For the first time since the late 1980s, India is facing acute, simultaneous, instability on both its eastern and western fronts.
In Myanmar, the February 1 coup structurally dislocated nascent constitutional reforms and electoral politics. The move has intensified fighting by ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), and sparked decentralised urban warfare against the military.
In Afghanistan, the beginning of the departure of the United States (US) in May has emboldened the Taliban. Intent on creating an Islamic Emirate, the Taliban is seeking to exploit fissures within the Kabul government, intensify military pressure against Afghan security forces, and create panic among the civil elite through targeted assassinations.
Caught off-guard with a deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, weak economic performance, domestic political polarisation, and China’s territorial ingress in Ladakh, India faces intense stress. In this context, Myanmar and Afghanistan are neither dominating headlines nor, perhaps, featuring prominently on New Delhi’s foreign policy agenda. But India risks losing strategic space to China and Pakistan in these countries while facing a real prospect of spillover of violence into its own territory.
How should India respond?
As a neighbour that doesn’t have an exit timeline, India must diversify relationships within Afghanistan and Myanmar. Instead of becoming caught up in their internal battles, it must support the long-term development of inclusive polities in these countries. Though tenuous, demanding, and fraught with the risk of failure, this is perhaps the only way New Delhi may, with support from Quad allies, redefine regional geopolitics in its favour. To counter Pakistan and China’s strategic thrust that privileges partisan politics in Kabul and Naypyidaw, India needs to offer a viable inclusive alternative.
Afghanistan is critical from a security-strategic perspective. Despite visible strains in India’s existing policy of supporting Kabul, a stable republican set-up would reduce the potential for malign external interference. It may also reduce the allure of religious extremism, help prevent the use of Afghan territory as a staging ground by terrorists fixated on Kashmir or other parts of the world, and push Pakistan into finding ways to deal with India’s inevitable presence in Kabul (and vice-versa).
Myanmar is an immediate neighbour. Instability there undermines India’s development plans and counterinsurgency strategies in the Northeast. It equally complicates the Act East policy as the completion of the Kaladan Road project comes under question. Despite India’s measured critique of the junta, Naypyidaw has left New Delhi dealing with mass migrant flows, increasing activity of narco-criminals connected to the Golden Triangle, and unrest along the entire India-Myanmar border.
Simply put, India cannot afford to overlook the situation in these countries for too long. But what would it take for New Delhi to advance a politically inclusive agenda?
India is facing its own majoritarian moment with a preference for authoritarian politics among sections of the ruling dispensation. If one is to assess this in the regional context, certain aspects offer clues. In Myanmar, retired officials close to the ruling dispensation have often belittled the killing of over 800 protesters and viewed criticism of the junta as western-style hypocrisy. Others have gone as far as to claim that democracy in Myanmar is about “dharmic obligation and sense of duty towards the state”. Ethnic pushback is seen as a West-initiated Christian-Muslim conspiracy against Buddhists and Hindus.
Such ideological tendencies receive a fillip from outdated-but-dominant analysis in policy circles that believes support for the people of Myanmar is bound to fail, just because it did in 1988-90. The fact remains that India’s support for the EAOs at that point was tactical in nature and meant to quell insurgent violence in Assam and Nagaland. That New Delhi underestimated the Tatmadaw’s staying power and put all its eggs in the basket of the resistance —instead of diversifying relations aimed at talks — was a result of an equally misguided ideological position within Rajiv Gandhi’s inner circle that viewed support for the democracy movement as an end in itself.
The irony of India’s relative inaction vis-à-vis Myanmar is that the junta has nonetheless tilted towards Beijing. This was witnessed in senior-general Min Aung Hlaing’s recent interview in Chinese State-controlled media where he berated Aung San Suu Kyi. It was a breathtaking display of the general’s renewed strategic embrace of Beijing, despite his latent mistrust of China’s intentions. The Tatmadaw, never a committed counterinsurgency ally of India, has also begun paying India-centric rebels who operate from Myanmar’s territory to kill protesters on its behalf.
In this situation, the millions of people whose lives are torn asunder and who are angry with China for enabling the coup-makers, should logically be India’s allies-in-waiting. Constituting multiple (not all) EAOs and the National Unity Government, the anti-junta resistance could, with adequate international support from Quad countries, offer an organised challenge to Chinese-abetted authoritarianism in Myanmar. But, instead, they find themselves internationally isolated and internally divided.
As pushback against the junta continues to spread across the country, New Delhi must realise that the situation is qualitatively different from 1988, and even 2007 when Buddhist monks rose in protests, only to be crushed by the junta. India supported the Tatmadaw and its plans for reforms leading to the creation of the 2008 constitution. The February coup effectively put an end to a process that had India’s support from the outset.
Unlike Myanmar, though, there are signs of a tectonic shift in India’s Afghanistan policy.
In a demonstration of its capacities, commitment, and operational creativity, Indian intelligence officials and diplomats have, in recent weeks, picked up a long-lost thread of direct, but covert, conversation with powerful factions of the Taliban. The details of this outreach will emerge slowly, if at all. But, according to those familiar with the development, who request anonymity, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Taliban — despite dependence on Pakistan and trust deficit with India — would not want to see a massive reduction in India’s presence in Afghanistan.
To be sure, core differences between the two sides on the republic versus emirate question, and the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan’s security agencies remain. But in a departure from its former policy of not engaging with the Taliban at all, India is demonstrating an increased appetite for testing the waters among sections of the Taliban, without compromising on its relationship with cross-ethnic allies in the government. This is a welcome step, which will help India position itself as a credible stakeholder in Kabul as the contours of a post-US Afghan battlefield clarify in the coming months.
Kabul may not crumble easily — at least not for the next nine to 12 months — especially if regional allies increase financial support and help fill military logistical gaps created by the US withdrawal. On this count, increased coordination between India and Iran, both of whom find the Taliban’s uncompromising political positions and continuing relationship with the al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamists alarming, could prove consequential. Iran’s outreach to the Taliban, now supplemented by India’s, may offer the group alternatives that it has not explored in the past and may temper its behaviour.
The central challenge for Indian leaders, then, is to rise above their ideological preferences and policy conservatism to adopt strategies that advance politically inclusive politics in Afghanistan and Myanmar. That’s the only credible, and sustainable, answer to the rising assertiveness of China and Pakistan, both of whom have fuelled discord in whichever country they have sought influence in.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS, University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal
The views expressed are personal