New Delhi: From press accounts, it appears that the Narendra Modi government is panicking about India’s roughly $3 billion investment in Afghanistan which will go up in smoke if the Taliban seize power following US troops withdrawal. This danger was always present and repeatedly pointed out by this writer ever since the previous Manmohan Singh administration took the decision to make non-military investments in Afghanistan in a bid to increase the country’s soft power there. Soft power survives and grows only as a complement to hard power and India baulked from making hard power commitments in Afghanistan beyond the small phase when it supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban/ Al-Qaeda/ Pakistan army in league with Russia and Iran. Even so, the assistance was more in battlefield medicine while the bulk of military supplies and logistics were provided by Iran and Russia. India had valid reasons then and continues to do so not to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan which has unsurprisingly resulted in absent leverage. In the past, Indian reluctance gave space to Pakistan to expand its own military engagement in Afghanistan which created levers for it with the Taliban and with the United States. It hoped to employ those levers against India in the dispute over Kashmir. It is another matter that Pakistan lacked strategic direction and squandered those levers and ended up annoying the Taliban and the United States. But Pakistan’s loss such as it is does not translate into gains for India. India is stuck in the same rut in Afghanistan as before with the added prospect now of losing valuable investments made in the country. Foreign policy officials and advisers of both Manmohan Singh and his successor ought to be called to account for harebrained investments predicated on a permanent US presence in Afghanistan. How could India suppose that the United States would be in military occupation of Afghanistan forever? How can a state base its geostrategy -- if such is what you may call India’s foolhardy investments in Afghanistan -- on a premiss of an unalterable occupation by one state of another?

And now that the United States is leaving Afghanistan, there is bedlam in the foreign policy establishment. That India has not realistically assessed Afghanistan’s Taliban troubles is clear from foreign office briefings to journalists and from newspaper commentaries penned by retired officials. One former diplomat suggests that India is a neutral country for an Afghan loya jirga in which the present Afghan puppet government, the Taliban and assorted warlords would be happy to participate with the involvement of the Afghan diaspora in India. It is rude to ask but what has the ex-Indian Foreign Service officer been smoking? What extraordinary leverage does India have with rival parties of Afghanistan that they should consent for a Lutyens Delhi or Taj Mahal jirga? And if that is not plain muddle-headedness, there is a positive gem from official quarters. Ever since India lost the territory called Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, India also lost contiguity with Afghanistan. The fatuous argument now being advanced by the ministry of external affairs is that India has claims on PoK and technically, therefore, shares a border with Afghanistan. Really? And how helpful is a shared border with Afghanistan? Ask Pakistan, Iran, China and the Central Asian states. It is a blessing in disguise that a disputed territory which can never be recovered intervenes between Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir. Imagine if Jammu and Kashmir and Afghanistan shared borders. We would not merely be fighting Pakistan but grappling with international jihad as well. Hard-headed realism is the need of the hour for the Indian foreign policy establishment.

So what’s to be done about Afghanistan? For starters, India must write off the investment in Afghanistan as conditioned by bad planning and strategy. The nice part of the investment is that India has earned enormous goodwill in Afghanistan. It is not hated as it was hated for the IPKF in Sri Lanka. Even if the investment goes to ruin as the Taliban overruns the country, the goodwill for India in Afghan hearts and minds will remain embedded for generations. It is a seed that may nourish something wonderful in future. If it does not, it would be tragic for Afghanistan while India rues a failed experiment. In any case, it is time that India stops agonizing about its Afghan investment like a petty trader and turns its attention to the fallouts of US withdrawal and Taliban rule. The situation is very fluid and frantic diplomacy with the United States, Russia, Iran, China and outside players like Saudi Arabia would be counterproductive. If the idea of Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to India is to use his good offices with the Taliban, it is pointless. Bin Salman is an international pariah after the Jamal Khashoggi murder. No power (except Russia) desires his company. A majority of the extended Saudi ruling family has turned against him. Saudi Arabia did not lift a finger when the United States destroyed the Taliban regime after 9/11. The Taliban sees itself as the progenitor of a new caliphate. Why should it heed the Saudis and the discredited crown prince in particular on India with its secondary presence in Afghanistan?

India has to play a waiting game while securing Jammu and Kashmir. Would the chest-thumpers and the hyper-nationalists in power at the Centre understand the value of strategic patience and forward planning? Probably not.