Diplomats are in the business of looking gift horses in the mouth, especially when one comes from an enemy camp. A pat on the back from the Afghan Taliban is a rare occasion for India. In the past, India’s efforts and engagements in Afghanistan have come for praise from many different quarters. But no decision of India’s, until recently, has drawn the slightest praise from the Taliban. Yet, a few days back, the Afghan Taliban did something surprising—they commended India for what they described as resistance to the United States’s call for greater involvement in Afghanistan.
This unusual development has nonetheless forced bemused Indian diplomats to pause and analyse the impulse behind the Taliban’s decision and the signal they want to convey. At one level, South Block is trying to ascertain whether the remarks were made by the Afghan Taliban independently or on being prompted by their handlers sitting in Pakistan. In addition, along with the praise, Indian diplomats also identify the hint of a threat that’s woven into the statement. They see it as an attempt to warn India not to get involved in Afghanistan, particularly by stepping in on the security front when the US and other western countries withdraw their troops in 2014.
But, at another level, it is also being seen as an acknowledgment of India’s popularity in the country, especially among the Afghan people, and recognition of the fact that New Delhi will be a player in Afghanistan’s future. Even if the Taliban’s words of praise are prompted by the Pakistani establishment, it clearly signals that in their current face-off with the Americans, they would prefer a neutral India. There are indications that New Delhi has politely refused the US’s suggestion of getting more involved in Afghanistan, especially to fill the gap in the security after the withdrawal of US and NATO troops in 2014.
But even if India refuses to bolster the security cooperation in Afghanistan—apart from continuing to train the Afghan police force and the Afghan National Army’s officer cadres—the development shows that both Pakistan and the Taliban are no longer in a position to ignore New Delhi. India has already invested more than $2 billion towards developing Afghanistan’s infrastructure and will continue to play a significant role there.
However, as a drawdown of the US and western troops begin, India, like many other countries in the region, have also begun to strategise on how best to deal with the scenario after 2014. A power vaccuum in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces is not a favourable situation for India. If that happens, it could potentially be a repeat of the convulsive mid-1990s, sealed with yet another takeover by the Taliban. One way of preventing this is by involving key regional players in Afghanistan collectively to ensure stability and prosperity in the country post 2014.
In this regard, Union external affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s recent move to make the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation the regional body in charge of Afghanistan’s future is significant. The SCO has China, Russia and four central Asian countries that border Afghanistan as its members. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran are part of the group as observers. By 2014 all of them may become full-fledged sco members and may play a decisive role together to work towards a prosperous future for Afghanistan. This arrangement also provides for a situation where China not only takes more responsibility for the future of Afghanistan but also engages India, as it is already doing with Pakistan and Afghanistan, for restoring normalcy in the war-torn country.
In addition, India is also planning to host an investor’s summit for Afghanistan in New Delhi on June 28. Participants from over 50 countries from the west as well as those in the neighbourhood, including Pakistan and China, are likely to attend. New Delhi’s attempt is to offer a parallel and positive narrative for the future of Afghanistan. If the potential investors are as convinced as India, we may soon see joint ventures and significant investments pouring in for various sectors in Afghanistan, particularly for its minerals and other natural resources. Expanding the number of stakeholders in Afghanistan by attracting foreign investors could well be one of the surest ways of ensuring that its foreseeable future doesn’t resemble its recent, bloody past in any way.