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Published on: Aug. 9, 2021, 12:17 p.m.
Afghan conundrum
  • As the fight between Afghan forces and the Taliban intensifies, the country is once again at the flashpoint

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Apart from the diplomatic and geo-strategic fallout of the Taliban’s military rampage across Afghanistan, what should worry the Modi government is the future of India’s economic stakes in the war-locked nation. Apart from India’s development assistance, which is now estimated to be worth well over $3 billion by way of roads, dams, electricity transmission lines and substations, schools, hospitals and important buildings, there was the prospect of a huge business opportunity of exploiting the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. 

India was at one stage eyeing the Hajigak iron ore mines in Bamiyan province in what was touted as potentially the single biggest foreign investment project in war-ravaged country. A consortium led by state-run Steel Authority of India (SAIL) had planned to invest up to $10 billion in the mines project, railroads and a steel plant. 

In 2011, the Hamid Karzai-led government had received bids to mine four blocks of an estimated reserve of 2 billion tonnes from the consortium led by SAIL, the US-based ACATCO LLC, Iran’s Behin-Sanate Diba and Gol-e-Gohar Iron Ore, Canada’s Kilo Goldmines and Ispat Alloys, another Indian firm. India was a strong contender. The Indian consortium won the bid for three blocks. However, in view of the security risks in the wake of the withdrawal of US-led security forces, there was a go-slow on the project from all sides. 

The Afghans have since blown hot and cold. On the one hand, they have cited a host of issues like evacuation of locals, need for rail links, logistics and other technical matters to be resolved. On the other, they have held out the threat of cancelling the tender, if India did not show progress on the project. The Modi government, however, chose to drag its feet. But the deal was never declared dead.

However, there is no denying that, unlike in other countries, where India’s infrastructure projects have barely got off the ground or are mired in the host nation’s politics, it has delivered in Afghanistan. If any country could have made a success of exploiting the Hajigak mines, it was India, given the goodwill it has amongst the people of Afghanistan.

Trade is growing

Despite the roadblocks to an overland route by Pakistan, India-Afghanistan trade has grown with the establishment in 2017 of air freight corridors. Two air corridors – Kabul-Delhi and Herat-Delhi – are in operation now. In 2019-20, bilateral trade has touched $1.4 billion – exports from India are worth about $900 million, while Afghanistan’s exports to India are about $500 million. Indian exports include pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, computers and related materials, cement, and sugar. Afghan exports are mainly fresh and dried fruit.

Trade through Chabahar started in 2017 but is restricted by the absence of connectivity from the port to the Afghan border. If India had built the vital link to Chabahar (rail or road) as part of the Hajigak project, it would have helped boost exports. But all this didn’t fit into India’s scheme of things in view of its complex ties with Iran.

India has traditionally been reluctant to openly communicate or deal with the Taliban, though the former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh was forced to deal with the Taliban after Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorists hijacked an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar. The Indian foreign policy establishment also fears that open collaboration could damage its relations with the Afghan government and its regional and global backers.

While Indian intelligence officials have occasionally connected with Taliban fighters to protect India’s interests over the years, most notably in 2011 to secure the release of kidnapped Indian engineers and personnel working in Afghanistan, New Delhi has always refrained from establishing a permanent communication channel with the group. It has projected the Taliban as a proxy for Pakistan. 

Moreover, New Delhi did not want to compromise its official policy of not talking to any ‘militant groups’ by entering into a dialogue with the Taliban, as it believed that doing so would put it under increased pressure to start talking to Kashmiri militant groups as well.

New elephant in the room

The government’s anti-Taliban posturing has been strengthened by the fear in New Delhi is that, if the Taliban do topple the government (in Kabul), China could gain a strategic corridor, allowing it and Pakistan to bring further pressure against India. Indeed, China is now the new elephant in the room. Its motivations in engaging with the Taliban are many. 

Quite apart from the economic interests that make Afghanistan and its rich mineral deposits an invaluable link in the Belt and Road initiative, Beijing's security interests in keeping Taliban influence away from its indigenous Uighur Muslims are a key priority. In Dushanbe recently, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization Foreign Ministers' meeting, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi asked the Taliban to make a 'clean break' with the Al Qaeda-backed East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is active along the narrow Wakhan corridor bordering the Xinjiang province. China sees the ETIM as having a hand in driving the Uighur trouble in Xinjiang province. China also wants the Taliban to ensure that Chinese business interests and workers in Pakistan are not targeted.

China’s wooing of the Taliban is said to be yielding dividends. A Taliban delegation that visited Tianjin assured China that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China. The irony of the situation is that, while China has faced flak for its treatment of its ethnic Uighur Muslims, the Taliban appears unwilling to settle for anything less than a return to a strict Islamist regime in Afghanistan.

If China and the Taliban cosy up to each other, it would be New Delhi’s own fault. Early this year, there was talk of India entering into back-channel communications with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In early June, sections of the media reported that New Delhi has started talking to certain factions and leaders of the armed group, against the backdrop of the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. 

A few days later, the Ministry of External Affairs all but confirmed these reports, stating that “we are in touch with various stakeholders… in pursuance of our long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction of Afghanistan”. The Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership and Qatari officials also confirmed these back-channel meetings.

After this publicised interaction, there haven’t been any reports of any engagement. True, the Taliban's track record is hardly inspiring for it to be encouraged as a collaborator in any geo-political venture. Memories of atrocities inflicted by it against women and minorities when it was last in power and its close equations with Pakistan make India fundamentally suspicious of the group. 

However, with the beleaguered President Ashraf Ghani getting increasingly isolated in the face of waning global support and worsening political factionalism at home, those watching the developments believe there is little time left to ensure that an interim administration takes over, or provincial warlords will resume fighting each other, and Taliban commanders on the ground could distance themselves from their leadership. In the interest of stability, therefore, China could be key. 

Talking to the Talibans

New Delhi thus needs to assert itself, even if it means engaging with the Taliban openly, be a prominent player at the negotiating table for a last-minute peace deal, if it wants to ensure both a check on Pakistan's influence on the Taliban as well as a regime in Kabul it can rely on and ensure that its economic interests are protected. There is a view that India should tactically engage with the Taliban to cater for its change of heart to form a national government or a quick victory. Strategically, we should continue with the existing policy, highlighting the need for reconciliation and a national government. Keeping all its eggs in America’s basket, hoping it will be able to exert what little influence in the region should not be the basis of India's Afghanistan policy.

Indian military experts like Lt Gen H.S. Panag (retd) feel that the future of Afghanistan hinges on the duration and outcome of the civil war and the avatar in which the Taliban manifests itself. There is no certainty that the Taliban will emerge as an outright winner. Even if it manages to topple the current government, a new internecine tribal civil war may commence. “The probability of the radical Taliban reforming itself is very low. India will have to take into account these factors to decide its tactical and strategic foreign policy,” he notes. In short, it may have to prepare for the worst: supping with the devil. 

So far, the Taliban has said that the economic interests of foreign powers operating in Afghanistan will be protected, provided they stopped giving firepower support to the Ashraf Ghani-led government. The Taliban have reportedly given assurances to Iran, Russia and China in this regard, when its official delegation visited these countries. Any formal assurance to India is yet to come.

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