How an unlikely ally has allowed India to project power

India finds itself today in a position of power in geopolitics in South Asia, between its historical rival, Pakistan, and its historical friend, Afghanistan. It does not take an analyst to describe how pervasive their fractured relationship is in Indian and Pakistani societies. Originating from a well-known British colonial blunder, the 1947 partition of India, both states have seemingly been in conflict since. Perhaps most interestingly, the two nations’ points of contention developed over time, evolving from a mainly territorial conflict to a religious one, to a cultural one and again to a territorial one. But if all this is well-documented, why do we find ourselves back here again? 

The answer is simple: Afghanistan and the Taliban. 

Think of Afghanistan as the pawn upon which India and Pakistan aim to assert their will. India was the first South Asian country to recognize the Soviet-supported Afghanistan government in the 1980s. But during the Afghanistan war in 2001 and post-Taliban control, its strong relationship with India largely diminished because Pakistan supported the Taliban government due to religious and political considerations. Subsequently, this government was overthrown and a democratic authority took over, supported by India. 

However, on August 15, 2021, the Taliban once again took control of the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. This threw a massive spanner into the works for India, who had been quite liberally aiding the democratic Afghanistan government in their battle against the Taliban. It was expected that Pakistan, historically supporting the Taliban, would reap the benefits of this relationship through influence over Afghanistan policy and, therefore, bargaining power over India. 

Oddly enough, this has not happened, with both governments at odds over border disputes across the Durand line. Clashes have occurred over fences put up by Pakistan, leading to small-scale clashes between military personnel and even the detention of Pakistani personnel by Taliban forces. Taliban commanders underlined the prevalent conflict between the two sides in stating: “There will be no fencing anymore.” 

Pakistan and Afghanistan also came into conflict over the Taliban’s affiliation with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organization which aims to incite violence and preach the teachings of the Taliban in Pakistan. This created tensions between the Taliban and its longtime bankrollers, leading them to seek out partnerships with India. 

India, having recently reestablished its diplomatic mission in Kabul and almost granting de facto recognition to the Taliban state, serves as a perfect foil to Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. The Indian government not only established its embassy in Kabul but also ramped up its levels of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, a state suffering from a major food crisis. India delivered over 50,000 tons of wheat by land, and more via air, into Afghanistan. Moreover, it supplied the country with major consignments of medical supplies to the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul, including 500,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

India also suggested that it aims to restart its development work in Afghanistan with the Indian Ministry of External affairs stating that, “Our long-standing links with Afghan society and our development partnership including humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan, will continue to guide our approach going forward,” affirming their commitment to the development of Afghanistan. 

Even militarily, both countries seem to be moving in the same direction. Afghanistan’s Defense minister reportedly has “no issue” cooperating with India, and even the seemingly unfathomable prospect of the Taliban undergoing training in India. 

While relations between the Taliban and Pakistan seem to dwindle, India puts itself in a position of power with respect to both countries. On one hand, India’s aid and support to Afghanistan allows them to potentially exert influence over their policy and makes them dependent on Indian exports, since they face a massive reconstruction of infrastructure as well as extreme food starvation issues while also having no major allies. On the other, India’s relationship with Afghanistan also gives India a pivotal sphere of control and influence which it wields over Pakistan. 

It speaks volumes that India is able to assert itself in a landscape and a political climate where the Taliban has been so historically dependent on Pakistani leadership and guidance. By encroaching upon Pakistan’s political backyard, India seems to be posturing itself as a superior power in the region — even though underlying power was previously held by Pakistan. 

Perhaps more interestingly, it is fascinating to consider the potential importance of the alliance to the Indian government itself. The current ruling party in India is the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party known for its Hindutva ideologies and for often encouraging islamophobic attitudes. The fact that the ruling party would be open to even slightly opposing key aspects of their ideology and their messaging in order to give themselves an advantage is significant in suggesting the importance of the Taliban to their plans with respect to Pakistan. 

This leaves us with an important question. Does India’s newfound cordiality with Afghanistan grant it significant staying power over Pakistan — a staying power that could lead to coordinated military clashes and prevention thereof? Or, is it a zero-sum game of soft-power posturing, where neither side achieves a significant gain, leaving the proverbial – and literal – Line of Control exactly where it is today?

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