New Delhi, February 5: The Ministry of External Affairs has allocated a sum of Rs 200 crores (as against Rs 350 crores last year) as assistance to Afghanistan in the 2022-23 budget. This has attracted attention for the reason that Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban; it does not have an internationally recognised government, and, what is more, India does not have a presence on the ground there. The question of the political significance of this allocation in these circumstances therefore arises.
There is no doubt that after the ouster of the elected government of Afghanistan, the Taliban take-over of the country without any democratic process and the withdrawal of US presence there, be it military or even diplomatic, the conditions on the ground have dramatically changed for India. But India cannot turn its back on Afghanistan as the country remains strategically important to it.
The fall-out of an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban with its links to terrorism and an extremist Islamic ideology is potentially serious for the political and social stability of the Central Asian states, with which India has sought to build productive ties ever since their independence despite lack of easy access to them as they are land-locked. Already these countries have fallen into China’s grip through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China is also entrenching itself in Iran. As and when conditions in Afghanistan stabilise, China will seek to bring it into the BRI fold, with Pakistan as the spring board. This Chinese expansionism in Asia to our west adds to the challenge we face directly from it on our borders. Pakistan too has ambitions in the region as expressed in its new accent on connectivity and geo-economics that leaves out India. For Pakistan, allowing India connectivity through its territory to Afghanistan, and beyond to Central Asia, would be a complete negation of the policies it has hitherto pursued vis a vis India.
While Pakistan’s hostility toward India will endure, more so as India-China relations have deteriorated sharply and both will now have more interest in curbing India strategically to our west, India has to cling to whatever it can for the moment in Afghanistan. India has undoubtedly earned a lot of goodwill amongst the Afghan people because of the many welfare and other big and small infrastructure projects it has done all over Afghanistan, as well as offer of scholarships, capacity building etc. as part of its assistance package of $ 3 billion.
After the Taliban take over, India has accepted some Afghan refugees, but has not opened its doors as much as some Afghans would have wanted. Lack of any consular presence on the ground and security considerations have hampered the process of accepting refugees. India is conscious that it must retain the goodwill of the people of Afghanistan and not give an impression that it is abandoning them in their hour of need.
This explains why India has been willing to offer humanitarian aid to Afghanistan even under the brutal yoke of the Taliban. The UN and others have warned that Afghanistan already faces an acute humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medicines, with winter conditions making the situation worse. The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December 2021 that enables the provision of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as an exemption to the sanctions’ regime imposed on it after the Taliban take-over. India’s PR to UN said on the occasion that humanitarian assistance should be based on neutrality and impartiality, should be non-discriminatory and accessible to all irrespective of ethnicity, religion or political belief, and that India was willing to work with other stakeholders to deliver assistance to the Afghan people. India had already communicated to the Taliban at the second meeting with them in October 2021 on the sidelines of the Moscow format meeting under Russian leadership its willingness to deliver extensive humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The Moscow format meeting had formally noted that all participating countries had agreed to provide humanitarian assistance, even as they called on the Taliban to improve governance and form a truly inclusive government that adequately reflected the interests of all ethno-political forces in the country.
India is most affected by the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan. Its Islamic ideology and use of terrorism to achieve this success is coupled with Pakistan’s declared policy of eliminating or limiting Indian presence in Afghanistan– the only country that it wants to exclude from playing a role there. It is not clear how much the Taliban regime, unless it becomes inclusive, will be able to free itself enough from Pakistan’s grip to forge ties with India independently. Its current outreach to India could well be tactical because of the dire challenges it is facing in governing a bankrupt country with little administrative capability.
India’s dilemma, as of some others, is to reconcile the contradiction between providing assistance that would help the survival of a regime that one would like to see ousted from power. Punishing an unwanted regime would mean punishing the people. India’s decision to provide 50,000 tons of wheat to prevent starvation and emergency supply of medicines is a gesture to the people of Afghanistan, even if it helps the Taliban regime to consolidate its position by taking the pressure off it with regard to making essential supplies available to the public.
The Rs 200 crores budgeted for will be used to provide humanitarian aid already announced and more later if necessary, and provide scholarships and complete some existing projects depending on the evolution of the political situation in Afghanistan. This is less than that budgeted in the previous year because India is not in a position to undertake any new significant project in the country in the present circumstances. The aid allocation, welcomed by the Afghanistan embassy in New Delhi, signals that India has a positive and benign role to play in Afghanistan. The aid provision also sends a message to the Central Asian countries that India remains committed to stability in Afghanistan and the welfare of its people. This gives us credibility as a player in our discussions with these countries on the future of Afghanistan.
(Kanwal Sibal is India’s former foreign secretary and former ambassador to Russia. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)
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