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India looks to an uneasy future relationship with Afghanistan

The Taliban’s swift return to power after two decades has left Afghanistan’s regional neighbors such as India scrambling to figure out how to adjust to shifting geopolitical challenges. Although wary of the new regime, Delhi is keen to protect its considerable investments built up over the years, a safeguard against an ever-present China and Pakistan.

With India evacuating its entire embassy staff comprising over 190 personnel from Kabul, it is preparing itself for the reality of dealing with a Taliban-governed Afghanistan again.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security in which India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Rudrendra Tandon, among those evacuated from Kabul Tuesday, was also present.

“This is going to be a testing period for us given our past relations with the Taliban and border disputes with Pakistan and China. But we will also assess how inclusive they (Taliban) will be in accommodating the gains of the last 20 years,” a senior government official told RFI.

Longstanding relationship

Afghanistan is vital to India’s strategic interests in the region and is also perhaps the only south Asian nation whose people have much affection for India in a relationship that dates back many decades.

Analysts believe that the return of the Taliban will affect India’s place within Afghanistan and the influence it has built over the years.

Since 2001, India has built vital roads, dams, electricity transmission lines and substations, schools and hospitals.

The development assistance is now estimated to be worth well over US$3 billion (2.56 billion euros).

“The developmental assistance and pledges of US $3 billion are in serious danger of reversal. The choices and options are stark and the stakes are huge,” Shanthie Mariet D’Souza of the Kautilya School of Public Policy told RFI.

“It (India) can disengage completely or engage the Taliban to ensure the protection of its investments and interests in that country.”

Prevent instability

D’Souza, who has spent more than a decade working in the governmental and non-governmental sector in various provinces of Afghanistan, believes a pragmatic policy would be for India to explore ways of engaging the Taliban to ensure continuation of its present development assistance for the Afghans to prevent a humanitarian crisis while preserving gains.

India is also worried about the political instability in the country, likely refugee inflows and the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a haven again for terrorist activities.

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“India might have to rework its engagement strategy in Afghanistan. The new influencers like China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran will be happy to see that the US influence reduces further. China and Pakistan will also try to minimize Indian engagement,” Gushan Sachdeva, a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University told RFI.

He also headed the Asia Foundation projects at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul from 2006-10.

With the Taliban in power in much of Afghanistan, India is concerned that militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad which have bases and training grounds along the southern provinces on the border with Pakistan, could now have more ungoverned spaces to carry out attacks against India.

New considerations

Unlike in the past when India did not recognize the regime led by Mullah Omar, fresh considerations could be at work now, foreign ministry officials say.

Speaking to reporters after chairing a UN Security Council meeting on peacekeeping in New York, foreign minister S Jaishankar said India’s approach to Afghanistan would be guided by its relationship with the Afghan people.

“For us, it (Indian investment in Afghanistan) is reflected our historical relationship with Afghan people. That relation with Afghan people obviously continues. That will guide our approach to Afghanistan in the coming days,” Jaishankar said.

“At the moment, we, like everybody else, are very carefully following developments in Afghanistan. Our focus is on ensuring security in Afghanistan and the safe return of Indian nationals,” Jaishankar went on.

When the Taliban seized Kabul, in 1996, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE recognized their regime.

“It remains to be seen how the world will accept this new reality,” said a security official.

In the coming months, India will carefully assess its security needs especially the threat of growing radicalization and space for pan-Islamic terror groups in its neighborhood.

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