By Kanwal Sibal
New Delhi, February 5: The Ministry of External Affairs has allocated a sum of Rs 200 crores (up from Rs 350 crores last year) as aid to Afghanistan in the 2022-23 budget. This has drawn attention for the reason that Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban; it does not have an internationally recognized government and, what is more, India is not present there on the ground. The question of the political significance of this allocation in these circumstances therefore arises.
There is no doubt that after the ousting of the elected government of Afghanistan, the takeover of the country by the Taliban without any democratic process and the withdrawal of the American presence there, whether military or even diplomatic , conditions on the ground have changed dramatically for India. But India cannot turn its back on Afghanistan as the country remains strategically important to it.
The fallout from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with its links to terrorism and extremist Islamic ideology is potentially serious for the political and social stability of Central Asian states, with which India has sought to establish productive ties since their independence despite lack of easy access as they are landlocked. These countries have already fallen under the sway of China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China is also establishing itself in Iran. As conditions in Afghanistan stabilize, China will seek to bring it into the BRI fold, with Pakistan as a springboard. This Chinese expansionism in West Asia adds to the challenge we face directly at our borders. Pakistan also has ambitions in the region, as evidenced by its new focus on connectivity and geoeconomics that leaves India out. For Pakistan, to allow India to connect through its territory to Afghanistan, and beyond to Central Asia, would be a complete negation of the policies it has pursued so far vis-à-vis India.
While Pakistan’s hostility towards India will endure, especially as relations between India and China have deteriorated sharply and both will now have more interest in strategically limiting India to our west , India must hang on to whatever it can in Afghanistan at the moment. India has undoubtedly earned a lot of goodwill among the Afghan people due to the many welfare projects and other big and small infrastructure projects that it has carried out all over Afghanistan, as well as the provision of scholarships, capacity building, etc. under its $3 billion assistance package.
After the Taliban took over, India accepted Afghan refugees, but did not open its doors as much as some Afghans would have liked. The absence of any consular presence on the ground and security considerations hampered the process of welcoming the refugees. India is aware that it must retain the goodwill of the Afghan people and not give the impression that it is abandoning them when they need it.
This explains why India has been willing to offer humanitarian aid to Afghanistan even under the brutal rule of the Taliban. The UN and others have warned that Afghanistan is already facing an acute humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medicine, with winter conditions making the situation worse. The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December 2021 that allows for the provision of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as an exemption from the sanctions regime imposed on it after the Taliban takeover. India’s UN PR said on the occasion that humanitarian aid should be based on neutrality and impartiality, should be non-discriminatory and accessible to all regardless of ethnicity, religion or political conviction, and that India stood ready to work with other stakeholders to provide assistance. to the Afghan people. India had already communicated to the Taliban during the second meeting with them in October 2021 on the sidelines of the Russian-led Moscow-format meeting of its willingness to provide significant humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The Moscow-format meeting formally noted that all participating countries had agreed to provide humanitarian assistance, although they called on the Taliban to improve governance and form a truly inclusive government that adequately reflected the interests of all ethno-political forces of the country.
India is the most affected by the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Its Islamic ideology and use of terrorism to achieve this success is coupled with Pakistan’s stated policy of eliminating or limiting Indian presence in Afghanistan, the only country it wants to exclude from playing a role there. It is unclear to what extent the Taliban regime, unless it becomes inclusive, will be able to break free from Pakistan’s grip enough to forge ties with India independently. Its current approach to India may well be tactical due to the enormous challenges it faces in governing a bankrupt country with little administrative capacity.
India’s dilemma, like 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. To punish an undesirable regime would be to punish the people. India’s decision to provide 50,000 tons of wheat for famine prevention and emergency medicine is a gesture towards the Afghan people, even if it helps the Taliban regime to consolidate its position by relieving it of the pressure to make available to the public.
The budgeted Rs 200 crores will be used to provide previously announced humanitarian aid and later if needed, and provide scholarships and supplement some existing projects depending on the development of the political situation in Afghanistan. This is less than that budgeted in the previous year as India is unable to undertake a major new project in the country under current circumstances. The aid allocation, hailed by the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, signals that India has a positive and benign role to play in Afghanistan. The provision of aid also sends a message to Central Asian countries that India remains committed to stability in Afghanistan and the well-being of its people. This gives us credibility as a player in our discussions with these countries on the future of Afghanistan.