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US abandonment of Afghanistan could lead to Sino-Indian detente

India May Revisit Policy Of Putting All Its Eggs In The US Basket

Screenshot 2021-09-17 071318

Afghan’s trying to get into Kabul airport.

After America withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in a frightful hurry, callously disregarding the fate of its beleaguered local allies, the ability or will of the United States to stand by its solemn commitments has come into serious question.

It may not be farfetched to imagine that in that context, America’s allies or its strategic partners may begin to look for alternative security arrangements or even hunt for new strategic partners.

“American rashness would compound disappointment among allies, encourage adversaries, and sow confusion among observers," said former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in an interview to Economist dated August 25.

Where does the Afghan debacle leave India, which had proudly hitched its wagon to the US as a “strategic partner” based on “shared values”? It is now apparent that India is disappointed with the US. Its Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told in a press conference that the US withdrawal will have a tremendous impact on the region, showing his displeasure publicly, which is rare. 

At one level, India is talking to all sides, and is monitoring the development in Kabul closely. It is sending a clear message that Afghanistan should not be used to trigger violence in India, meaning Kashmir. In 1989, Afghanistan was used as a base to strike India. As many as 400 militants were dispatched to Kashmir after the Mujhahideen seized power. India is insistent that this should not be repeated.

So far, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban has turned a deaf ear to Delhi, though one is not sure who is funding the resistance fighters in Panjshir Valley. 

Presently, the situation in Afghanistan is under control. The Taliban have thus far managed to calm foreigners’ minds saying there have been no hangings or attacks on outsiders unlike what happened in 1996 when they last seized power. They have indicated that Sharia Law will be implemented but implementation seems to be piecemeal and half-hearted, perhaps to stabilize relationships despite continuous provocation by global and Indian media.  New Delhi’s main concern now is enabling the evacuation of all Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan.

China and Quad

The US appears to have turned its focus from Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific and in that context China and its counterpoise the “Quad” have assumed importance. 

A book by Rush Doshi, Biden's China adviser, published in July, clearly indicates that the US is under tremendous pressure from China because of China's "Grand Strategy" and also the US' failure to modernize its industry. Quad is a good radar to monitor the path US-India relationship is taking.

India has no permanent animosity to any country, nor does it have imperialistic or expansionist ambitions barring hyperbolic remarks of Home Minister Amit Shah (such as that India has a 106 km border with Afghanistan, meaning Pakistan Administered Kashmir belongs to India, a contention that is backed neither by the Foreign Ministry nor by serious policy framers though Indian Home Ministry's map shows Pakistan Administered Kashmir as part of India).

Traditionally, Indians have aligned themselves with the winning side. Their elite sided with the British when the crown was shining. Before that the elite was with the Moghuls when they were dominating. Later it aligned with the super power Soviet Union. And after the fall of the Soviets, it aligned with the US. India, I am sure, will be aligned with China the moment RMB replaces US dollar or will get closer to China as China's military prowess mounts. 

Importantly, the interests India and China merge in the uplands of Kashmir & adjacent Xinjiang. India needs to deal with ethnic Kashmiris and China has to deal with the Uyghurs. This situation should be a good reason to start exchanging notes on these issues in the context of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.   

Almost no major global observer indicates that the US can come out of this mess. In fact, in Economist’s special online issue, all experts opined that the US is sinking. The beginning of the end of America’s unchallenged hegemony has started from Kabul.

It is a matter of time before Delhi re-aligns itself. It will continue to participate in America’s adventures for now, but will also open strong back channels with Beijing. India is good at opening back channels and it has formidable China-sympathizers like former Foreign Secretaries like Shivshankar Menon and Nirupama Rao to initiate informal conversations. 

US Provoking Modi

Of relevance in this context is the fact that the US is continuously provoking Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking questions on his government’s failure to address minority and human rights issues and pointing out the slide in democracy in India. The Western press is going hammer & tongs at Modi.

The situation is bad but is it so bad that the US needs to fire all cylinders? When the US goes to this extent to tell a country that its democracy is sliding in a joint presser with its Foreign Minister, something is deeply wrong in the relationship.

However, Ashok Dhar, Founding Director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, has a different perspective. According to him, the US Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is unlikely to impact “Quad” as it is not a military alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India with a unified military outfit. Quad’s main objective may be to obtain freedom of navigation in the Indo Pacific region. In addition, members may exchange ideas on the climatic crisis.

India-US relations will not be affected, Dhar believes. Over the years the two countries have deepened their engagement into a strategic partnership.  A lot is at stake in terms of potential for partnerships in defense, technology, environment, energy etc. and both sides have not  as yet exploited the full potential in areas of collaboration that are aided by shared democratic values. 

Events unfolding in Afghanistan, may, in fact, bring the two countries closer to fight the war against terrorism. India is deeply concerned about the ingress of terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kashmir. So is the US.