By Dhananjay Tripathi
15th August 2021 will be remembered as an important date in world history. On this day, the Taliban swiftly entered Kabul after relentlessly fighting for almost 20 years with the most potent military power of the world — the United States of America (USA). The coming back of the Taliban will undoubtedly impact Afghanistan, and it will equally influence politics in South Asia. The most debated issue is how India will respond to the Taliban regime. A few Indian strategic experts and some former diplomats have opined in favour of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban.
The surprise retreat of the US from Afghanistan after having a formal agreement with the Taliban indeed leaves fewer options for the international community. The Taliban is a fait accompli for any country that wishes to engage with Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Taliban is leaving no stone unturned in persuading the world to recognise its rule in Afghanistan. The international community is not keen on rushing to any conclusion and has opted for wait and watch. For South Asian countries, issues are even more intricate because Afghanistan is a neighbouring country. In Afghanistan, adverse political events will have spillover beyond its border, and countries in South and Central Asia will have to face repercussions.
Coming to India, the primary worry of New Delhi is not the Taliban but Pakistan. It is no secret that the Pakistan military extended all possible help to the Taliban in the last 20 years and even before. Thus, it isn’t easy to believe that the Taliban will curtail its ties with Pakistan and work independently. We had noticed how the Chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was present in Kabul before forming of the Taliban’s interim government.
In this interim government, a prominent role was assigned to the Haqqani Network, which is a testimony to Pakistan’s involvement in contemporary Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network is close to ISI and, in 2008, was involved in attacking the Indian embassy in Afghanistan. With the international terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Network now elevated as Afghan minister of interior in the interim government, India’s worries are not ungrounded.
Economic, Strategic Interest
India has an economic and strategic interest in Afghanistan. The geopolitical location of Afghanistan is critical; it connects South Asia to energy-rich Central Asia. In this, India is eager to reach Central Asian Republics. In the past, Pakistan blocked Indian attempts to access Central Asia via Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Notably, despite repeated requests from Afghanistan, Pakistan never relented its stringent position on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA).
According to the APTTA signed in 2010 between the two countries, landlocked Afghanistan can use Pakistan ports to conduct its international trade. Afghan trucks could transport goods up to India using Pakistan’s road till the Wagah border although the import of Indian goods to Afghanistan using Afghan trucks is never allowed. Pakistan keeps raising security concerns due to its long-standing enmity with India. Experts believe that Pakistan’s objection is to deter India’s trade connection with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
It is a fact that the APTTA is beneficial for both Afghan and Pakistan’s economies. As per a report, Afghan goods worth more than $33 billion had passed through Pakistan in the last decade. This figure can go up if Pakistan allows Afghan trucks to load goods from India.
Let us look at some other relevant figures; between 2020 and 2021, the India-Afghan trade reached approximately $1.5 billion. Being aware of the connectivity challenges, India tried to overcome Pakistan’s hurdle by establishing an Air-Freight Corridor in 2017. India’s interest in developing two berths in Chabahar port with an investment of around $500 million mainly intended to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.
For the same purpose, India was constructing the 610-km Chabahar-Zahedan railway line. India is also part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multimodal network involving ship, rail, and road routes. In INSTC, along with India, countries like Iran, Russia and Central Asian Republics are partners. For a growing and ambitious India, a course to connect to the energy-rich Central Asia is critical.
With the change in Afghanistan’s regime, the Indian plan to reach Central Asia and Afghanistan is likely to be jeopardised unless it enters into a diplomatic arrangement with the Taliban. As argued earlier, not the Taliban, but Pakistan’s control adds to India’s worry. Earlier, Pakistan kept blocking Indian connectivity attempts to Afghanistan and beyond. For Pakistan, India’s strong presence in Afghanistan was detrimental to its interest. Pakistan was never comfortable with the previous Afghan governments, but now, it has no reason to complain with the Taliban in power.
Let us remind Pakistan of General Bajwa’s speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue on 18th March 2021. He rightly emphasised geo-economics imperatives for the future prosperity of South Asia. General Bajwa mainly underlined the role of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), on which India has serious objections. Nevertheless, he also attached relevance to connecting the South with Central Asia. General Bajwa also talked about a peaceful resolution of issues with India. Now, if Pakistan is willing to play that significant role, is interested in developing closer economic and political ties with India, this is the time.
On the other hand, if Pakistan uses its influence on the Taliban and its affiliates to create trouble in India, particularly in Kashmir, things may deteriorate. Interestingly, this time the ball is in Pakistan’s court, and South Asia is at a crossroads. A move for peace and prosperity will benefit the entire region, particularly Pakistan, whose economy is in the doldrums. According to the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan’s GDP in 2020 was at -0.5%, and is expected to grow up to 3.9 % in 2021, still well below the South Asian average of about 8.8%.
Moreover, in the last decade, Pakistan’s economy became largely dependent on China. It is likely to reach $280 billion by the end of 2021, but is under heavy debt. Pakistan’s total debt is nearly $90 billion, of which, it owes China around $24 billion. These are not good indicators for a developing country.
Pakistan can play a constructive role in the region that will also help it prosper. Will Pakistan take this route is the question that we can answer only in times to come.