Our region—and the world—are once again at the cusp of a tectonic power shift. As America withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, and ‘other
Our region—and the world—are once again at the cusp of a tectonic power shift. As America withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, and ‘other powers’ rush to fill the vacuum, no one stands to suffer as much as America’s regional strategic partner: India.
By way of background, it must be accepted that, over the past two decades, India has been the greatest beneficiary of America’s ‘longest war’ in Afghanistan. As American forces invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, Pakistan was painted as a terror sponsoring society, which provided safe haven to the ‘enemies of freedom’ (to use President Bush’s words). This narrative provided India with the opportunity to leverage American presence in Afghanistan for waging (proxy) war against Pakistan. Within months of the American invasion of Afghanistan, India started to deepen its roots in Afghanistan, and position itself as the natural ally of the United Against in the region.
This model also served the interests of the United States. Here was a big country (India), which was willing to blow the trumpet of ‘Islamic terrorism’, and provide financial as well as military/intelligence support to the United States against common foes. Sweetening the deal further, India also promised the United States that it will (in the long-run) serve as a counterweight to China in this area, by destabilising and undermining Chinese ambitions in the region( e.g. BRI and CPEC). This promise prompted the United States to recalibrate its Pacific theatre into the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, while also including India in alliances such as the QUAD (i.e. ‘Asian NATO’).
Supported by permissive policies, American corporate empires saw India as a viable place to expand their footprint. This provided a booster-shot to India’s business economy, enriching the State, and deepening soft-ties between India and the West. Also, under the protection of American military support, India expanded its intelligence and military presence in Afghanistan, through the notorious Jalalabad consulate and other similar offices. Not just that, India also made significant investments to make inroads into the American-installed Afghan government and intelligence construct. In fact, for some time, the narrative and activities of Afghanistan’s NDS were merely an extension of the Indian narrative in the region.
At the feet of these gains, under the American umbrella, India launched its most ambitious project in the region: a trade (and military) route to Afghanistan and beyond, through Chabahar in Iran, bypassing Pakistan completely. This trade route not only provided Indian intelligence and business personnel with a pathway to Afghanistan, but also held the promise of undermining CPEC in the process. Under the garb of this project, India started to smuggle the likes of Kulbushan Yadev into Pakistan (through Iran and Afghanistan), while also funding organizations such as BLA and the TTP, to carry out attacks deep inside of Pakistan.
But this seemingly ‘unstoppable’ Indian ambition has come to a crashing halt over the past eighteen months, as the United States entered into final stages of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. India, overnight, has been orphaned in Afghanistan. Without American troops in the region, India’s cross-border terrorism activities in Pakistan were robbed of the necessary protection. And its consulate in Jalalabad, which had been the epicenter of Indian activities against Pakistan, had to be scaled down (and eventually shut).
Making matters worse, India had to face a humiliating capture of its territory, by the Chinese, in Ladakh. And adding insult to injury, China announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation with Iran, prompting Iran to ‘drop’ India from the Chabahar-Zahedan Railway line project, thereby shutting the door on Indian ambitions in Afghanistan and beyond.
In the wake of these developments, let us try and understand what exactly has India lost in Afghanistan and Iran, and how that is likely to shape the dynamics of South Asia in the years to come.
India’s game-plan in Afghanistan and Iran was aimed at achieving five specific objectives: 1) establishing India’s image as a ‘regional power’; 2) bypassing Pakistan, through Chabahar, to access the markets of Central Asia and beyond; 3) entrenching its presence on the Western border of Pakistan, to carry out cross-border terrorism in Pakistan (e.g. Kulboshan Yadav); 4) sabotaging the security of KPK and Balochistan, thereby endangering CPEC and China’s interests in the region; and 5) positioning itself as China’s counterweight, and the harbinger of American influence in the region.
All of these objectives, which seemed so attainable not so long ago, have dissipated into thin air, over the past 18 months.
India’s dream of expanding trade tentacles to Central Asia, with the hope of replacing China has the world’s factory, is now in tatters. Without Chabahar, and the consequent rail route to Afghanistan, India is ‘locked away’ from Central Asia and Europe. Any trade or investment routes with these regions, now have to transit through Pakistan. Alternatively, India will have to use the long-winded international maritime routes, around Africa, to get to Europe. At best, it can hope for a trade route through Africa and the Middle East, which will be exponentially more expensive and cumbersome. Not to mention that any such plan will first have to be conceived anew, then formalised between multiple nations, and planned in a manner that avoids entanglement with China. At the moment, this seems implausible.
India’s dream of isolating Pakistan from the rest of the world also seems dead in the water. Without Chabahar and Afghanistan, India’s geographic access to Central Asia and beyond cannot be realised with an ‘isolated’ Pakistan in the middle. Just as importantly, India’s ousting from Afghanistan (and Iran) will seriously hamper its ability to challenge the CPEC route, and undermine Chinese interests in the region.
Most importantly for Pakistan, as American withdraws from Afghanistan and India loses its influence in the region, it will no longer be able to conveniently intrude into the vast expanse of Balochistan. Most of the BLA fighters, perpetrating terrorism in Pakistan, were funded by India through its operations in Afghanistan and Chabahar. This is not merely a claim; after all, Kulboshan Yadev, the India spy who admitted to carrying out terrorist activities across Balochistan and Karachi, used Chabahar and Afghanistan for his activities. Even Uzair Baloch—when he ran away from the operation in Karachi—was (admittedly) kept by hostile agencies in Chabahar.
Pakistan needs to capitalise on this moment. While fencing its Western borders, Pakistan must not lose sight of the fact that it needs to purposefully cultivate a constituency across the borders (in Afghanistan and Iran) with the aim of making sure that the remnants of Indian influence in these regions do not undermine Pakistan’s strategic goals. For this purpose, Pakistan’s political and military leadership must devise and articulate a concerted strategy that is supra-political in nature—as in, a change in political guard within Pakistan should not be able to disrupt such strategic national goals.
We are witnessing monumental events in our region. As the Americans vacate the Bagram Air Base, thereby yielding its military stronghold in the region, Pakistan must play its part to help fill the vacuum left behind by the United States. That is not to say that Pakistan should attempt to install a government that reasserts notions of ‘strategic depth’—no! But, at the very least, Pakistan must bring all of its influence to use in ensuring that the Afghan soil, and the Western border in general, is not used to undermine our domestic security. And that the flames of a new Great Game in Afghanistan, do not reach the borders of Pakistan in any way.