By Lt Gen P R Shankar
India’s geostrategic environment has changed significantly in the past one month. A Talibani Afghanistan, a hybrid Pakistan and an authoritarian China – all in flux, present a new geostrategic challenge beyond the ordinary conception that terrorists will flood the Valley. There is a new Afghanistan- Pakistan- China axis on the block. This axis has tremendous interdependencies to achieve their interests. Taliban in Afghanistan gets sustainability, Pakistan gets permanent strategic depth vis a vis India and China gets an opportunity at superpower status. The issue with this new axis is that it is extremely inimical to Indian core interests. In this context, India will hereafter face a three front situation. The third front being terror, rooted in Afghanistan. One needs to understand this concept better and see how to handle it in the evolving paradigm.
Afghanistan will be under the Taliban rule for the foreseeable future. Taliban will continue to be propped up by China and Pakistan. It will invariably become a haven for terrorists and politico-religious radicalism. The reasons are simple. Firstly, Afghanistan is set to dip into universal poverty as per UNDP. When Taliban started reviving in 2012, growth in Afghanistan started dipping from 9% to 2% (current). Soon, it will contract into negative territory ( -3% to -10%) due to instability, and declining international support. Radical leaders, hollowed out public institutions, lack of women participation and revisionism based on holy scriptures will endure. Day-to-day governance will stall and anarchy will set in. The Taliban revenue model of drug trade, looted minerals, money laundering, illicit import and export, Islamic taxes and extortions will enhance impoverishment. The combination of extreme poverty, anarchy and radicalism will fuel terrorism. Secondly, Taliban has already acquired the status of Capo di Tuti of radical Islam. Radicals will make a beeline to Afghanistan for inspiration and guidance. International support to radicals , export of terror and blackmail will be attractive channels of state revenue. Thirdly, There are already reports that new warlords are appearing. The Northern Resistance and other groups will persist. Internecine violence and insurgency will grow. Cyclically, it will lead to increase in state sponsored terror. Fourthly, Taliban will do the bidding of China and Pakistan for survival. Fifthly, In this wider context, India faces a threat from Afghanistan based fundamentalist organisations not only in the Valley but also elsewhere. Religion based political polarisation can sharpen to all round detriment in India. It will provide Pakistan and China with low cost options to disrupt India’s growth and rise.
China faces multiple structural problems which did not exist a year back. Firstly, It is being forced to expand its geostrategic footprint as USA is consolidating. Secondly, Its economy is stagnating due to aging / declining population, increased labor costs, lack of jobs, poor consumption, break up of tech sector and the revisionist common prosperity drive. Its Zero Covid policy has long term adverse implications. New social fault lines are emerging which threaten its economy and culture. Thirdly, USA, its peer competitor has started reviving economically. Worse still, India despite all its chaos is continuing to rise. Fourthly, Xi Jinping is manipulating for a third term and beyond. These are politically sensitive times for Xi Jinping and China when geostrategic risk taking is difficult. Fifthly, Taliban has proved that religious militarism can succeed. The US experience indicates that decades of investment in an alien country means nothing when the chips are down. Xinjiang and Tibet are usurped lands which remain alien to the Han. Put all these together. Sixthly, The Taliban success can fire up Xinjiang rebels and the Tibetan movement to revive. Even worse, If India and/or USA start supporting these movements and Taiwan goes on a tangent, the concept of One China is kaput. India has the capability to set the Chinese house on fire. Both must be diverted and contained. Seventhly, Pakistan, its main and only regional ally is fragile. It has to be protected at all costs. CPEC and BRI are at stake. Any reverse in Pakistan will have a catastrophic effect on China. It is after all the cat’s paw to contain India also. Eighthly, China will support Taliban and Pakistan to the hilt since they are the keys to providing security to its world-wide assets and interests which can be impacted by radicals. They provide a security firewall in Xinjiang from Islamic forces. They also provide opportunity for a two ocean reach and exploitation of mineral resources which will catapult it into a superpower. Ninthly, An ex-Australian PM has said that India has all the attributes of China and is also democratic. India can play a spoiler in Afghanistan , Pakistan, LAC , South China Sea and Chinese international interests. India’s containment must be outsourced to the lethal Pakistan- Taliban combination, while China continues to exert direct pressure of its own.
Pakistan is riding a geostrategic tiger. It has extended itself into Afghanistan with the hope that Taliban will be its client state. This new found strategic depth is sustainable with China’s support. The Deep State envisages two nations under its control now- Pakistan and Afghanistan. It will do everything and anything to get back into the good books of USA and the West who will see it as an indispensable necessity to sort out Afghanistan, rein in Taliban and keep Pakistan afloat. Pakistan will deal with the world with a nuclear gun on its head and a radical loose cannon toting a suitcase bomb. Pakistan will also use the ‘cost of abandonment of Afghanistan’ threat as a geopolitical blackmail tool for its own survival. In the meanwhile as Pakistan’s economy tests new bottoms, its Army will continue with its fingers in many pies – fighting in Afghanistan, infiltration into Kashmir, insurgency in Baluchistan, contending with TTP and PTM and finally running a business empire. For this hybrid nation, Inflicting a defeat on India is its ultimate dream. It will take any risk and go to any lengths to achieve it. Its national aim of defeating India is hereafter feasible only through Taliban and China. Taliban enables it to deploy terror and infuse radical politics in India while claiming deniability. India has to look beyond Kashmir, proxy war, military and security issues hereafter. The danger of political radicalism in India is real hereafter. Terrorists of the Taliban stable and home grown terrorists of Pakistan will be the twins of radical terror. China and Pakistan pose a conventional two front situation which will be overwhelming. The orchestrator of the Taliban- Pakistan-China axis is obviously Pakistan. India faces a powerful adversary in China, a rabid foe in Taliban and a dangerous enemy in Pakistan which are acting in concert with each other.
The Taliban government will stabilise in due course but Afghanistan will remain unstable. When that state of predictable stability-instability normalises, the Sino-Pak-Taliban machinations will change the regional dynamics completely. Simultaneously, India has to contend with the reality that USA will not come back into the region. USA will protect its interests through an over the horizon security architecture which will be partially dependant on Pakistan. To that extent USA would have been compromised. India has to face up to one fundamental fact. It is on its own. No one will help it when its chips are down. However India has innate strengths to handle the evolving paradigm. We need to leverage our strengths better. A vibrant democracy of 1.3 billion cannot be kept down. In this paradigm India must transform its geostrategic outlook from being inward, defensive and risk averse to being innovatively outbound. Conceptually, the best bet is to make China, Pakistan and Afghanistan look either inward or away from India through its immense soft power duly hardened. There are openings aplenty. China has five instabilities – Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Hong Kong, and is overstretched. Pakistan’s western frontier and CPEC are extremely fragile. The Taliban will be vulnerable to its own people and non-Pakistani forces as days go by.
At the outset, India must grow strong internally. It involves generating political consensus across the board to recognise the new paradigm and exhibit a national resolve to tackle it. It also means strengthening the Kashmir region democratically – politically, socially and security wise. An important aspect of Internal strength is that India’s military must attain a balanced autarky of self-sufficiency, export orientation and selective hi-tech imports. Firstly, In our immediate India neighbourhood, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal are going through upheavals. These give India opportunities and openings to improve matters. We need to capitalise on them. Secondly, There has to be a counter pull on Taliban from its west. Iran has already extended its hand to India in this regard. The Russian and Chinese interests in Afghanistan are at divergence as against the Indian and Russian interests which are convergent. Russia and India have taken the decision to act in concert to assist the CARs in their security. Both these initiatives need synergy and investment. We need to build upon the historical Indo- Russian relationship. Most importantly, these initiatives will force an overstretch on China and Pakistan. Simultaneously, India must start talking to all stakeholders in Afghanistan including Taliban to keep our options open. Our aim should be to exploit our soft power and reach out to the people of Afghanistan. The entire strategy should ensure that China and Pakistan get stuck into a quagmire in Afghanistan. Thirdly, Gilgit Baltistan is the centre of gravity of the Afghanistan- Pakistan – China- India quadrangle. A political outreach into these areas is a must. Fourthly, India in concert with USA needs to reimagine its Tibet and Durand Line strategy. It will force China and Pakistan to look internally. Fifthly, While it is well understood that USA is not a reliable partner, we do not have much other choice. There is a need to strengthen the Indo US strategic partnership with a focus on new realities. Part of that story is to leverage the growing influence of the Indian diaspora in USA unambiguously. Sixthly, Ayatollah Khomeini was in France when he started the Iranian Revolution. India and France have deep relations with Iran. They must take the initiative and risk of effecting a reproachment between Iran and USA. Even partial success will change regional dynamics completely. Even the Middle East will not be averse to this initiative. There is a view that India can enable better US-Iran equation in future just as Pakistan did for the Sino-US relationship. Seventhly, QUAD and the Indo Pacific construct needs a re-definition. Indo Pacific is no more consigned to the South China Sea, Indian Ocean or a maritime domain. Both ends need adequate focus to ensure that China is stretched. More importantly, the QUAD platform is more important for geo-economics rather than being a 2+2 dialogue platform. A technology and economic forum needs to be established in the new paradigm to be an alternative to China.
India needs to understand the new paradigm. Hereafter it is the largest democracy vs three dictatorships – religious, military and authoritarian. Let us not dream that China, Pakistan and Taliban will auto destruct in Afghanistan and dissolve into oblivion by the wave of a magic wand. They will subjugate people with an iron hand to realise their interests. Dictatorships – direct or proxy will be ruthless. That is their track record. A democratic India needs a new realisation, a new thinking and a new strategy. I sounded out a few thinkers on the evolving Three Front paradigm. I was asked – what is so different from current the two front conventional scenario and the half front of proxy war? My repartee is that why are we so worked about the reinstation of Taliban? There is something beyond the normal which is unfolding. I might not be correct at all in my postulation. However I am not totally wrong either…
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda