India’s neighbourhood has traditionally posed multiple challenges in management to the foreign and defence establishment. In 2021, these seem to have multiplied with the Western and the Eastern arm of the Sub Continent facing prospects of a civil war in Afghanistan and Myanmar respectively. While Afghanistan seems critical from the Indian point of view given passage of the country into Pakistan’s sphere of influence and possibility of formation of terror havens for groups as the Lashkar e Taiyyaba and Jaish e Mohammad, the lack of active intervention tools for stability in Myanmar implies New Delhi’s response will be tethered to the international community which has no viable options for preventing widespread civil war at present.
First coming to Afghanistan, United States and NATO pull out from Afghanistan was anticipated after the February 29, 2020 agreement with the Taliban. However the manner in which the Islamic Republic collapsed on August 15 with the Taliban surging into Kabul on the back of successive over running of a number of provinces came as a huge surprise. Possibly even the Taliban were taken aback having been propelled to power in Kabul in such a short time. The resultant challenges have multiplied in the last month and a half from humanitarian to rights concerns as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) declared by the Taliban lacks requisite financial resources and administrative acumen to transition to governance from guerilla warfare.
Reluctance of the IEA which has awarded key ministerial positions to loyalists to integrate the Republican government in the administrative structure would mean that restoring order will remain distant for some time to come. The attendant humanitarian crisis has led the United Nations to call for emergency funding worth $ 600 million plus and while commitment has been made by multiple nations, with the European Union alone assuring $ 300 million, conversion of the same into tangible support on the ground to the people at large remains a major challenge.
Parallel administration is another concern. The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA) formed under the leadership of the Panjshir leaders led by Ahmad Masood has been followed up by declaration of a government in exile from Geneva. How much traction this will have remains to be seen even as Tajikistan seems to be supporting the NRFA.
Insecurity is also returning to the country with the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) launching a number of attacks in Nangarhar while Kabul the capital has also seen random acts of violence even though the Taliban has claimed that it would be able to control activities of these groups when in power. Meanwhile internal divisions have also emerged with differences in the Doha Shura led by moderates as acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Barader and the Haqqani Network. Mullah Yaqoub the acting defence minister is also not in sync. How this internal conflict manifests as IEA struggles to work out a Constitution and attempts to gain recognition of the international community remains to be seen?
India has the option of engaging with the IEA which has reached out to New Delhi seeking resumption of air services to Kabul, however there appears to be considerable vacillation with possible differences within the policy establishment apart from internal political overtones. What is the approach of the government in supporting the so called government in exile is also unclear as though this appears to be an attractive option, the viability of opening another front against the Taliban needs to be assessed with deliberation as to the likely end result and resources that would be required for the purpose.
Myanmar poses a different challenge for New Delhi which is political and diplomatic in nature. The military transition into a caretaker administration with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as the Prime Minister is looking at an extended stay in governance despite growing resistance on the ground with multiple People’s Defence Force (PDF) and the Ethic Armed Organisations creating a civil war like situation. The National Unity Government (NUG) formed from elements of the National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers is an alternative. India is wary of growing Chinese influence in case of support of either sides. Meanwhile almost 15,000 Myanmar citizens mainly Chin have sought refuge in North East India. A close watch over the developments is essential.
Other neighbours in the region are also going through different crisis though not as critical as Afghanistan and Myanmar. Sri Lanka is facing a huge food security challenge after a surge in COVID 19, debt servicing and economic downturn. In Pakistan the eternal political confrontations between the ruling and opposition parties are taking a ugly turn even as terrorist attacks have grown and a possible refugee bulge from Afghanistan can be anticipated though Islamabad is in a denial mode.
In Nepal the Sher Bahadur Deuba government is struggling to form a cabinet with the judiciary expected to play spoil sport once again. Maldives too is looking at a division in the ruling party the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) and growing radicalization. Bhutan which has managed the COVID 19 with minimum impact on lives is now facing an economic downturn. Meanwhile growing competition in the Indo Pacific is likely to be another concern for India’s diplomatic and defence establishement while terrorism concerns are across the board in the region at large.