India is an illegitimate stakeholder that has no natural geographic or historical interests in Afghanistan, but it’s precisely for this reason why it’s best positioned to play the spoiler there by exploiting long-term expectations about the Chabahar Corridor in order to trick Russia into promoting the de-facto “internal partition” of the country, which would actually undermine Moscow’s growing mediational role in the conflict and offset its overall Eurasian “balancing” strategy.
India’s expanding role in Afro-Eurasian affairs is one of the most impactful geopolitical trends of contemporary times, and nowhere is it more apparent in practice than in New Delhi’s efforts to increase its influence in Afghanistan. Most observers agree that the landlocked country provides India with “strategic depth” over Pakistan, though disagreements abound about whether New Delhi’s activities there are geared more towards stabilizing the region or destabilizing it. Officially speaking, India is in favor of bringing peace to Afghanistan and has to that end invested in its transregional connective infrastructure potential as proven by the much-publicized Chabahar Corridor project, but New Delhi’s actual policy there suggests that instability in part of the country is also to its grand strategic interests because it could take advantage of those chaotic dynamics to destabilize Pakistan.
For example, Islamabad has accused India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) of supporting anti-Pakistan terrorists there as part of what can be described as the Hybrid War on CPEC, the waging of which is one of New Delhi’s most important regional priorities right now. It follows that the destabilization of China’s flagship Silk Road project would inevitably be to India’s benefit because it would weaken its top two strategic competitors to the point of “levelling the playing field” and creating space for advancing its regional hegemonic designs. It’s no coincidence that India has recently entered into a fast-moving and full-spectrum military-strategic alliance with the US because both Great Powers are opposed to China and Pakistan, and especially the latter two’s combined potential in accelerating the emergence of the Multipolar World Order through CPEC.
India’s seemingly schizophrenic policy of simultaneously supporting the stabilization of Afghanistan through the Chabahar Corridor and its destabilization via patronizing anti-Pakistani terrorists there is confusing enough, but it’s made all the more perplexing by its efforts to “multi-align” between the US and Russia’s competing peace processes. On the one hand, India shares the same strategic vision for “Greater South Asia” as the US does and is actively collaborating with it to shape the region according to their plans, while on the other, India also has a decades-long policy of partnering with Russia and is currently in the midst of comprehensively reviving its previously stalled relations with it. While it might superficially seem like India is “balancing” between the two countries, a closer look reveals that it’s actually leaning much closer to the US.
India refused to send any official representatives to the recent multilateral peace talks that Moscow hosted with the Taliban, proving that it doesn’t take this effort all that seriously, nor does it agree with Russia’s position that the group must be an equal party to any forthcoming peace agreement. Russia is well aware of this but invited India anyhow because it didn’t want to disrespect its fellow SCO member if it invited the rest of the organization’s countries and a few others (Iran, Turkmenistan, and the US) to attend. Similarly, India didn’t want to disrespect Russia in spite of vehemently disagreeing with its stance, which is why it only sent two former diplomats to the event in order to avoid the optics of officially endorsing it. As it stands, India has no influence on the Moscow-led peace process, but that might eventually change.
The Chabahar Game-Changer
Before progressing any further, the reader should be aware of the ancient Indian strategist Chanakya, who’s oftentimes compared to Machiavelli. This controversial figure is known for his creative methods of deception and the mastery with which he fooled his adversaries, in many ways being much more ruthlessly amoral than Machiavelli ever was. The relevance in bringing him up in this analysis is that Chanakya’s teachings are still being practiced in the present day, and that it’s foolish to underestimate his role in shaping India’s strategic thinking. While it might appear as though the country will never be in a position to influence Russia’s stance towards Afghanistan, completely discounting it at this point would be irresponsible because of the fact that the Chabahar Corridor could represent a diplomatic game-changer if it succeeds.
To explain, the implied reason why the US surprisingly issued a sanctions waiver for this Indian-Iranian project is because Washington expects it to eventually (key word) improve living standards for the average Afghan to the point of making them more loyal to Kabul as a result of the tangible benefits that they’d be receiving from their internationally recognized government’s participation in this project. This could diminish some of the appeal that the Taliban enjoys as well as make a growing percentage of the population dependent on Iranian-transiting trade with India, which could altogether gradually reengineer the political ground realities in Afghanistan. If foreign troops help safeguard the Afghan segment of the Chabahar Corridor, then it might in time become the basis for dividing the country between a pacified non-Taliban north economically integrated with India and a restive pro-Taliban south left out of this arrangement.
The Syrian Significance
Despite roughly corresponding to the non-Pashtun and Pashtun portions of the country respectively, that possible scenario wouldn’t in and of itself be sufficient for getting Russia to agree to Afghanistan’s de-facto “internal partition”, which is why some further elaboration is required for explaining how India could promote this self-serving agenda. Russia is in the process of “balancing” Iran in the Mideast, which might even reportedly see Moscow seeking Tehran’s withdrawal from Syria in exchange for the Islamic Republic receiving sanctions relief from the US. This outcome would advance President Putin’s unofficial peace plan for Syria by paving the way for Russia to resolve the conflict through constitutionally enshrined “decentralization” that could essentially amount to the country’s de-facto “internal partition” according to the ground reality of separate “spheres of influence” for itself, Turkey, and the US.
Emboldened by its geopolitical success in Syria, Russia might imagine that it could simply transplant its “decentralization” model to Afghanistan in replicating a similar resolution to that country’s conflict, though provided that the Chabahar Corridor results in dividing it according to the aforementioned north-south manner. Iran could passively go along with this Indian-American initiative if its “moderate”/”reformist” leaders believed that it represented another opportunity for sanctions relief, both in the indirect form of residual economic benefits and the direct one that the US might agree to just like it could in the event of Tehran’s military withdrawal from Syria. After all, the very fact that the US – and under Trump, no less! – issued a sanctions waiver for the Chabahar Corridor proves that this concept isn’t groundless and that there’s much more to it than immediately meets the eye.
Chanakya’s Political Bear Trap
The groundswell of goodwill that the Russian-led peace process for Afghanistan has generated in the region is due to Moscow’s recognition of objective on-the-ground realities that mandate the Taliban’s equal role in any forthcoming peace process, but deviating from this stance after being deceived by India’s Chanakya game could potentially result in irreversible self-inflicted strategic damage to Russia’s position as the supreme “balancing” force in 21st-century Eurasia. It’s incumbent on India, at the behest of its American ally, to trick Russia into agreeing to support the de-facto “internal partition” of Afghanistan if the Chabahar Corridor succeeds in making it appear as though such a Syrian-like outcome should “inevitably” be applied to the country, taking advantage of how easily Moscow could be misled into thinking that it could indirectly expand its influence there if the non-Pashtun Central Asian-related minorities had their own official “decentralized” territorial units.
Russia could be susceptible to this scenario if India marketed it as a “pragmatic delineation” of the “new” “on-the-ground reality” that creates a “buffer zone” between the “safe and prosperous” northern areas of Afghanistan abutting the Central Asian Republics and the “dangerous” southern majority-Pashtun pro-Taliban part of the country, the latter of which would unbeknownst to Russia be used as India’s Hybrid War launching pad against Pakistan (thus explaining New Delhi’s schizophrenic policy of supporting both the stabilization and destabilization of Afghanistan). This possibility could be avoided, however, if China’s Silk Road succeeds in benefiting all of Afghanistan and counteracting the political effects that India’s Chabahar Corridor could have in reengineering the ground realities in northern Afghanistan. In other words, Afghanistan’s development needs to be even, as any pronounced regional disparities could play into the narrative that the country should be “internally partitioned” according to the Syrian model.
India’s ambitions for Afghanistan are difficult to decipher because the country is practicing a schizophrenic policy of simultaneously supporting its stabilization and destabilization, though it becomes comparatively easier to understand what it’s after once one considers why the US unprecedentedly issued a sanctions waiver for the Chabahar Corridor. The US is gambling that the joint Indian-Iranian project will succeed in creating a noticeable divide between northern and southern Afghanistan, one which will have both developmental and security dimensions that could altogether create the perception that the country needs to be de-facto “internally partitioned” as the most “pragmatic” step towards peace. Unlike in Syria, however, this solution would be both unnecessary and destabilizing, and it would be disadvantageous to Russia’s own grand strategic interests in the region if it fell for India’s Chanakya-like influence operation aimed at getting it to support this counterproductive outcome.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.