In this Briefing, our contributor Sachin Tissera has sought to untangle the changing dynamics of South Asian geopolitics in the wake of the takeover by the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.
As the last US troops left Kabul airport in August 2021 and ended their 20-year long occupation of Afghanistan, Taliban forces were already seizing the capital, thus establishing de facto control over the entire country. The previous government headed by President Ghani collapsed as he fled to the UAE and the National Armed Forces disintegrated into thin air. In the following days, the Taliban announced the establishment of an interim government and declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate. The Taliban’s domestic policy will determine if it becomes an international pariah without international recognition. The Taliban takeover will have drastic implications for the geopolitics and stability of the region. Neighbouring. South Asian nations wait with uncertainty and apprehension to see whether the Taliban keeps its promise of ensuring the protection of human rights of all those living in Afghanistan. This piece will analyze the implications of the new government in Afghanistan for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. It will attempt to predict how their new foreign policy will be shaped and how it will impact the regional balance of power through the South Asian Association for Regional Corporation (SAARC).
Indian interests have been clearly disadvantaged by the Taliban takeover as a consequence of their conflict with Pakistan and strategic competition with China. Losing the pro-India Ghani government with whom they maintained close economic and political ties meant losing a key regional ally. However, what is most threatening is the rise of a Taliban outfit closely linked with the Pakistan Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency. The lack of Indian official lines of communication with the Taliban will most likely force them to obtain support from Russia or Iran for any diplomatic dialogue, both of which are the only Indian allies who have active communication with the Taliban. China’s increasing regional rival influence in South Asia means India feels isolated within a region of enemy states. China could indeed make use of its strong economic and political ties with Pakistan to expand its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan. Chinese expansion would not only hurt Indian influence in the region but could also threaten India’s ability to access Central Asian natural resources. Indeed, especially with China now also in the picture, Indian projects to build pipelines in Afghanistan to access natural gas in Turkmenistan will likely be rejected by the Taliban.
Furthermore, with the 2022 state elections coming up in Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state), the Barathiya Janatha Party will again attempt to focus its political discourse on tensions between Hindus and Muslims and thus use the Taliban threat to empower their nationalist base. Recognition of the new Taliban state by the Modi government seems unlikely as its current rhetoric, which paints the Taliban as Pakistan-sponsored Islamist terrorists, still dominates popular narratives. Security will be another key concern especially in Kashmir, the mountainous region where there is an active border conflict with Pakistan. Kashmir already has a heightened risk of militant attacks by terror cells motivated by the Taliban victory. India further fears that Afghanistan will once again become a terrorist haven for the likes of Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lakshar-e-Tayyba who have been found guilty for attacks around India. However, funding anti-Taliban fighters as India did in the early 2000s seems unlikely as it is prioritizing ongoing border disputes with China in the Ladakh region and with Pakistan in Kashmir where Indian soldiers are already permanently stationed. Key Indian interests in the region are thus motivated by both security-related and ideological concerns.
For India’s sworn enemy Pakistan, the Taliban resurgence is a paradoxical situation with new political and economic opportunities but many security risks. Among the military elite who allegedly maintained secret support for the Taliban in the form of funding, weapons, and logistics for years, there is reason to celebrate a political victory. Not only is the pro-India Ghani government removed, but a new government that will be easier to influence has been established. This influence is in the hands of the military commanders in the ISI who have strong connections with the Taliban leadership. The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan sympathized with the Taliban by declaring that they had “broken the shackles of slavery” when ending the US occupation, and that they should be given “time” before they are judged on their governance capabilities.
Behind this optimistic rhetoric, Pakistan also faces key challenges, such as the risk of a large influx of refugees fleeing the Taliban that could hurt the Pakistani economy already weakened by rising inflation and shrinking employment. There is an increased terror threat with difficulties of vetting those coming into the country. There has been a renewal of violence and terror in Pakistan’s rural belt (which includes the tribal district that borders Afghanistan) as hundreds of militants from the Terrek-e-Taliban Pakistan, who aim to establish an Islamic Emirate in Pakistan, have been released from Afghan prisons by the Taliban. Pakistan will also look to obtain international recognition and legitimization for the new Taliban government to win their support. This has its own set of challenges, especially the risk of further alienating the West, which will likely be remedied by joining the bloc of states that already recognize the Taliban (i.e. China, Russia, and Iran).
In the east of South Asia, fears of extremist violence and ethnic tensions, a lingering issue throughout the region, continue to haunt Bangladesh since the 2016 Dhaka bombings. Posts and comments on Facebook and Twitter sympathizing with the Taliban and linking it to a “victory of Islam” following the Taliban entry into Kabul highlights this. While there has been a strong crackdown on extremism, it is unlikely that President Sheikh Hasina will react aggressively to the new developments in Afghanistan as it will conflict with her priority of managing the nationalist factions in her own government. Her statements highlighting the importance of Afghanistan to South Asian development and positive outlook in continuing development funds point to the start of friendly relations with the Taliban regime. On the other hand in Sri Lanka, the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is unlikely to form close ties with the Taliban government, having championed national security and nationalism following the 2019 Easter Bombings. However, Sri Lanka’s alignment with China economically and politically could dictate their Afghan policy superseding any ideological constraints.
The Taliban takeover will have strong repercussions on the SAARC, the only regional inter-governmental organization for South Asian nations which was established to ensure mutual trust and collaboration among its members. Afghanistan became a member of SAARC in 2007 under President Hamid Karzai, but their membership is now becoming a contentious topic among other member states. The organization has already been weakened in the past few years by India-Pakistan tensions that lead to multiple cancelled meetings. While Pakistan will look to ensure participation of Afghanistan even under the Taliban, India is very likely to counter these attempts. India will likely want to ensure its hegemony within the organization and continue to use it to counter Chinese influences. Afghanistan’s establishment of an undemocratic government compromising of international criminals might even prompt India to suggest suspending or expulsing Afghanistan from the SAARC. However, its effort will be handicapped by the organization’s Article X (1) which requires unanimity in decision-making, thus creating another deadlock. With the Taliban government craving international recognition, SAARC could be used as a tool by South Asian nations as a tool to ensure they keep their promises.
The Taliban’s second regime of control over Afghanistan is still in its infancy, creating much uncertainty around the future that awaits the Afghan people. The Taliban will surely look East to meet the financial requirements to continue governing the country. With a more assertive China that increases its role in the international system, it is likely Afghanistan will become China’s newest partner for BRI investment, while the US essentially disappears from the picture. The US withdrawal has effectively left a vacuum in the region and the balance of power in the region will now be shaped by China and India’s response in the coming years. India will certainly not be waiting for China to become the hegemon in the region and will be looking to ensure it doesn’t lose further influence in the region. In the short term however, South Asian nations are adopting a ‘wait-and-watch’ approach before crafting a new foreign policy which will address their concerns over national security and regional stability.