General Bipin Rawat recently said Iran and Pakistan could exploit the situation in Afghanistan after the US pull out. But he made it clear they weren't the only ones

A lot of key changes are taking place in the South Asian region, which has both direct and indirect bearing on not only India’s national security but also strategic interests in the long run.

One such development is the Afghan peace process and the US decision to withdraw all of its remaining troops from the war-torn country by 11 September, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which led to their intervention in Afghanistan in search for al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

The Indian defence and security establishment is understandably worried how this will pan out. India, too, wants to sit at the high table in the Afghan peace process and not just watch from the sidelines.

This was clearly articulated in 2019 by then-Army chief and current Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat. Addressing the annual press conference, Rawat had said that India should engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it cannot miss out “on joining the bandwagon” while countries led by the US engage with it. Of course, Rawat’s statement was different from the official line at the time — “no engagement with the Taliban”. His comment came a day after he had backed talks with the Taliban at the Raisina Dialogue.

I still remember the buzz his statement created in the corridors of power with several people in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) getting upset. Cut to 2021 and India is now slowly getting involved with the Afghan peace process. And Gen Rawat is back expressing India’s concern regarding the US pull out from Afghanistan.

Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue last week, he said, “We have concerns about Afghanistan. If the US feels that their withdrawal and a similar withdrawal by its NATO allies that we are hearing about is ultimately going to lead to peace and tranquillity, we would be happy to see such a situation emerging. But our concern is that the vacuum should not create space for other disruptors to step in”.

One would assume that India’s concern is Pakistan, which seeks to counter any Indian influence in Afghanistan.

As researcher Christian Wagner notes, in the 1990s, the Pakistani military had linked its Afghanistan relations with the Kashmir conflict. “Afghanistan is perceived under the lens of strategic depth in order to prevent an encirclement by India,” he wrote.

Former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf had said in 2015 that the country’s intelligence agency ISI had “cultivated” the Taliban to counter the Indians.

Is Pakistan The Only Concern For India?

During the Q&A round at the Raisina session, General Rawat revealed another worry, without naming it.

Asked whether it was Iran and Pakistan that could exploit the situation in wake of the American pull out, the CDS said there are others too.

“Many people are looking at the opportunity to exploit the vacuum that is being created. Afghanistan is a nation which is rich in resources…there are nations that tend to exploit resources for their own benefit without the benefit going to the community of that nation”, he said adding that the international community must step in to ensure “Afghanistan is for the Afghans.”

While he did not name the country, General Rawat was clearly referring to China, which has emerged as the rogue player in global politics.

A coordinated approach by Pakistan and China could heat up the situation for India.

Afghanistan Fits Into China’s Global Ambitions

Those watching China closely are aware of the eyes Beijing has set on Afghanistan. Who would have thought a few years ago that in 2021, the Afghan President would term China as a factor in the regional prosperity in the same breath as India?

“We have a lot of positive relationships with China and the growth of China now is going to be the factor as growth of India for regional prosperity,” Ashraf Ghani said in an interview to CNN.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – could well be extended into Afghanistan. The project is part of Xi’s plans for massive economic heft over other countries besides deepening partnerships in security, trade, and energy that will drive China’s growth story in years to come.

In an article in The Diplomat, journalist Sohrab Azad notes that the “primary reason Chinese investment in Afghanistan has been sluggish is due to intense instability and American presence, but those key aspects may suddenly change in the coming future.” Afghanistan’s natural resources are estimated to be worth around $1 trillion, and Chinese companies have bagged some big contracts including “a 30-year lease to extract the second largest copper deposit in the world (valued at least $50 billion) for $3.4 billion“.

Monika Chansoria, a Senior Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, notes that “with Beijing’s growing appetite for energy and natural resources, and consequent opening up of Afghanistan’s energy, mineral and raw materials to foreign investors, an escalatory pattern in the graph of Sino-Afghan ties has been established in the past decade.” She added that “the Chinese are likely to harvest maximum benefits by concentrating in the economic investment sector”.

The China-Pakistan Factor Worries India

One is sure that General Rawat is not worried about just the economic aspect of China’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. An assessment by Yun Sun, director of the China programme and co-director of the East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre, says that Beijing’s fundamental interest in Afghanistan is stability.

“Chaos in Afghanistan, from Beijing’s perspective, stokes Islamic fundamentalism that threatens domestic security in China, particularly in Xinjiang,” he noted in his article last year. He added that “with the pending American withdrawal, India’s strategic investment in Afghanistan looks to be a largely sunk cost.”

“For China, India’s failure means Pakistan’s victory. With the American exit, Pakistan is believed to have significantly more influence over events in Afghanistan, effectively alleviating its strategic vulnerability of being encircled by a hostile Afghanistan to the north and a hostile India to the south. The enhancement of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan will not only indirectly contribute to China’s influence but also potentially improve the negotiation positions of both Islamabad and Beijing vis-à-vis Washington. Although China bears a negative and pessimistic view over the internal peace and stability of Afghanistan following the peace deal, there are some silver linings in terms of regional geopolitics,” he wrote.