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EMERGING GEO – POLITICAL TRENDS IN AFGHANISTAN: IMPACT ON INDO – AFGHAN RELATIONS, A report on the 5th Indo – Afghan Security Dialogue – 02 September 2020

Author: Report prepared by Naireen Khan, Research Assistant, Aastha Gupta, Research Assistant, edited by Dr Roshan Khanijo, ADR, USI of India and Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), head CS3, USI of India.

The evolving global and regional geo-political scenarios point towards a host of critical uncertainties, that could derail the Intra-Afghan peace process. The major cause of concern remains

  • its economic fragility,
  • external interference, and, most importantly,
  • the effectiveness and sustainability of the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) with reduced US and NATO footprint, to provide peace and stability to Afghanistan, in the light of Taliban intransigence and growing footprints of Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

Within such a dynamic milieu there is a need to have an appraisal of the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership.

To discuss the strategy that India and Afghanistan need to adopt in order to secure mutual interests, a joint seminar between USI and Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS)the 5th Indo-Afghan Security Dialogue 2020, on the topic ‘Emerging Geo-Political Trends in Afghanistan: Impact on Indo-Afghan Relations’, was conducted on 02 September 2020. The event was Chaired by Maj Gen BK Sharma AVSM, SM & Bar (Retd), Director, USI of India, and Co-Chaired by General Sher Mohammad Karimi, (Retd), former Chief of the General Staff, Afghan National Army and Dr Davood Moradian, General Director, AISS. The Moderator was Lt. Gen GS Katoch PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd), HET, USI of India. The themes and the panellists were,

  1. The US Taliban Peace Deal: Opportunities and Obstacles.
    • USI Speaker – Mr Shakti Sinha Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research & International Studies, MS University, Vadodara
    • AISS Speaker – Ms Naheed Farid (Member of Afghan Parliament)
  2. Afghanistan National Security and Defence Forces: Effectiveness and Sustainability.
    • USI Speaker – Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), Head CS3, USI of India
    • AISS Speaker – Dr Arian Sharifi, Former Director, National Threat Assessment, Office of National Security Council
  3. Impact of Geopolitical Development on Indo-Afghanistan Relations: Challenges and Opportunities.
    • USI Speaker – Amb Gautam Mukhopadhya, IFS, (Retd), Former Ambassador to Afghanistan
    • AISS Speaker – Mr. Nazir Kbiri, Executive Director, Burini Institute

The key highlights of the discussion were as follows:

The US Taliban Peace Deal: Opportunities and Obstacles          

The U.S-Taliban Peace Deal, contrary to the title, was not a peace deal but rather an agreement to start the peace process. This is not just semantics, as the agreement is not contingent on a ceasefire on both sides. Doha was not a part of this deal. Unfortunately, for the Taliban and the other armed insurgents, the violence is the only bargaining chip that each has to achieve peace at the end. This agreement is sui generis, and it potentially creates a framework for future negotiations to deal with violence. It is a very creative way to address the legitimacy (or a lack thereof) of the Taliban. That Taliban is a non-state actor and did not come in the way of a sovereign power, U.S entering a negotiation, had cast sovereign obligations on both parties.

  • Salient features of the Agreement:
    • Taliban agrees that it will not provide visas to enter Afghanistan for those who pose a threat to the security of the US and its allies. Granting visas is a purely sovereign function; Taliban committing to such a role is both an opportunity and an obstacle.
    • The US has committed to withdraw its troops.
    • The US and its allies will not intervene in Afghanistan’s domestic politics or use force.
  • US-Afghan Future Relation from the US Perspective
    • The US envisages a Taliban led government in Afghanistan. The negotiated deal promises to secure basic US counter terrorism interests and also provides a chance that peace will eventually come to Afghanistan. At its core, the deal is a mechanism allowing Americans and allied troops to cut their losses in a war, that has gone on for too long and offers no prospect of a military victory.
    • US and the future Afghan Government will have a positive relationship, but there is no reference to the legally constituted democratic government of Afghanistan as the Taliban refuses to recognize the democratic government in Kabul.
  • Regional Dynamics
    • Nature of Indo-Afghan ties and its future

India has always avoided a direct involvement in Afghan policies and opening a direct dialogue with the Taliban. India believes in maintaining a self-sustaining relationship with the Afghan government. This relationship is healthy but restricted and needs to expand once the deal becomes operational.

To solidify its relationship and help the Afghan people post the enforcement of the deal, India should expand its support to Afghanistan in areas of

  • construction,
  • women empowerment, and
  • economic growth.

Indians should play a more active role in resolving the Afghan conflict by taking a relook at their foreign policy. India and Afghanistan both should hold joint global forums against terrorism and against the agents sponsoring terrorism. It is essential that through this relationship, India strives to establish stability in Afghanistan and help in the development process, rather than Afghanistan reverting back to the 90s, when it was a breeding ground for training and recruiting Jihadis.

  • Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan

While Russia and Iran are happy to see the US move out of Afghanistan and are providing tactical support to the Taliban, China’s aim is to further Pakistan’s agenda vis-à-vis Afghanistan. However, Pakistan needs to do a precarious balancing act to look after its strategic interests in Afghanistan, as well as maintain its relationship with the US. At the moment, it is failing to do so. Pakistan stands to gain from the instability in Afghanistan and to this end will thus, try to create different scenarios in the country. This, in the short term, peace will remain elusive.

  • Afghanistan National Security & Defence Forces: Effectiveness and Sustainability – Post US withdrawal

The key problem facing Afghanistan is the low number of defence personnel in relation to its geographical size, as also considering the live border Afghanistan has with Pakistan. The number of boots on ground is contingent on funding, which has been hit by the impact of COVID on global economy.  The Taliban considers itself the winner, post the deal with the US and therefore, it seems unlikely that they will relent and concede to long term stability and peace. The current situation in Afghanistan and future of the Intra Afghan dialogue will affect the entire Indo-Pacific continental domain, and ANDSF has a critical role to play in this regard.

    • Challenges to ANDSF Post US Withdrawal
      • Force sustenance
      • Capacity building
      • Lack of resources for offensive operations
      • Ethnic representation of the rank and file of the defence structures is an important aspect to be considered, since the ethnic and tribal loyalties in Afghanistan run deep.
    • Emerging Threats
      • In the near term -Taliban
      • Pakistan-ISIS-ISKP nexus
      • Internal Fissures within Afghanistan
      • Looming Dragon Shadow – the Chinese debt trap. In the long term, Afghanistan needs to guard against China’s assertiveness. There is an emergent threat to Afghanistan’s borders from the Wakhan corridor. China has built a monitoring base for itself and for patrolling the Wakhan corridor at Shaymak. Tajikistan. As of 2010, from the Karakoram highway, the Chinese have built laterals, warehousing, communication, and other infrastructures towards the Wakhan Corridor.
    • How can ANDSF sustain itself after the withdrawal of the US and ISAF?
      • There is an immediate need for continued economic support for the ANDSF.
      • Financial support will also be required for force sustenance (pay and allowances).
      • Training – India is doing its bit as far as training is concerned, however, it needs to do more by way of continued combat support in the Information Warfare and ISR domains. The asymmetric means will help the ANDSF in sustaining its offensive against the Taliban.
      • In the near to middle term, thrust should be given to capability development, with special emphasis on three aspects: border management, internal security, and the law and order situation.
      • Should the intra-Afghan dialogue happen in the near to medium term, the Afghan government needs to consider steps for a DDR (Demobilization, Disarmament and Rehabilitation) of non-state actors, so that they can become responsible members of the society.

With the withdrawal of the US, role of India becomes more important in the region to maintain stability.

  • Understanding the Indo-Afghan ties in relation with ANDSF

The role of India might expand in helping Afghanistan to sustain ANDSF in the future, hence, it is essential to understand the relation between the two countries.

    • Why India should support ANDSF?
      • The current situation suggests that the instability in Afghanistan is rather predictable and this impacts India. The three scenarios that might develop for peace in Afghanistan are as follows:
      • Ideal scenario is where peace is restored. This would imply that peace with Taliban can be achieved within the confines of Republic of Afghanistan, while preserving the democratic values which the republic has always endorsed.
      • In the second scenario even if peace is not achieved, values of the Islamic Republic are restored.
      • In the third scenario neither the peace nor the values are restored.

Achieving peace with Taliban is not the solution, as currently, there are around 20 terrorist groups operational in Afghanistan, ranging from globally, regionally oriented groups to Pakistani groups. The fight against such foreign terrorist groups will continue as the Afghan government will not negotiate with them. Hence, Afghan security will remain in question for an unforeseeable time. The reasons for the same can be:

    • Many of the Taliban fighters might join other groups (for reasons not limited to ideology, maintaining weapons and personal gains etc) threatening the security.
    • The ideology of ‘Daesh’ differs from that of the Taliban. It is more Islamic in nature and rejects all other identities. There is a growing support for this ideology.
    • Strategic landscape in the region is changing. The major component of the war is the proxy element. The states supporting terrorism in the region for strategic reasons will not back out as a result of the deal. They will seek other outlets such as Daesh.
    • The ISKP is emerging as a new threat, as the group has been able to withstand crackdowns and elimination of key leaders in the recent past.

Hence, the war in Afghanistan will not come to an end, resulting in an increased threat for India. Therefore, there is a need for India to intervene and support ANDSF.

    •  How India can support ANDSF?

The first and foremost way is to change the mindset of India and other strategic partners of Afghanistan. The aid to Afghanistan should not be seen as a charity, but rather as a contribution to fighting a common threat to the region that Afghanistan happens to be fighting at the forefront.

Secondly, it should be understood that Afghanistan does have the courage and the determination to fight the war on terror. It is the logistical area that requires more support. Improvement in areas such as funds, weaponry and equipment, air support that will enable to fight the war. Most of the weaponry used by the terror groups are more advanced than the security forces. Hence, there is a need for technological upgradation as well. Training can be another area that can be improved.

Strategic partners like India need to provide support to ANDSF even in the case of total withdrawal. This helps in the following ways:

    • India taking a bigger role, being a regional player, would encourage NATO and the US to provide a continued support to the forces for total elimination of terrorism.
    • A continued support enables India to have a direct say in Afghan politics.
  • Recommendations
    • A continental quad including India, Russia, US, and Japan along with likeminded countries in the European Union should be constituted. This quad should jointly finance the ANDSF and provide the support for its modernization in the asymmetric domain.
    • In the medium to long term, India, Russia, and Japan should take control and look after the Chabahar Port. This is important to maintain balance, aid infrastructure development and build linkages to the Central Asian states.
    • The nature of industries that can be developed within Afghanistan should be considered in a holistic manner for its economic revival.

Impact of Geopolitical Developments on Indo-Afghanistan Relations: Challenges and Opportunities

To consider the post withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan, it is important to keep in mind that the recent deal is an agreement between the US and a non-state actor (Taliban), and not the Afghan government with whom the US has had a bilateral security agreement in the past. This is symptomatic of the fact that the US has reconciled to the fact that peace talks within Afghanistan’s elites and the post withdrawal government, will be Taliban dominated, if not Taliban owned. The democratic government in Kabul will not be as strong and hence, external support for the ANDSF will be essential. Moreover, political divisions between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah camps need to be ironed out, so as to deny Taliban political legitimacy in the country.

  • Impact on India-Afghan Relations
    • The future of India-Afghanistan relations will be contingent upon the manner of integration of the democratic factions in the new Afghan government.
    • India will be prepared to deal with the Taliban but will not jettison its ally, the democratic government in Kabul.
    • China is trying to pull Afghanistan into its strategic orbit. Therefore, India must extend financial, training, and infrastructural support to the ANDSF.
    • In a scenario of peace in the future, the role India will play in the redevelopment of Afghanistan has more questions than answers. The capacity in which India will help restore Afghanistan cannot be predicted as India’s involvement in Afghanistan up until now, has been limited.
    • In a failed peace scenario, it would be interesting to see steps India takes to maintain stability in Afghanistan. Currently, around 70% of Afghanistan’s public expenditure, including both military and civilian, is met by international grants. In a situation of failed peace, post withdrawal, what role India plays, is an important aspect that needs to be looked upon. There is a hope that India will provide more financial support to Afghanistan as the revenue for the states go down.
  • Geopolitical Implications of Expanding Role of China in the Region
    • In the absence of a political consensus in the region for cooperation, the investment gap in the South Asian countries is filled by China. This can be seen in the cases of Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. These have implications for the future decisions of Afghanistan, where there is a growing sentiment of the idea that India might have failed as a country to influence the region. It is, hence, essential that in the future policies of India, this doubt is addressed, if India aims to retain itself as an important strategic partner of Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan’s Vision of Connecting Central Asia to South Asia and India’s Opportunity
    • Afghanistan is geographically a bridge between the Central Asia and South Asia. It has been an endeavour of Afghanistan to increase its importance and act as a link between the two. With increasing rivalry in the region owing to the Indo-Pak political history, the connection between Afghanistan and South Asia becomes difficult to achieve. Also, due to COVID-19, the inward nationalist policies will see a surge. In such a case, it will become difficult for Afghanistan to rely on South Asia for support. In such a situation, India, utilizing its good relations in the region, can emerge as an agent of cooperation in the region and expand its influence.


Report prepared by Naireen Khan, Research Assistant, Aastha Gupta, Research Assistant, edited by Dr Roshan Khanijo, ADR, USI of India and Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), head CS3, USI of India.

Report Uploaded on 20 – 09-2020

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