The invasion resulted in little more than pushing the already impoverished masses further into chaos and despair and destabilised their country even more. In the process, it also led to the hubris of the United States that was built on its supposed military might.
When the invasion, which bore a rather grand title ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, was launched with the righteous indignation of the Western world following the September 11, 2001, attack that brought down the World Trade Centre, there were few opponents, either because they shared the shock or because they feared the wrath of the American establishment that drew the line saying ‘with us or against us’. Whether the world realised it then or not, the seasoned analysts should have learnt from the erstwhile Soviet Union’s fate in those arid lands, which the US had helped engineer only a little over a decade before that, or its own abject failures in other battlefields like Vietnam.
For Afghanistan and its people, this repeat of history is not just a farce; it remains as tragic as it was in 1989 when the USSR withdrew and the allies from the West deserted them. What followed then was a terrible civil strife where warlords ruled with shocking brutality, which gave rise to the Taliban, a group that portrayed itself as a cleansing force. This time, the Talibs are well-entrenched and is widely believed to be poised to overrun the tottering government in a matter of days. This brings us to the difficult scenario that India has found itself in. The country no longer has a strong ally in Afghanistan as it had in Ahmad Shah Masood, an influential guerilla leader, a Minister in the post-Soviet cabinet, and arguably the most effective bulwark against Taliban and its ally Al Qaeda. But the Bollywood-loving hero of the resistance, nicknamed the ‘Lion of Panjshir’, was assassinated just two days before the WTC attack, and with that ended a considerable influence that India had.
Also, as many analysts have pointed out, another grave mistake was India’s fickleness over the strategically significant Chabahar Port that Iran was keen to jointly develop. India would be wary about the comments by Chinese and Taliban leaderships that border on being warm. Though Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is not the same as earlier, the Pashtun ties they share would be used by the former to ensure that India is kept as far away in the periphery as possible.
Then there is another hurdle. With Taliban entering popular conscience as a metaphor for all things undemocratic – and even uncivilised to a large section of critics – it won’t be easy for the Indian government to unconditionally cosy up to it. But in its most practical form, diplomacy is nothing if not hard-nosed, guided by nothing other than self-interest.
Navigating these treacherous waters is perhaps the biggest challenge for even the most seasoned diplomats within the Indian establishment. Their success would influence the country’s success and the region’s stability in the years to come.