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India Poised to Lose Influence in Afghanistan

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India Poised to Lose Influence in Afghanistan

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, much of the fruits of New Delhi’s two-decades of aid will be beyond its influence. 

India Poised to Lose Influence in Afghanistan
Credit: Depositphotos

Let me be straightforward about it: With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Pakistan, which supports the radical Islamic group, is poised to enhance its influence over the state to a large degree, while India, which stood by the U.S.-backed Kabul government, is set to lose most of its influence. 

The news of the last two weeks had already brought us images of Taliban fighters taking over the Salma Dam (which had been reconstructed thanks to India’s assistance) or posing next to a Mi-25 helicopter they captured from the Afghan National Army (and which New Delhi had earlier gifted to Kabul). But this is just the tip of the iceberg. India’s vast assistance to Afghanistan in the 2001-2021 period is a subject I briefly summarized in a previous article for The Diplomat, so I will not repeat all of it here.

The bottom line is this: Most of the influence India built with its aid is likely to vanish, especially assuming that New Delhi is not positioned to keep open deep political relations with Kabul (whether or not India recognizes the new Taliban government, its ties — whatever they become — are unlikely to be as deep). At the same time, however, Indian aid will likely remain a fond memory in many Afghan hearts. 

Three Types of Indian Aid to Afghanistan

For this issue to be considered further, I should divide India’s aid into three categories. The first group of projects relates to India’s assistance in constructing, upgrading, rebuilding or restoring buildings and various types of infrastructure. This also includes a multitude of smaller projects, such as establishing schools and basic health clinics or digging wells. Much of this work had been completed before the coming of the Taliban to Kabul, although a part has not. The Salma Dam was reconstructed, for instance, while work on the Shahtoot Dam, also to be supported by India, has not even started. By now, most of what was constructed in Afghanistan with India’s help is under the control of the Taliban.

But does this mean that India’s influence has vanished from Afghanistan’s political landscape? Mostly yes, but perhaps not completely. 

Various forms of Indian assistance were not only humanitarian in nature. They also laid the foundations for bonhomie in Kabul-New Delhi relations, and expanded India’s clout among various groups (a process well-described in a book by Indian professor Avinash Paliwal: “My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal”). The Taliban have taken note of this aid and it would probably be hard for them to deny it has brought some good to the people of Afghanistan. Yet, they also noticed it was based on a political selection, being mostly undertaken in cooperation with their rivals.

This, of course, does not mean that the Taliban will destroy all these objects – most of them are likely to be used as they were before. For instance, according to recent reports shared by an Indian journalist, Devirupa Mitra, the Taliban have declared that they will not damage the Salma Dam. Only in some cases, a new “purpose” for the objects may appear, as in the case of the India-funded Kandahar cricket stadium, where the Taliban may return to their notorious history of using sports venues for public executions. 

But buildings have no political views; people do. Thus, while the infrastructure and buildings built or funded by India will in many cases be used by the Taliban, many Afghans are certain to remember that the aid had come from India. This will matter little as long as the Taliban dominate the Kabul government and hold power in most of the territories. But if their rule is overthrown in the future, it appears probable that a constellation of groups that would take over from them would include those with a history of friendly relations with India, and which benefited from New Delhi’s aid. 

The second category of Indian aid relates to people-to-people exchanges in the form of offers for Afghan citizens to gain knowledge and experience from India, including providing Indian technical advisers to Afghan institutions, offering scholarships for Afghan students, organizing training for Afghan soldiers, and others. These exchanges, being based on the bedrock of official ties, are certain to disappear if New Delhi does not recognize the Taliban-dominated government in Kabul – and even if it does, the political climate between the countries will certainly remain cold, leaving very little possibility for such an aid to be continued at scale. 

The Afghans who came for medical treatment to India do not count in the sense that these interactions were commercial, not a form of government aid. It is also unlikely that the people who have been given training or scholarships by New Delhi, even though many are certainly expected to keep warm feelings for India in their hearts, will form a group large enough to affect the foreign policy course of a militant-dominated government. Any point raised to remind us that the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, received education at an Indian university, may be countered by stressing that the same applies to the Taliban head of the political office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who was once a cadet at an Indian military academy. 

Receiving education in another country, especially when supported by government aid to do so, is typically assumed to generate at least some emotional bond, or fondness for the hosting country. At the very least, it helps the student understand the hosting country better. But this does not guarantee that former students will pursue friendly policies toward that state should they ever reach a position of power. Overall, the course of a country’s foreign policy will still depend on its interests, and these are rarely defined by a single person. Karzai’s pro-Indian stance was as much a result of New Delhi’s friendly attitude toward his administration as his past connections to India. Similarly, Stanikzai’s future stance will be first and foremost based on his group’s general position – and as the Taliban remain backed by the Pakistan, their approach toward India is extremely unlikely to be positive.

The third broad category of aid relates to the transfer of various objects: ambulances, buses, biscuits, medicine, military vehicles and helicopters, and so on. The fate and the political significance of this aid will more or less be same as in the case of the first category. However, military assistance – a form that includes both donating military vehicles and helicopters (in category three) and training soldiers (in category two) – could have been treated as a separate group of interactions, given its political and strategic importance. This is a form of aid which is most certain to disappear now, and a one which will not translate to any further Indian influence, as it was used by the Kabul government against the Taliban, not for the common, neutral good of Afghan people. 

There is one way this particular form of assistance may continue: If New Delhi decides to support – and therefore arm – the resistance against the Taliban (as it did prior to 2001). This, however, would largely depend on two broad conditions. The first is whether India recognizes the new Kabul government; it would be an act of duplicity and extreme political risk to recognize it and also arm the opposition forces. The second is whether there will any meaningful opposition to speak of in the first place. The anti-Taliban front of 1996-2001 had something that the units currently gathered in the Panjshir Valley do not: a land link to Tajikistan, which allowed it to receive foreign assistance and to trade.

But whether such an opposition force survives and regroups against the Taliban does not depend on India at the moment. This has actually been New Delhi’s dilemma with regard to Afghanistan ever since 2001: India could offer aid, but aid needed stability, while stability needed security, and the country’s security was not a realm New Delhi was really capable of influencing.

Is Peaceful Influence Enough?

The case of India’s influence in Afghanistan begs a question: is peaceful influence really influence at all? Offering aid is undoubtedly an ethically sound endeavor, but in terms of realpolitik, does it make sense for a state to offer assistance if the donor has no way to call in military assistance to protect the objects of this aid from being destroyed or falling into the wrong hands? Is political influence created by aid reliable if it cannot be backed by violent means, if necessary?

The answer is yes. First, although the Taliban still emerged victorious, at least as of now, over the past 20 years the lives of many Afghans have been positively affected by aid (not only Indian aid). This is the moral outcome, while the political result is that many of these people are likely to remember this help. 

Second, most states are incapable of militarily securing their aid; the U.S. is an exception here. Most of Afghanistan’s donor countries (not only India) are now in the position of being more-or-less-passive watchers as the results of their assistance are taken over by the Taliban. The only leverage they have is to threaten to freeze future aid, but even if they do not, they have little and less influence over its use. This means that what these donors have now is not political influence, but an assistance tap: They may choose to turn it off, but they will not be able to control the flow of water if they don’t.

Finally, India’s position was particularly difficult, for at least three reasons. First, Afghanistan is land-locked and cut off from the quickest way to the sea by Pakistan. The quickest way to get from India to Afghanistan by air is through territories controlled by China and Pakistan, in both cases New Delhi’s rivals who would see no interest in supporting any Indian military engagement in Afghanistan. Second, the United States was cooperating with Pakistan, a country that wanted to curtail Indian influence in Afghanistan and resisted allowing India to engage militarily on Afghan soil. And finally, at the same time, Islamabad supported the Taliban and other groups. All in all, India’s 2001-2021 aid to Afghanistan was an act of doing as much as New Delhi could do, while not being in position to protect the fruits of its work.