Until now, India and other regional powers had the comfort of knowing that the US would persist in ensuring that the Taliban did not return to power.
As that reassurance seems no longer tenable, India must re-examine the nature and degree of its involvement in Afghanistan for the times to come.
Most commentators have a tendency to view the current Afghanistan conflict with a fixed US foreign policy lens, focusing almost entirely on assessing the progress, or the lack thereof, being made by American forces. But it has now become apparent that the outcome of the country’s civil war will be determined largely by the force of arms mustered by local actors, especially given President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw up to 7,000 US troops.
As would be expected from a historically cautious emerging power, India has been maintaining a safe distance from the latest round of Afghanistan’s never-ending civil conflict, restricting its efforts in the country to humanitarian assistance and infrastructure aid.
Earlier this month, Trump also noted India’s lack of appetite for any major involvement in Afghanistan, taking a swipe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi by claiming that India had constructed a library in the country, remarking, “That’s like five hours of what we spend.”
Although the US President’s comments may come off as crude, and of dubious factual accuracy, his basic assertion is exactly on point: India does too little in the war-torn country, particularly in light of its position as a regional heavyweight.
Unlike in the case of the US, Afghanistan for India is not some distant land of dysfunction carrying a remote possibility of acting as the springboard for terrorist carnage against it; the country represents a historic conduit of geopolitical tension and upheaval for Indian civilisation, and if allowed to fall back into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, has the potential to not just destabilise sensitive areas like Kashmir but also embolden and supply radicals throughout the subcontinent.
The last time the internationally-recognised government in Kabul fell to an onslaught by an array of Islamist factions, within a year (1993) hundreds of jihadist veterans of the country’s civil war flooded into Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to battle alongside local militants.
Apart from providing a steady flow of fighters into Kashmir, the jihadist-run Afghanistan also became the safe haven of choice for hardline Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) backed groups involved in the Kashmir insurgency; Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed fighters openly shared training camps with Al Qaeda and Taliban radicals, graduating with a vastly more complex terrorist skill set.
A strong correlation between the trend in the intensity of terrorist violence in J&K and the changing political dynamics of Afghanistan is also clearly indicated by statistics; 2001 marked the peak in the number of insurgency-related deaths in the state, with casualties seeing a sharp and steady decline in the years since as the Taliban and its foreign Salafist-jihadist allies were bombed into seeking refuge in caves of remote mountains by the US-led intervention following the 9/11 attacks.
Not only did the overthrow of the so-called ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ deprive the Kashmir insurgency of experienced foreign fighters and training facilities, but it also threw Pakistan’s entire strategy of propagating jihad in the subcontinent into disarray, with the military-intelligence complex being forced into damage control mode as Taliban splinter factions began targeting their former benefactors.
Now, some two decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan which hastened the collapse of the communist puppet regime of Najibullah, things seem to have come full circle with Trump looking to pull out around half of all American troops stationed in the country, effectively reducing the already diminished US presence to a token contingent at a time when Afghan security forces are witnessing record casualties and are struggling to maintain territorial control.
India should view with a deep sense of alarm the increasingly likely scenario of a complete American abandonment of the Afghan government, as the latter fields an army that is beset by never ending attrition, controls territory which is continuously shrinking in size and employs government officials, who are so corrupt they make the Taliban look like paragons of justice.
As the momentum shifts towards the insurgents, it must also be kept in mind that this time around the potential for chaos emanating from Afghanistan is much greater than in previous instances when Islamist fighters marching into Kabul; the country is now home to the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan, which may also be poised to make significant gains as government forces are beaten back to provincial centres.
Unlike the Taliban, the Islamic State is not driven by any sense of nationalism or tribalism which may help restrict its activities or influence to Afghanistan or its immediate environs. The very purpose of the group’s existence is to propagate an apocalyptic theology of Islamic world conquest, and thus if it is allowed to consolidate its Khorasan ‘province’, the group will in all probability use the area as a springboard to export jihad to the Indian mainland, where it already seems to have developed underground networks of supporters.
Seeing their ‘caliphate’ making headway so close to home will almost certainly embolden dormant supporters of the group, especially in areas like north Kerala, where the local Muslim community already has certain elements enchanted with the ideology of global jihad, such as the youths from Kasargod who sneaked into Afghanistan to join up with Wilayah Khorasan.
Apart from the threat to the mainland and the specific vulnerability of Kashmir, things going south in Afghanistan may also set off a chain reaction of humanitarian disasters; millions of refugees again pouring into Pakistan across the Durand Line will hasten the overpopulation catastrophe that is bound to engulf that country as its family planning measures fail and environmental factors pummel the country’s agricultural capacity.
If jihadists are allowed to again overrun Kabul, India may very well in the coming years find itself entangled in a crisis at its north-western border along the lines of the Bangladeshi-cum-Rohingya illegal immigration mess, that too of a much more serious nature.
Thus, to conclude, the very integrity and stability of the Indian state, and by extension, Indic civilisation, is liable to be exposed to immense adversity by a collapse of the internationally recognised government in Kabul. Until now, India and other regional powers had the comfort of knowing that the US would persist in ensuring that the Taliban did not return to power. As that reassurance seems no longer tenable, India must re-examine the nature and degree of its involvement in Afghanistan for the times to come.