IT WAS ONLY a question of time before Kabul fell, says A.S. Dulat, a former head of India’s top spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, speaking from Delhi. The only surprise was the speed of the Taliban’s advance, concurs the ex-boss of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI, Asad Durrani, speaking from Islamabad. The two old warriors nod in unison. Despite lifetimes spent jousting in the shadow war between India and Pakistan, the former foes seem happy to agree on the inevitability of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. What they do not tell their Indian interviewer is how sharply different the implications of the change are for each of the South Asian rivals.
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For India, the house-of-cards collapse of the 20-year-old Afghan democracy represents a strategic setback and a stinging humiliation. Since 2001 India has spent a non-trivial $3bn or so to bolster the American-installed regime. It built roads, dams, power lines, clinics and schools across the country. It trained Afghan officers, including women, in its military academies. It gave scholarships to thousands. India even presented a fancy new parliament, complete with fountains and a giant bronze dome. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, himself inaugurated it in 2015.
Besides losing all its investment in a secular, democratic Afghanistan, India has also lost strategic leverage. There were never Indian troops in Afghanistan, but its aid projects and four consulates certainly spooked the generals running the show in Pakistan. India’s close ties with the Afghan government gave its own security establishment a whiff of “over-the-horizon” influence that felt appropriate to an emerging superpower. When Pakistan-backed Islamists mounted terrorist attacks on India and stirred violence in its restive region of Kashmir, India could threaten to use its Afghan assets to stir trouble in Pakistan’s restive region of Balochistan. Now, with Mr Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government having stirred its own troubles in Kashmir, by stripping the region of autonomy in 2019, it must face the prospect of a new generation of Muslim Kashmiris inspired by the Taliban’s fanaticism.
Perhaps because its spies read the writing on the wall, or perhaps because its teachers and engineers increasingly risked being kidnapped, India had wound down its Afghan presence in recent years. Yet it was only in June that Indian envoys took the first tentative steps to engage with the Taliban. The reckoning with what an abrupt American departure from its backyard means for India has also been slow to settle. The Times of India, the country’s biggest-circulation English daily, voiced one common perception in a sour editorial on August 16th: “At a time when India has strategically hitched its wagon to the US, the Afghan situation should make New Delhi think twice about putting all its eggs in Washington’s basket.”
This is a conclusion that Pakistan, as well as its “all-weather friend” China, will be happy for India to draw. With a stagnant economy and stymied politics, India’s nuclear-armed neighbour has not had much to cheer about of late. So it is that even if urban Pakistanis have little affinity with the Taliban, many are crowing at the Islamists’ success. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, went so far as to proclaim that Afghans had “broken the chains of slavery” with the West.
Mr Durrani says that Pakistan itself deserves no credit for the Taliban victory, except for having resisted pressure from America and its allies to crack down on the group. He is too modest. The original Taliban, or “students”, of the 1990s, were students in Pakistani madrassas. Certainly, after America’s invasion in 2001, the Taliban would never have survived their years in the wilderness without the haven provided by Pakistan.
That Pakistan has stood by the Taliban is especially striking, considering that an ideological affiliate based in Afghanistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has terrorised Pakistan itself, for example by slaughtering more than 145 children and adults at an army-run school in 2014. Questioned about reports that the Taliban have released TTP leaders from the Afghan prisons, the Pakistani interior minister says airily that he hopes for an agreement between the two countries not to allow their soil to be used to attack the other. Luckily for Pakistan’s generals they are rarely held accountable for any violent “blowback” from the ISI’s nastier associates. Aside from the occasional diversion of a television interview, Mr Durrani can continue to enjoy his retirement in peace.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Tea time in the Great Game”