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In Afghanistan, the Indian influence will not fade: Four reasons why

  Bhuvan Ningania

Taliban’s quest for legitimacy, presence of Karzai and Abdullah, need for development aid and a unique socio-economic role would ensure India’s continued influence in the new Afghanistan.

With the return of the Taliban, will India lose its influence in Afghanistan? A clue to the answer and a part of the answer itself is the Taliban’s quest for internal and external legitimacy with international recognition as a prize that it seems to be eyeing. The general amnesty announcement, tall promises of not supporting the opium economy and not allowing the Afghan soil to be used against other countries, along with a widespread portrayal of Taliban 2.0, are indicators that point to the Taliban’s new desire. Will it extend to the Indian presence as well in Afghanistan?

1. India can still count on Karzai and Abdullah
India has nurtured a decades-long relationship with both Karzai and Abdullah. Both have a flavour of deep Indian engagement from their stints in government. While the former was educated in Himachal Pradesh University, the latter has decades-old blood and sweat relation with India through India’s support of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. As long as these actors remain relevant, India’s influence to does. 

The Taliban and their backers can be expected to have made a behind the envelope calculation that a non-inclusive government of an almost exclusively Pashtun dominated Taliban over some 60 per cent non-Pashtun Afghans looks like a ready recipe for further chaos in a society that runs on tribal loyalties. 

Enter Karzai and Abdullah, their tall political standing, wide familiarity and acceptability across the Afghan political spectrum remains a stark truth in the chaos ridden day. Both have come to be seen as moderate figures who can navigate the labyrinthine alleys of deep-running ethnic fault lines.

Another great asset is their ability and experience of engaging with a vast diversity of international political actors, in Afghanistan’s immediate and extended neighbourhood or in the West. Hence, they can be plausibly expected to be the new regime’s interface with the diverse actors within and outside Afghanistan in the long run. Their inclusion in the governing 12 member council was evidently a step in this direction. 

2. India’s image as a robust development partner
For the Emirate regime, delivering development is a sine qua non for long term legitimacy and quelling restlessness of various factions post their honeymoon weeks in Kabul.  Here’s a more systemic factor at play that gives India an enduring pillar of influence.

About 22 per cent of the Afghan Gross National Income came from foreign aid, primarily from the western democracy planters and is now likely to severely shrink if not die down altogether. Western aid is bogged with conditionalities of human rights, inclusivity etc. Even this would only come more substantively post the political act of recognition of the regime.

The countries opening their arms wide to the prospective Emirate — Russia, China and Pakistan — too are known to prefer only transactional relationships which would imply money in return for reigning in TTP, ETIM and the Chechen rebels looking to consolidate themselves in Afghanistan.  This is enough of an impetus for the Taliban to diversify their development partners who can deliver something tangible on the ground for the disparate Afghan communities. 

Here India seems more than a match with hundreds of high-impact, high-value and high-visibility projects in Afghanistan already under its belt. As a spin-off, these strategically placed projects in all the 34 provinces have also afforded India a wide presence, grassroots access to cultivate a sizeable section of Afghans within all major ethnic geographies.

During the war on terror years, Indian presence (through these projects) as a means and an indicator of its influence in Afghanistan seemed to hinge on the presence of the security umbrella afforded by the US and NATO. Despite the US withdrawal and the old politico-governance order crumbling down, large sections of Afghans continue to benefit from India’s development footprint. This places India in a sweet spot in the Afghan psyche. It’s no surprise that the Taliban publicly praised India’s constructive efforts in Afghanistan. Taliban needs India, their statements are indicative of as much.
3. India and the capacity building in Afghanistan
The next reason stems from the current chaos that has manifested in Afghanistan losing its most talented, trained and enterprising young human resources: teachers, engineers, doctors, nurses and other professionals who felt threatened and left for safer pastures. They’re needed to run systems, things that bullets cannot. The multilateral capacities are severely constrained. India should be now looking at a possible opportunity and a bridge to pitch in with help in capacity building. 

For years, the crème de la crème of the Afghan society has looked towards India as a destination of choice for education, high-quality cheap healthcare and safe life. This is unlikely to change. The new power elite in the Taliban regime too would be lured by similar considerations. India’s influence is thus, also rooted in its soft competencies that would continue to act as a bridge.

4. The Afghan families in India
While the political decision on recognition can wait the act of immediate contact on the ground cannot. India, while being the host to more than 20,000 Afghan Nationals who are in need of urgent contact with their family back home should establish a representative office in Kabul such initiative doesn’t demand recognition as a pre-requisite.

There can be no better way to sense the Taliban’s needs and intent towards India, convey India’s core interests, keeping an eye on the non-state actors and fulfil our legitimate role in partnering with the Afghan people. Security interests back home in J&K demand the same too. 

About the author
Bhuvan Ningania is a law student at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur and has a Masters in International Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He closely follows the geopolitical developments in South Asia.

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