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India has to find a way to deal with Afghanistan and Myanmar

Sandwiched between complex political realities in Afghanistan and Myanmar, India currently finds itself in an unenviable situation

Afghans living in India protest against the Taliban outside the UN Refugee Agency office in Delhi on 23 August.
Afghans living in India protest against the Taliban outside the UN Refugee Agency office in Delhi on 23 August. (AFP)

On 15 August, as India was celebrating its 75th Independence Day, the Taliban completed its de facto takeover of Afghanistan by marching into Kabul and forcing the president of the internationally recognised government, Ashraf Ghani, to flee the country. Six months ago, on the other side of India, in a not-so-different fashion, the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) drove into Naypyitaw and arrested President Win Myint and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi before declaring a state of emergency and taking charge of the country. Both were coups by unelected entities, accomplished by the barrel of the gun.

This two-front flux puts India in the middle of rough seas. With the Taliban takeover, the neighbourhood has turned doubly convoluted, unstable and unpredictable—not just because of the volatile nature of the new political landscapes in Afghanistan and Myanmar but also because of New Delhi’s inability to secure a front-row seat in either.

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To be clear, the immediate situations in Afghanistan and Myanmar are different in many ways. While an escalation in armed conflict culminated in the Taliban coup in Afghanistan, the military coup itself triggered an armed escalation in Myanmar. There was no intervening foreign power in Myanmar at the time of the takeover and the conflict was limited to two domestic factions within the same political-administrative structure; in Afghanistan, the US played a major role in creating conditions for violent conflict, and so did Pakistan. In Myanmar, almost the entire country immediately took to the streets to vehemently oppose the coup; in Afghanistan, save for tiny pockets of resistance and sporadic protests, no such thing can be anticipated.

But, if one zooms out, uncanny similarities emerge. Both Myanmar and Afghanistan are deeply heterogeneous countries, split along contesting ethnic lines. Both had central governments that failed to secure popular legitimacy from all ethnic groups. Both saw prolonged and complicated “national reconciliation” processes that were often deemed as nothing more than nominal. Both are rife with conflict economies that prevent durable peace from becoming a reality. Finally, both sit on subcontinental crossroads, which render them geostrategically valuable to global and regional powers.

For India, the most critical common denominator here perhaps is that both Afghanistan and Myanmar lie within the direct spheres of influence of two of its biggest regional rivals—Pakistan and China. In fact, China appears to have a firm footing in both countries. This, needless to say, is not the best case scenario for New Delhi, which is jostling to sustain its legitimacy in a geopolitically competitive neighbourhood.

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Before the two coups unfolded, India had been seeking wider and deeper inroads in both countries. But it never really hit bull’s eye. In Myanmar, New Delhi maintained working relationships with both the military and the Suu Kyi-led civilian government, besides undertaking development projects and some institutional capacity-building. It forged a particularly intimate relationship with the military through high-profile diplomatic visits, joint operations and big-ticket arms sales—which is also why New Delhi hasn’t come down heavily on the coup regime yet. However, what India failed to achieve in Myanmar is a position of leverage in the multi-ethnic peace process—a privilege China enjoyed to the brim.

Beijing exercised (and still does) strong influence over powerful ethnic armed groups in the north, to the extent that some of them wouldn’t even engage with the Naypyitaw government without a Chinese nod. In many ways, this made China a key back-door mediator in the negotiations process. India didn’t even come close.

Even after the February coup, India remains at a relatively disadvantaged position compared to China. Despite all its tightrope diplomacy and warm relations with the Tatmadaw leadership, it hasn’t been able to match Beijing’s chemistry with the coup regime. For starters, unlike India, China has the power of veto at the UN security council, which it has used liberally to shield Myanmar from punitive actions since the Rohingya crisis in 2017. Not only does Beijing continue to firmly defend the coup, it is even shepherding regional negotiations between the military administration and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). India, on the other hand, has condemned the takeover in a limited sense and doesn’t have any say in the Asean negotiations.

In Afghanistan, the position is no better. Since the US entered the country in 2001, India has firmly backed successive Kabul governments and through the years, invested generously in Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction ($3 billion, or around 22,200 crore now), since 2001. It even financed the new parliament building and gifted attack helicopters to Afghan forces. But it avoided establishing any relationship with the Taliban because of the movement’s closeness with the Pakistani deep state.

Ultimately, when it came down to the final leg of talks between the US and Taliban in Doha last year, New Delhi found itself relegated to the back row—ironically, much like the Ghani government itself. Even in the 2017 Moscow talks, the attending Indian representatives only participated as “observers”. While this is better than having no seat at all, as in Myanmar’s peace process, it barely offered any solid returns. As scholars Rudra Chaudhuri and Shreyas Shende noted in a Carnegie paper last year, “India’s position in this present state of affairs is hardly enviable.”

It was only earlier this year that India realised it had put all its eggs in one basket and opened back-channel talks with key Taliban factions. It was perhaps the most sensible thing to do but it guarantees little. Pakistan’s continued sway over the Taliban, compounded by a history of bitterness between India and the Taliban, will keep New Delhi on thin ice in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Not to mention that the Narendra Modi government is held back by its own Hindu nationalist constituency at home from engaging openly and directly with the Islamist Taliban. In short, India is heavily boxed in by its own political and geopolitical circumstances.

And then there’s China. As in Myanmar, Beijing enjoys a head start in the new political reality of Afghanistan. Just months after New Delhi reached out to the Taliban, China hosted the movement’s chief negotiator (and, possibly, the new president of Afghanistan), Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the northern city of Tianjin. Photographs from the meeting showed Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Taliban chief. Everything else aside, this unusual visit itself shows how deeply invested China is in a post-US Afghanistan, not least because of its plans to expand the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into the strategically located country. No wonder it confidently rushed to assure “friendly and cooperative” relations with the new regime just hours after the Taliban takeover (India did no such thing).

Beijing has, in recent years, also significantly upgraded relations with all of Afghanistan’s neighbours—Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—using the BRI as an incentive. All this is aided by the simple fact that China has never militarily confronted the Taliban, unlike competing global powers like the US or Russia. In fact, Beijing, with all its economic heft and “no strings attached” foreign policy, is well placed to fill the messy void the US is leaving in Afghanistan. In comparison, India’s grip on the new political landscape there remains flimsy at best, and so do its relations with other smaller powers in the region.

This is an awkward new reality for India. Afghanistan and Myanmar are complex cases that don’t offer easy foreign policy choices. Yet New Delhi has to find a way to navigate them deftly if it wants to hold ground on the southern Asian chessboard.

Angshuman Choudhury is a senior researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi.

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