A Disaster Foretold

How India lost the plot in Afghanistan

28 September 2021
A street vendor sells Taliban flags in Kabul. The Modi government was aware for five years that the United States was going to withdraw from Afghanistan but did not prepare for a scenario where the Taliban would be in power.
MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES / GETTY IMAGES
A street vendor sells Taliban flags in Kabul. The Modi government was aware for five years that the United States was going to withdraw from Afghanistan but did not prepare for a scenario where the Taliban would be in power.
MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES / GETTY IMAGES

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a virtual summit of the BRICS grouping on 9 September, with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in attendance. India, like much of the world, was still reeling from the Taliban’s meteoric takeover of Afghanistan, and the question of the country’s future was dominant on the global diplomatic agenda. Yet the summit’s outcome, the Delhi Declaration, dealt with Afghanistan in only one of its 74 paragraphs, and even that did not mention the Taliban—a tacit let-off for the group amid loud concerns in other quarters over its intentions and beliefs.

There was no surprise in this. Outside of Pakistan and Qatar, China and Russia are now the most powerful foreign actors in Afghanistan, among a handful of countries with diplomatic ties to the Taliban and full-fledged embassies still operational in Kabul. Xi and Putin had no intention of risking this position by putting Afghanistan’s new rulers on the spot. For India, however, this was a kind of capitulation, and it captured the country’s Afghanistan predicament.

Broadly speaking, India’s interests in Afghanistan overlap those of China and Russia. All three are nervous that terrorist groups could find safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and about regional instability flowing out of an Afghanistan in crisis. But unlike New Delhi, Moscow and Beijing have found ways to engage deeply with the Taliban. India, perennially uncomfortable with the Taliban, is now both completely cut out of Afghanistan and at odds with other governments that hold influence over the country. For now, it can only watch events unfold from a diplomatic cul-de-sac.

Sushant Singh is the Henry Hart Rice Lecturer at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

Keywords: Afghanistan Taliban Ajit Doval S Jaishankar foreign policy
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