Both the countries were monarchies within living memory. They are both landlocked and have similar population sizes. They are also SAARC member states. That is where the similarities between Nepal and Afghanistan end. Or do they?
India and China are heavily invested in intra-Afghan peace talks taking place in Qatar’s Doha for the mainstreaming of the Taliban. India has never trusted the Taliban, which it sees as a proxy of the Pakistani army and holds responsible for terror attacks on its soil. India finds the prospect of Taliban’s return to power in Kabul troubling but in that case it has no option but to engage with the once-dreaded enemy.
That is because India’s continued aloofness could drive the future Afghan government, with Taliban representation, closer to Pakistan, which brokered the Doha talks. India could then have to live with the nightmare of a hostile Afghan-Pak-China strategic alliance next door. China has promised heavy investments in Afghan infrastructure—including on roads to Taliban-held areas—if the mujahideen abandon violence. Such help, China hopes, will prevent the radicalization of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang on Afghan border.
The Americans, for their part, are keen to pull most of their troops out of Afghanistan after 19 bruising years of fighting, during which they lost 3,500 soldiers and $975 billion (and counting). Yet the US would like to continue to have a toehold in this old hotspot of global geopolitical intrigue. Besides the Indian and Chinese interests, Afghanistan is also never far from the Russian radar.
The new, multi-pronged geopolitical (if less intense) tussles we now see in Nepal have long been the norm in Afghanistan. The Islamic state formally joined SAARC in 2007 at the insistence of India, the two countries having long suffered from terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Afghan foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta left no doubt that the goal of his country’s SAARC entry was to “seek help from the SAARC member countries to join counterterrorism circles.” Including Afghanistan in SAARC, then led by India’s favorite Hamid Karzai, was also a way for India to balance China’s growing role as Pakistan’s enabler in the regional body.
The Afghans say their land will help South Asia connect with Central Asia. This is fanciful as Afghanistan will remain restive for years if not decades. ‘The Heart of Asia’ is also where China’s BRI ambitions hit a roadblock.
Nepal joined the BRI to diversify its external links to Central Asia and beyond. Yet that will be difficult amid Afghanistan’s never-ending sectarian violence, coupled with rising tensions between India on one hand, and Pakistan and China, on the other. China wants Afghanistan to be a part of the CPEC that passes through the disputed Kashmiri territories, which is party why India and China are now close to a war.
There is also no prospect of a revival of regional cooperation under SAARC. With this larger goal shelved, the story in all small South Asian states is now pretty much the same: that of intense India-China rivalry, with the Americans increasingly aligning with the Indians to checkmate China. This is as true of Afghanistan today as it is of Nepal and Sri Lanka.
SAARC’s dismal failure also underscores the continued relevance of national borders—the new India-China standoff only accentuating their importance. The big takeaway for Nepal is that, its BRI link to Central Asia sundered by the rugged Afghan mountains, it will continue to have to rely predominantly on its neighbors. As in Afghanistan abutting Iran and Pakistan, so in Nepal flanked by India and China.