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India after the debacle in Afghanistan

Photo by World Maps on StockSnap
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last August had been announced. It was no “black swan”. But when the Taliban took over, and with the speed with which they did it, it seemed to take all involved by surprise. Since then, the world got accustomed to see it as a repetition of Saigon’s fall in 1975. Media pictures looked the same. For sure, the fact and the images caused an undisputed damage to US reputation, as it will to Afghan society and peoples’ lives. It equally caused damage to Indian geostrategic interests. Under US protection for that by now failed international nation-building mission, India had heavily invested in Afghanistan. Since the last overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 India had become the region’s largest provider of humanitarian and economic aid. In 2011 Afghanistan signed with India its first strategic partnership agreement. In its regional strategic setting, India had given Afghanistan a particular position and role. The logic lay in India’s antagonism with China and Pakistan. Through military assistance, India profited from that partnership for challenging Pakistan at its Western borders. Now, that Afghanistan as a strategic asset has gone, India finds itself in the position of the main loser of dramatic changes. First it has lost all its investments, material and political. Then, the fundamental change has provided its adversaries a sudden advantage. Pakistan has acquired a much needed “strategic depth” against its arch-enemy India. Together with China it has, in addition, gained further advantages with regard to the trilateral dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. From a strategically important partner for India, Afghanistan has become a potential partner for Pakistan and China, provided, however, that the Taliban will behave in a strategically sensible manner, which is not guaranteed. It may well develop into a refuge for terrorists, which, then, would be in the interest of none of its neighbours.
For the time being, India is confronted with the need for new strategic priorities. It will choose the obvious: definitely siding with regional partnerships and alliances directed against China and Pakistan. This is not new for PM Modi. It will most probably result in a stronger commitment to self-evident options. India has already officially conceded that its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the “Quad” (a political and military framework for naval cooperation composed of the US, Japan, Australia and India) is directed against Chinese expansion. This was new in last May. More decisions going in the same direction will follow, the next will possibly be a closer association with the newly founded three-party military pact AUKUS binding Australia, the United Kingdom and the US together for power projection and operations in the Indo-Pacific. India as the emblematic power in the Indian Ocean has an obvious interest in joining initiatives which aim at containing China’s outreach in India’s wider neighbourhood. Narendra Modi, with all his fault and failures in domestic politics, seems to have the right inclinations for such strategic choices. Thus, China’s aggressive behaviour over recent years and months will generate, in the Indo-Pacific region, more political and military reactions against it.  As they will develop, they will prove that the future, in history, is never a foregone conclusion. Things evolve in line with the purpose and the determination of protagonists and the means they are able and willing to mobilise.
26th November 2021 / Philippe Welti

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