India–Pakistan rivalry heating up over Afghanistan


Author: Kabir Taneja, ORF

After much delay and anticipation, US President Joe Biden recently announced that all American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021 — the 20th anniversary of Washington’s longest-running war. Yet the Taliban may be using the delayed withdrawal to prepare for a more drawn-out and austere ‘spring offensive’ — a seasonal operation that occurs during the Winter thaw around early March.

In anticipation of the US withdrawal, old regional rivalries — such as between India and Pakistan — mean that states are preparing once again to ensure their interests survive a potential civil war. While the Taliban have historically enjoyed Pakistani patronage, India has empowered alternative factions and now lends support to the fledgling Afghan democracy project.

Pakistan, a country at the forefront of mainstreaming the Taliban, continues to hold significant sway over the group and the shuras that dictate its ideology. Pakistan’s civilian government, military and spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, aided the US–Taliban withdrawal agreement hashed out in 2020. New Delhi chose a different route by refusing to (officially) negotiate with the Taliban, putting its weight behind the democratically elected government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The divide over Afghanistan’s future comes down to what type of government one supports — the emirate or the republic. Yet the tussle between New Delhi and Islamabad over influence in Afghanistan also stems from their different regional strategies. Pakistan has gained the upper hand through its foundational ties with the Taliban, while India’s arguably sloppy response to the Afghan crisis, alongside its reluctance to engage with the Taliban during a period of global outreach, has left it on the sidelines.

India’s strategy now resembles its engagement with Afghanistan during the period of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. India — along with other countries like Iran — formerly supported the Northern Alliance, a multi-ethnic coalition then led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik politician and military leader. Indian engagement with former figures from the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban figures is now cropping up again.

Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former Uzbek warlord who lent support to the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan; former Mujahideen Commander General Atta Mohammed Noor; and the Chief of the High Council for Afghan Reconciliation, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, all recently visited New Delhi. These consultations were followed up by Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s trip to Kabul and the more recent meeting between the Afghan ambassador and the Indian army chief in New Delhi.

The space between now and September is precarious for the United States and NATO forces, especially as India, Pakistan and Iran manoeuvre their policies to safeguard their long-term interests. While India and Pakistan have so far been able to secure their individual interests under the umbrella of US and NATO military operations, a more tactically aggressive approach will be demanded from New Delhi if it intends to preserve its place in Afghanistan’s future come September.

Yet the running theory that a full US withdrawal is a default victory for Pakistan is also misleading. This hypothesis assumes that Pakistan will have full control over the Taliban and how they operate in a post-US Afghanistan. Local ethnic warlords who oppose the Taliban have already started to prepare for a civil war similar to that faced by the country after the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the beginning of Taliban rule in 1996.

With the Taliban’s intention to establish fundamentalist Islamic rule combined with strong global outreach to sell a palatable ‘peace’ to the West, it is unlikely to become a satellite state of the Pakistani establishment. The Taliban may find that one of the key takeaways of the 2001 invasion is to avoid putting all of its eggs in Pakistan’s basket.

The Taliban’s diplomatic outreach reflects the increased role of other powers such as China and Russia as the United States withdraws. This comes at a time when New Delhi, pushed by Chinese aggression along its Himalayan borders, is moving closer to Washington. While this geopolitical shift benefits New Delhi elsewhere, India may find itself relatively alone in defending its Afghan interests.

While Moscow and New Delhi have discussed Afghanistan, the increased depth of Pakistan–China cooperation could become the premier challenge for New Delhi as Islamabad’s Afghan interests are supported by Beijing’s financial prowess. As Pakistan looks likely to continue to seek ‘strategic depth’ in its Afghanistan policy, India will have to adopt an innovative approach in the coming months if it is to protect its interests and cushion the democratic process in Kabul.

As international diplomatic efforts fragment between Doha, Istanbul and Moscow, both India and Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan is likely to become more assertive and results-oriented as many in the country prepare for another civil war.

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme and Head of the West Asia Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation.

The article was originally published at East Asia Forum