The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to New Delhi was of great significance in terms of deepening bilateral relations between the two countries; perhaps more so, in view of the ongoing bloodshed in neighbouring Afghanistan. He was met by two leaders and an official, his counterpart and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Although, they discussed the sensitive issues like human rights and democracy, Afghanistan figured prominently in the dialogues.
The Indian side was to impress upon the Secretary of State the indispensable need for United States to support Afghan government in dealing with Taliban and thereby consolidating the gains secured under a democratic politics in Kabul over the past 20 years. Furthermore, New Delhi expressed its concerns about the aftermath of the withdrawal of American forces and Pakistan gaining an upper hand through their protégé, Taliban. The usual nagging worry of India about Pakistan sponsoring cross-border terrorism manifested in the talks.
Foreign Minister Jaishankar said that Afghanistan should not become a home to terrorists and a source for refugees. New Delhi’s apprehension is that the terrorists will take shelter in Taliban-led Afghanistan and would plot attacks on Indian soil, although Indian government has made some contact with Taliban leadership. He reiterated that “the world would like to see an independent, democratic, sovereign and stable Afghanistan.” The Indian officials believe that sustained US air strikes over the next four months beyond the August 31 deadline could prevent Taliban overrunning the Afghan government. New Delhi maintains that the outcome in Afghanistan should not be decided on the battlefield.
Blinken committed to America remaining engaged in defending Afghanistan security even after the withdrawal. He said, “US is concerned about Taliban advance in Afghanistan. The Taliban is making advances in district centres; there are reports of them committing atrocities which are deeply disturbing”. He emphasised there was no other course for settling issues than coming on to the negotiation table.
Talking of Taliban, I have maintained that Taliban and Pakistan are two sides of the same coin as the former has been mentored by the latter. The US strategy of supporting Pakistan militarily and otherwise to control Taliban was a self-defeating exercise. The failure of New Delhi to drive home this critical variable in US diplomacy in the region was a big deficit in India’s comprehension of the situation in Afghanistan. It is still not too late to correct this lapse and put Pakistan and Taliban in the same tent.
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan without firmly establishing a democratic order is the work half done or according to Afghan government, not done at all. It may be nostalgic for Americans to bring their boys home; but the repercussion of such unplanned and sudden exit will be felt not only in the region but across the world. Unplanned, as the US and the Western powers did not put an alternative support framework for the Afghan government.
China and Pakistan have entered Afghanistan to fill the void caused by American withdrawal. Obviously, they are on the wrong side, with the undemocratic Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. Even Russia against whom Americans got involved in Afghanistan in the first place in late 1980s has found its way back to Afghan conflict. It is India which should have stepped in for Afghan government backed by Americans. This surprisingly did not happen. India remained a marginal player occasionally brought to the centre-stage at the behest of Americans.
Therefore, the major issue to be sorted out in India-Pacific is the Afghanistan conundrum. Failing which will have serious geo-political implications both for India in the region and America globally. China, the main rival of both India and America, will have the edge in the region that Beijing is desperately looking for. Islamabad is happy to provide that platform in order that it can needle New Delhi on Kashmir with tacit support from China. At the same time, Beijing can nibble at Indian territory at the disputed borders.
In sum, Afghanistan crisis is a challenge for American and Indian diplomacy in the India-Pacific region. It may not be out of place to suggest that the Quad may also be impacted by a mismanaged Afghan policy. Any miscalculation by Washington and New Delhi will land China and Russia close to maritime arena where both these countries are currently at a disadvantage. Therefore, apart from the globally symbolic impact of Afghan crisis, the actual on-the-ground implications in the India-Pacific region will be deeply felt. It will be imprudent for Americans and New Delhi to let Afghanistan slip out of their sphere of influence and concern.
A lot was put on store for Blinken’s visit. South Block had said that it was an opportunity to “continue the high level bilateral dialogue and bolster the India-US global strategic partnership”. The statement added, “both sides were to review the robust and multi-faceted India-US bilateral relations and potential for consolidating them further”. The issues they covered were pandemic, Quad, democracy and human rights.
The Indian side was to be quite conscious of any human rights concern raised by US. The visit was taking place as Parliament was rocked by the controversies on Pegasus spyware, farmers laws etc. Pegasus was allegedly snooping on 300 Indians including journalists, politicians, officials and activists. Although Government of India denied any involvement in this snooping scandal, the Opposition is demanding an investigation. Other countries like France, China and Pakistan were also complaining against the Israeli company using this technology to spy on their leaders. There was indication from the US that Blinken would raise issues of human rights and democracy with Indian officials during the visit. Death of Father Stan Swamy, the activist for Adivasis, in incarceration would have raised the sensitivity of Americans. Although this was not highlighted in the press, Blinken could raise it.
Contrary to such expectations, Blinken was not critical of Indian government running the democratic politics. While meeting the civil society leaders, Blinken spoke in esoteric terms, “we believe that all people deserve to have a voice in their governments, to be treated with respect no matter who they are. These are the fundamental tenets of democracies like ours.” Blinken gave a clean chit to India as well as his country in preserving their respective democracies as he said, “every democracy was a work in progress”.
Another notable feature of Blinken’s visit was his meeting with the representative of Tibetan government in exile, Ngodup Donchung. This is one more conspicuous contact made by US since Barak Obama met Dalai Lama in Washington in 2016 and the visit to the White House by the former head of Central Tibetan Administration Lobsang Sahay last November. Moreover, the US Lawmakers had passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act last year. Such steps by US will certainly not be pleasing to China.
Admittedly, America will not be willing to concede its numero uno position in the world politics to Beijing. Hence there is a clear strategy to stem the tide of China to stand up to or substitute US as a super power. However, Afghanistan is the litmus test. With the fate of Afghanistan, the security of India is tied up too. New Delhi must remain an integral part of American strategy in Asia.