Is India prepared for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?


With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan round the corner, there are a number of anticipations about Afghanistan’s security and stability in the future. The rapid rise of Taliban and their advances in gaining new territories is raising question marks over the stability of not just Afghanistan but also the neighbouring countries. 

The Taliban have been a part of the Afghan peace process. By accommodating the Taliban, the powers involved in the peace process such as the US, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China have acknowledged the fact that the Taliban is a stakeholder in Afghanistan along with the Afghan government. 

The US withdrawal could possibly throw up two scenarios which India would face in Afghanistan. First is the Taliban taking over Afghanistan and the second is China’s growing influence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban Factor

India had long maintained that the peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. However, there are reports about India too engaging in talks with the Taliban. According to Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, the Special Envoy of Qatar’s foreign minister for counter-terrorism and conflict resolution, Indian officials engaged with the Taliban since India believes that the Taliban would be a key component in Afghanistan in future. This is a significant shift by India in its stance. 

India reaching out the Taliban is out of two main concerns. One is whether negotiations with the Taliban would protect India’s interests in Afghanistan. Taliban taking over Afghanistan or establishing its dominance in any manner would have security concerns for India. Apart from the diplomatic presence, India is involved in a number of infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Increasing violence would not only disrupt the progress of these projects, it would also put the life of the Indians working there at risk. India has made investments of more than $3 billion in Afghanistan in various infrastructure projects. In November 2020, India announced 100 projects worth $80 million. These include construction of Shahtoot Dam that will provide safe drinking water to the people of Kabul. In the past two decades, India has contributed a lot to the development of Afghanistan. Also India considers Afghanistan as a gateway to Central Asia by building connectivity through Iran’s Chabahar Port. But the status of India’s stakes in Afghanistan post-US withdrawal remains to be seen.

Two, India is rightfully concerned about the spillover of the Taliban takeover in Jammu and Kashmir. With Indian forces combating terrorism and radicalization in Jammu and Kashmir, the rise of the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, could spell further challenges to India’s national security. It is imperative for India that the talks should result in preventing the Taliban from supporting and promoting terrorism in India.  

The China factor

At present most of the strategic thinking is devoted towards the possible takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. However, an alternate scenario in which China gains ground must not be overlooked. The US withdrawal is likely to pave way for China to occupy the vacant strategic space in Afghanistan. 

While not totally uninterested in Afghanistan’s affairs, China had a very limited strategic interaction with Afghanistan for a long time. China’s principal interests in Afghanistan have been economic. Only since 2014 did China begin to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan. In 2016, Afghanistan received military aid from China for the first time which was a part of China’s commitment to provide millions of dollars of assistance to Afghanistan in order to fight terrorism. After biding its time while the US was in Afghanistan, China is now finally ready to make its moves. 

Afghanistan is important for China for three reasons. 

First, Afghanistan is a resource rich country having deposits of copper, gold, iron ore and lithium. Also the geographical location of Afghanistan gives China an opening in South Asia and West Asia. China has proposed extension of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project to Afghanistan. Afghanistan would give China a major strategic continental base in Asia. A number of China’s projects across the world are maritime in nature, which are focused on connectivity through sea-ports. A continental Afghanistan would be an important addition to China’s BRI. 

Second, over the past few years, China has carefully marked up its presence in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood. China has been Pakistan’s all-weather ally and Pakistan is a part of China’s BRI. Pakistan is home to the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC), an ambitious and important part of the BRI connecting China’s Xinjiang province with Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in Balochistan. China has invested over $60 billion in the CPEC. Similarly in 2020, China signed Strategic Cooperation Agreement with Iran under which China would invest $400 billion in Iran over a period of 25 years. The US withdrawal is an opportune moment for China to strengthen its foothold in Afghanistan. China’s clout in the region would increase considerably by establishing itself as a dominant power in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. 

Third, Afghanistan would prove to be an important milestone for China in its efforts to increase its influence at global level. Also China would showcase Afghanistan as a template where China replaces the US as a super power. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan would push China towards this ambition. 

The security and stability of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries would depend on how stable Afghanistan remains after the US withdrawal. The stakes for China are high due to its investments Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries. This indicates China assuming a major role in the region post-US withdrawal. China would also go at length to accommodate the Taliban not only to be able to do business smoothly in Afghanistan but also to ensure that the Taliban does not create a stir in China’s Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang.  

India’s role in Afghanistan has always been limited to rebuilding of infrastructure and developmental projects. Also India has always worked under the US’ umbrella. So for India, either of the two scenarios would be challenging. A Taliban takeover would raise security concerns while increasing Chinese influence, along with Pakistan would further create a strategic and economic competition for India in Afghanistan. 



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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