Guest Column

Afghanistan, Myanmar Crises Test India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy

By Jayanta Kalita 26 August 2021

Two of India’s key neighbors—Myanmar to the southeast and Afghanistan to the northwest—are in turmoil. The biggest South Asian power and the world’s largest democracy, India has over the years engaged with these two nations to varying degrees to aid in their democratic transitions.

But coincidentally, history is repeating itself and democracy is in disarray in both countries—the military has seized power in Myanmar by overthrowing a democratically elected government and the Taliban insurgents have taken over in Afghanistan.

The question that is being discussed in foreign policy circles is whether New Delhi could have played some proactive role to stop the upheavals in the two countries, and if it can still prevent them from turning into pariah states.

There is no easy answer to those questions, but one thing is clear: The crises in Afghanistan and Myanmar have put the Narendra Modi government’s much-publicized “Neighborhood First” policy to the test. And India’s lack of engagement with the interim regimes in both Kabul and Naypyitaw could allow China to increase its influence over them.

India’s experiments in Afghanistan

The swift and sudden takeover of Kabul by the Taliban has taken the entire world by surprise. Seen as an intelligence failure of epic proportions, countries have squarely blamed the US for its hasty exit from the war-torn country, thereby leaving the common Afghans to the mercy of trigger-happy Afghan warlords.

There was no way India could have predicted such an event given that New Delhi has always opted to play what is called soft diplomacy in the South Asian nation, focusing more on people-centric relations, rather than hardcore military and intelligence-sharing cooperation.

Buoyed by America’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan, launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, New Delhi invested more than US$3 billion in rebuilding the war-ravaged nation. It has completed various infrastructure development projects, including the Salma Dam, a hydropower project in Herat province; the Zaranj-Delaram highway close to the Iran border; and the Afghan Parliament building, besides hospitals and schools.

It’s worth mentioning that India was the first country to resume its diplomatic mission in Afghanistan in November 2001. And ironically, it is one of the first countries to have begun the process of shutting down consular services. For instance, India operated four consulates in Afghanistan, of which two—the ones in Jalalabad and Herat—were closed last year, purportedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and not because of any direct threat from the Taliban. The Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif consulates were shut in the past one month or so. New Delhi finally evacuated all personnel from its Kabul embassy after the Taliban captured the capital city.

India-Afghan ties

Historically, the two countries have maintained warm and friendly ties. Afghanistan has been in turmoil for almost four decades due to a mix of internal and external factors, but this has not deterred India from engaging with successive governments barring the last Taliban regime, prior to 2001.

The ousted president Ashraf Ghani maintained close relations with New Delhi as he realized that Pakistan and China were not interested in solving Afghanistan’s problems. However, China has been quick to fill the void created after the US exit from the South Asian country. Days before the fall of Kabul, Beijing hosted a Taliban delegation in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

It is believed China is keen on investing in mineral-rich Afghanistan in a big way. For this, the communist country has sought assurances from the Taliban that it will ensure security and stability in the region and curb the activities of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a UN-designated terrorist outfit that seeks to establish a Uygur state in China’s western province of Xinjiang.

India too has some old contacts in the Taliban. Taliban spokesperson Sohail Shaheen was seen on Indian television on various occasions and Sher Abbas Shanikzai, head of the Taliban’s Doha office, has referred to his training at the Indian Military Academy several times. It seems India could easily leverage these old contacts.

Earlier this year, Qatar allowed the Taliban to set up an office in the capital city Doha to facilitate peace talks with the US and countries seeking to contact the Taliban.

In June, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Doha as New Delhi was seeking Qatari assistance to create a ground for India-Taliban relations.

Challenges before India

Coming back to the question of whether India can still do some diplomatic maneuvers with respect to Myanmar and Afghanistan, one can only be hopeful that all is not lost yet. New Delhi just needs to play its cards carefully.

On civil war-hit Myanmar, India’s position continues to be ambiguous—it has not officially condemned the Feb. 1 military coup, although New Delhi has called for an end to the ongoing violence and bloodbath. On Aug. 17, India chaired a closed UN Security Council meeting on Myanmar and welcomed the ASEAN five-point consensus, even as dissenting voices started to emerge from within the bloc.

According to New Delhi-based foreign policy analyst Prakash Nanda, there has not been any major shift in India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar and Afghanistan for decades. “The Modi government has continued the same foreign policy as was envisaged by the previous United Progressive Alliance government. In a nutshell, India continues to play soft diplomacy, when it comes to countries like Myanmar and Afghanistan,” Nanda, who has authored several books on India’s foreign policy, told this writer.

Explaining further, Nanda said India does not want to disturb its military ties with Myanmar, a reason why New Delhi has so far desisted from openly criticizing the junta. India needs Myanmar’s cooperation to rein in the northeastern rebel groups operating from that country. Besides, India has invested in infrastructure projects in the neighboring country and hence, it is walking a diplomatic tightrope.

However, the China factor will haunt New Delhi if the Myanmar crisis persists for a longer period. After all, communist China could wield far greater influence over the military rulers in Naypyitaw in the long run than a democratic India can.

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.

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