The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan brings longer term security concerns. Western countries are focused on the slow-moving human catastrophe engulfing Afghanistan following the American withdrawal, and collapse of the Afghan government. But many western leaders also consider Afghanistan too remote to threaten their security. India cannot afford that luxury.
The last time the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, India bore the brunt of Afghan territory being used as a safe haven by regional and global terror groups. India witnessed a series of terror attacks both inside Kashmir and across the country culminating in the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight IC 814.
The flight that took off from Kathmandu, Nepal was supposed to land in Delhi, instead it was taken — ultimately — to Kandahar. In return for the release of all passengers, India was forced to release three jihadis from its prisons, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Masood Azhar.
All three jihadis returned to terror activity soon after their release. Notably, Omar Sheikh was involved in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, and Azhar founded the terror group Jaish e Muhammad that conducted terror attacks inside India.
That the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day, may not carry symbolism for Americans, but it has tremendous significance for India.
If the Americans have spent blood and treasure in Afghanistan, India has spent over $3 billion in developmental assistance, to rebuild and support a country with whom it has centuries old ties.
India accomplished this without land access to Afghanistan and in opposition to the policies followed for decades by Pakistan, a major non-NATO U.S. ally and recipient of American largesse.
Western outlets and newspapers have noted rejoicing among Pakistani elite at the American withdrawal and ‘defeat.’ But they ignored Pakistan’s triumphalism in describing the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy against Indian-backed secular Afghan democrats.
India has long been Pakistan’s bogeyman in Afghanistan, dating back to Pakistan’s creation in 1947. Pakistan’s security establishment has invoked fear of ‘strategic encirclement’ by India and Afghanistan, the two countries out of whose historic territory Pakistan was carved out. Some Pakistanis also claim that India and secular Afghans have not accepted partition and seek to undo Pakistan by supporting irredentist demands or separatist movements within Pakistan. This has persisted despite both neighbors recognizing Pakistan and trying to be friends with it for decades.
Pakistan’s support for Afghan Islamist groups began in the 1970s. It supported the anti-Soviet mujaheddin during the 1980s with U.S. help, and then the Taliban from the 1990s onwards. The goal was to subsume Afghan nationalism under Islamism. No wonder the Taliban have banned the Afghan national flag and national anthem.
Pakistan’s former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf acknowledged in 2015 that Pakistan supported the Taliban because it saw close India-Afghanistan ties as a sign of Afghanistan helping “India stab Pakistan in the back.”
But India did not have a military presence in Afghanistan, part of a strategy agreed to by India and the U.S. to avoid provoking India. India limited its Afghan aid and assistance to three key areas: infrastructure, healthcare, and education. After 2011, India trained Afghan military and security officers and provided helicopters to the Afghan Air Force.
Pakistan’s paranoia notwithstanding, India’s influence in Afghanistan has always come from its soft power: Indian engineers have built highways, roads, and government buildings; Indian doctors and nurses ran clinics across the country; and India provided scholarships for Afghan students to study in India’s schools.
Even today, with the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan, New Delhi’s first response was not to put ‘boots on ground’ but to offer free visas to all Afghans who need to leave the country.
But India’s non-military approach has not diminished Pakistan’s belligerence. American unwillingness to go beyond occasional harsh words to Pakistan’s military leaders often disturbs Indians, who find Washington tone deaf to their concerns about Pakistan.
Moreover, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of U.S. plans to focus on the Indo Pacific, and not on terrorism. India is supposedly a critical element in the new U.S. strategy — but if America cannot agree with India on Pakistan, why does it expect India to accept America’s views of China?
For decades America dismissed Pakistan’s support of proxies in Afghanistan. Americans feigned understanding of, without agreeing with, Pakistan’s paranoia about India’s relations with Afghanistan. The recent debacle will not assuage Indian concerns about America’s myopia in relation to Pakistan and could hurt the U.S. goal of enrolling India as a strategic partner against China.
Aparna Pande is fellow and director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. She is the author of "Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India" (2011), "From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy" (2017), "Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Pakistan" (2017), and "Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power" (2020).