by C Raja Mohan
The withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is likely to accelerate current trends in India’s relations with the United States, China, and Russia: greater cooperation with Washington, deeper conflicts with Beijing, and wider fissures in the traditional strategic partnership with Moscow. Reinforcing these structural shifts—and their mirror image—are Pakistan’s changing relations with the United States, China, and Russia.
For long, India’s foreign-policy elite grumbled about the dangers of the United States leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, so assiduously nurtured over the decades by the Pakistan Army. The fear in New Delhi was twofold. First, that the favourable conditions for India’s political and economic engagement with Afghanistan since the U.S. intervention in 2001 would come to an end. Second, that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would once again become Pakistan’s partner in promoting jihadi terrorism against India.
But New Delhi had no choice but to come to terms with the diminishing domestic political support in Washington for the so-called forever war and the inevitability of a post-U.S. Afghanistan. On the upside, New Delhi senses that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could significantly weaken the current strategic partnership between Washington and Islamabad.
Since the late 1970s, Afghanistan had formed the bedrock on which United States built a partnership with the Pakistani military, including its intelligence wing. Although Afghanistan will continue to figure in U.S.-Pakistani ties, the relationship is now likely to evolve in a very different direction. New Delhi, however, will be pleased by any reduction in the salience of Pakistan in the Indian-U.S. partnership. Ever since Partition and independence, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has been an irritant in India’s engagement with the United States.
To be sure, India’s concerns about cross-border terrorism will mount with the return of Afghanistan to Taliban rule. But New Delhi is probably better prepared than before in dealing with the Pakistan challenge, including the latter’s instrumentalization of Islamist movements to foreign-policy ends. The economic balance has overwhelmingly tilted in New Delhi’s favor—at nearly $3 trillion, India’s GDP is now about 10 times larger than Pakistan’s.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has not hesitated in responding with muscular military means to confront Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism. It authorized cross-border military raids and aerial attacks on terror camps in Pakistan. India has also been successful in mobilizing multilateral institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force to put Pakistan’s activities with terrorist groups under rigorous international scrutiny.
One of President Joe Biden’s justifications for ending the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan is the importance of coping with new challenges from a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region. For India, which sees China as a greater threat than Pakistan, the Biden administration’s focus on balancing China is certainly welcome. The convergence between Indian and U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific rapidly grew in the final year of the Trump administration and has continued in the first months of Biden’s tenure. The Biden administration’s ambitious plans for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a coalescing strategic partnership with Australia, India, and Japan known as the “Quad”—have put New Delhi at the very top of Washington’s list of strategic priorities.
The trend line in their relations with China is headed in opposite directions for India and Pakistan. While New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have seen growing tensions in recent years, the partnership between the so-called iron brothers—Pakistan and China—has been on the upswing. The latest developments in Afghanistan are likely to further boost both trends. If the United States defends its retrenchment in Afghanistan in the name of confronting the China challenge, many see fresh opportunities as well as challenges coming Beijing’s way in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
Although Beijing has been strongly critical of the rushed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has been preparing itself to play a larger role there. During their tenures as president of Afghanistan, both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were eager to get China to play a larger role in their country, not least through investment. Until recently, however, Beijing had been cautious.
In the last few years, Beijing has gingerly stepped into Afghan politics and has been trying its hand at reconciliation diplomacy. It has also shown some interest in developing Afghanistan’s substantial mineral resources, including at a Chinese-owned copper mine southeast of Kabul. And the idea of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—one of the first Belt and Road Initiative projects—into Afghanistan is welcomed by both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A strong partnership with Pakistan, which has considerable influence with the Taliban, enhances China’s prospects in Afghanistan. This positive assessment, however, is subject to peace and stability in Afghanistan and credible assurances from the Taliban on dissociating itself from Islamist movements in China’s restive Xinjiang region. Yet Beijing is hopeful, and it is no surprise that it was among the first to offer a conditional welcome to the Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul.
India, of course, views a larger Chinese role in Afghanistan with some concern. New Delhi has warily watched Beijing steadily expand its economic and military profile in the Indian subcontinent in recent years—in ways that go beyond its traditional alignment with Islamabad. China is now a major partner for Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. It also takes a keen interest in the affairs of Bhutan and the Maldives. A Chinese-Pakistani partnership in Afghanistan will indeed be a major setback for India on its sensitive northwestern flank. China’s massive economic resources could be a powerful force multiplier for the Pakistan Army in reshaping the turbulent Afghan theater.
Russia’s successful outreach to the Taliban amid India’s own deliberate distancing from the group will only widen the gap on regional issues between New Delhi and Moscow.
Making matters worse for India is Russia’s new role in the region. New Delhi has not been too enthused by Moscow’s growing strategic partnership with Beijing in recent years. That partnership is now acquiring a new dimension with the Russian tilt toward Pakistan and the Taliban.
For the last couple of years, Moscow has repeatedly emphasized the importance of engaging the Taliban, while New Delhi doubled down on its support for the elected government in Kabul. Moscow has also kept India out of the so-called troika process. Set up in 2019, the troika to negotiate peace in Afghanistan included the United States, Russia, and China. Pakistan was included in an extended troika this year. Moscow defended the decision to keep New Delhi out by arguing the latter had little influence with the Taliban and therefore would not be able to contribute to the peace process. Russia, like China, has kept its Kabul embassy open since the Ghani government collapsed and is eager to engage with the Taliban.
Russia’s successful outreach to the Taliban amid India’s own deliberate distancing from the group will only widen the gap on regional issues between New Delhi and Moscow. Fissures between the two have been widening in recent years, not least due to India’s growing ties with the United States against the background of a sharpening U.S.-Russian conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has not minced words in criticizing the Quad and the emerging Indo-Pacific constellation to contain China. India has been less vocal about the Sino-Russian partnership, but its anxieties are real. Until now, Pakistan has been out of this Indo-Russian-U.S.-Chinese dynamic. That has begun to change in recent years due to the expanding engagement between Moscow and Islamabad.
One of the main sources of enduring Indian political goodwill for its traditional partner, Russia, has been the sense that the latter has been steadfast in its support for India in its disputes with Pakistan. As Moscow seeks greater balance between New Delhi and Islamabad, popular and elite support for India’s partnership is likely to take a few knocks.
It was widely assumed that India’s strategy of multi-alignment—sustaining simultaneous strategic partnerships with the United States, Russia, and China—would survive major regional and global changes. But the growing security challenges from China have rendered that assumption moot and nudged India closer than ever before to the United States. The latest developments in Afghanistan could intensify Sino-Indian contradictions, consolidate Indian-U.S. relations, and produce greater distance between India and Russia—quickening the pace of the transformation of India’s great-power relationships that was already underway.