence provided by India over the years. Except briefly during the Bush administration, when Washington came close to declaring Pakistan a terrorist state.
All eyes are now on the Taliban, which have made a habit of surprising the world with their speed at military games. Thanks to brisk fighting and some bribing, the Taliban have managed to dislodge the Mazar-i-Sharif-based Northern Alliance of Uzbek leader Rashid Dos-tum, the Tajik Ahmed Shah Masood, the Hazaras from the highlands of Hindu Kush in Bamiyan province and others. India can well argue it was not the only country to be taken by surprise. The Iranians, who have played a much greater role in Afghanistan and whose stakes are higher, were unable to pull out their diplomats and other personnel from Mazar-i-Sharif in time to prevent them from falling into Taliban hands—though reportedly top figures of the Rabbani regime are being harboured in Tehran.
"The situation is far from stable. It's true that the pacification of non-Pashtun areas is on by the predominantly Pashtun Taliban; that they hold most of the towns, the main roadways and airports in these towns in northern Afghanistan. But you are well aware of the unpredictability of Afghanistan. It is still not clear how durable the new arrangement will be," say Indian officials. "Besides the fact that it lends strategic depth to Pakistan, both Pakistan and the Taliban have been talking of Kashmir being next on the agenda. You put this in the context of Osama Bin Laden hiding in Afghanistan, you can expect greater terrorism and drug trafficking." Says another official: "All the mercenaries since the end of 1993 in Kashmir—like the Sudanese, Egyptians, Algerians and others—they have the same ideological leanings as the Taliban and they are also active inside Pakistan. If the Taliban take over, Badakshan will be a solid military base for Pakistan to operate from."
This tallies with what Stobdan wrote in a recent paper, The Afghan Conflict and India. According to him, the Taliban access to Badakshan could increase the influx of militants into Kashmir. He quoted Indian military officials as saying the Afghans often prefer to infiltrate Kashmir from the north along the Gilgit-Skardu axis.
If the Taliban can keep northern and western Afghanistan calm, it will provide a land route to the landlocked Central Asian nations to Pakistan, which can be a great economic boost for all parties concerned. India has been trying to use the Iranians to trade with Central Asia, but without much success. Notes Stobdan: "The Afghan civil war has so far frustrated India's cooperation with Central Asian states."
Explains another Indian official: "There is a degree of vulnerability in Central Asia vis-a-vis Pakistan. With Islamabad's profile of a bully and depending on how it manages the Taliban, it is more than just a question of oil and gas. In political terms, the issue is of the Central Asians following a policy of appeasement towards Pakistan, which could be inimical to us. And if the Afghan route gets functional, Pakistan will seek to cut out India from any durable Central Asian trade and other links. With all this it will also regain its status as a frontline state."
AT stake too is a $2 billion oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, which the American oil company Unocal-led international consortium has contracted for. The construction was to begin at the end of this year, but the project has been a non-starter, essentially because the area through which it was to pass was under the Northern Alliance. Now there is no guarantee how long the Taliban can keep the west and north of the country quiet. With the possibility of guerrilla attacks by Northern Alliance fighters, from their hideouts in the Hindu Kush, the pipeline's safety can't be guaranteed either. As for New Delhi, it doesn't see the pipeline being commercially viable unless India is a market. That is unlikely to happen with the nature of ties with Islamabad. The bombing adds a new twist to US commercial interests, though a pragmatic axis with the Taliban is likely, with recognition for the regime and handover of Osama Bin Laden as potential points of bargain.
India also has to contend with security spinoffs. Former MP and foreign service officer Syed Shahabuddin argues that while the proxy war in Kashmir may intensify, "it's also possible that Pakistan may not want to overplay the Afghan card as Afghanistan's shadow falls on Pakistan first. They have created a Frankenstein which will swallow them first". Critical of India's regional diplomacy, Shahabuddin says "we took the Russian occupation too lightly, then allowed Najibullah to perish and did not give effective support to Rabbani". Pran Chopra, senior journalist, presently with the Centre for Policy Research, also feels that India has missed too many chances in Afghanistan. "India first missed out when the Soviet Union collapsed. Then, it tried through Iran but our Iran policy was not correct. Iran was looking for more support from us but we were slow in reacting, mostly the fault of MEA bureaucrats."
But Girijesh Pant of Jawaharlal Nehru University says India can't be blamed: "We were caught by a situation where the best option was to pursue a very low key policy. So I don't accept that we had no policy. In fact, no policy was the right policy at that point of time, and the moment there was some space available to us we tried to make our presence felt." He does not rule out tensions developing between Pakistan and the Taliban. "No Afghan government will like the idea of Pakistani domination." That will give some space to India, as in the past.
Even C. Uday Bhaskar of the IDSA feels there is no reason to panic. He sees a larger danger in Pakistan being unable to control Taliban's Islamic fervour. But he is also quick to add that that doesn't mean India should not have an Afghanistan policy. "We have a limited manoeuverability and as regards Kashmir, we need a tactical response, we must harmonise it with a long-term approach. It is a new reality. Let us not underestimate its strategic implications."