The ignominious and undignified exit of Uncle Sam from Afghanistan has not only made the US a much-diminished superpower, but created problems for many of its allies, including half-allies like India. From Saudi Arabia, Israel and Taiwan to South Korea, Japan, Australia and India, everyone would have noted that when it comes to the crunch, the US has no staying power. As Swaminathan Aiyar noted in his column last month, the US is an undependable ally, and countries must look within themselves to protect their core interests.
It is clear that the US will not help Taiwan much beyond making a few noises if the Chinese try to take over the island nation by force; it may equally be clear to the Saudis that the US military may dump it just as easily as it dumped the Shah of Iran when confronted with its own Islamist enemies led by Ayatollah Khomeini. It is worth recalling that Osama bin Laden’s primary objective in launching his jihad against America was to get it out of protecting the Saudi royal family and its government. Bin Laden wanted America out of the 'holy land'.
For India, it is rejig time. We need to take a wholesale relook at our foreign policies, given that we now have not one, not two, but three immediate threats to worry about. Apart from China and Pakistan, there is the likelihood of the Taliban supporting Islamist militants in India. Even if they do nothing, with the Taliban consolidating power inside Afghanistan, other forces supporting it, from Islamic State Khorasan, to Pakistan-based terror organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed will now be free to focus on India. Efforts to radicalise Indian Muslims by positing the 'Hindu nationalist' government of Narendra Modi as enemy will intensify.
While the neighbourhood and internal threats were well-known even before the Americans ran out of Afghanistan, the three questions that must guide our policies are the following.
One, how do we take the relationship with America forward now? Two, what do we do with the Taliban? And, three, who are likely to be most interested in helping us if we are under attack by two of the three forces ranged against us?
As a huge country with nearly 1.4 billion people, India will obviously not be seeking actual military involvement on Indian soil, but naval, logistical, equipment and material support will probably be on offer from many quarters, including Israel, France, Australia, the US itself, Russia, and Japan.
The key takeout as far as our US policy is concerned is this: we need to make our relationship transactional and driven by mutual interests, and not some nonsense about democracy. American and Indian interests are not tied together by a common belief in democracy, but by the common threat from China.
When we say transactional, it means we will buy American equipment or do trade deals with them with no other strings attached. The US may well want to lecture us on democracy and inclusivity, but that is water off a duck’s back. They can lecture, we don’t have to listen or react. Most important, we cannot allow them to determine who else we can ally with based on our own understanding of where our interests lie.
In the short run, this means we should have a stronger defence relationship with Russia and closer engagements with Iran, since both of them have some common interests in containing the Taliban, and shed the latter’s overdependence on Pakistan and China. In the long term, unbridled Islamist is a threat to everyone, including China, but for now they are happy to let the lapdogs of terrorism focus their attentions on India.
One thing we should try hard to ensure is a rapprochement between the US and Russia, though it may not entirely be in our power to do so. Just as Pakistan played a key middleman role between China and the US, in the new geopolitical situation in Asia and Africa, a truce between the US and Russia is vital. Right now, there is overwhelming Chinese dominance of Asia.
When it comes to the Taliban itself, we need to think differently. Most media commentary has revolved around whether the Taliban 2.0 are kinder and gentler than Taliban 1.0. But as far as India is concerned, it should not matter. We are not obliged to build an inclusive Afghanistan any more than the US was. But we must engage with them to see how far they can prevent terrorism from spilling beyond their borders.
One has to assume that even though the Taliban are beholden to the Pakistanis and the Chinese, they may not necessarily want to become their vassals. They may, after the initial enthusiasm about spreading Islamism wears off, want to govern the country they won through war, and this requires them to balance Chinese and Pakistani interests with Russian and Indian ones. No country likes to be 'owned' by another.
The third prong of India’s foreign diplomacy must focus on two things: trade and defence. In both areas, we need greater atmanirbharta and greater openness. This means more and more of our defence needs must be manufactured and supplied out of India even as we remain open to buying military equipment in the short to medium term from the most dependable vendor. The US can be a source as long as it does not impose conditions for the equipment it supplies.
In trade, if we want to get out of Chinese import dependence, we have to do more than just offering foreign companies production-linked incentives. We should gradually open up trade with the European Union and America where services are also in play. Free trade agreements (FTAs) cannot just be about free trade in merchandise, but must also be in services. If we cannot be part of the China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, we should be part of the Western trade alliance as long as it is rules-based.
We have lost two years in fighting Covid, and if we want to become a $10 trillion economy by 2030-32, we need to rethink our diplomacy and trade focus. China is the problem. Till it is tamed, hopefully by the exit of Xi Jinping sometime during this decade, the world will remain a dangerous place for India. And everyone else.
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