The last couple of years have witnessed two cataclysmic events which are now shaping a new world order. The first of these was the emergence of a pandemic, caused by the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which caused the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The first reported case of COVID-19 occurred in China as early as November 2019. The virus would soon engulf the world in a pandemic that still has not been brought under control, despite the fact that we now have a vaccine to ward off the more lethal aspects of the disease. The second event was the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban on 15 August 2021. Both these events, when viewed through the prism of national security, throw up a series of possible challenges which India may have to confront in the coming years. These would require to be addressed at the highest policy making levels.
Three additional factors that will contribute to global instability, and which India will have to confront are the impact of climate change, the global thirst for natural resources and the quest to be a leader in the development of advanced technology.
SARS-CoV-2 is possibly a man-made virus, which emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), in Wuhan, China. Chinese reticence in the matter and the fact that it withheld information, has fuelled suspicions of a “lab-leak”.[i] But the strategic implications are important for India to take note of. We are entering the era of bio-weapons and while these may have been banned by the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons,[ii] many countries still continue to carry out such experiments, and may even have stockpiled such weapons. The possibility of such man-made disasters occurring in the future, or the deliberate use of such weapons by a hostile power, hence cannot be ruled out.
India had limited resources to handle the pandemic in early 2020, but facilities were soon ramped up and through preventive measures such as closing down the country, a large-scale tragedy was averted. But we cannot be in a governance mode which is only dependant on shutting off people from work in order to save lives, as this impinges on the livelihood of the poorest of India’s poor. We need to have organisations and systems in place to provide early warning of emergencies which may occur due to biological or any other form of attack and have plans in place to deal with such eventualities. The strategy must be to formulate preemptive policies on national emergencies and not act through disaster management procedures. This requires a measure of political unity across party lines and a very agile and forward-looking bureaucracy, which can assess a situation and take focussed action on a geographical area to contain the spread, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Obviously, a lot of advanced thinking and contingency planning would be required, which can be put into motion as and when the need arises. For this, all organs of the state must work in synergy to overcome the challenge at hand. Prompt action is important. India did not study the China case immediately after it occurred, perhaps because the Chinese kept a tight lid on the matter. In any case, the information available was sketchy and little was known then about SARS-CoV-2, but in future, all our embassies abroad as well as the health ministry in the Centre and in each state need to keep track of any such occurrence anywhere in the world, to enable a more strategised and coordinated approach to tackling future pandemics.
On the positive side, the efforts of India’s scientist in developing a vaccine, which many thought was not possible for India to achieve, was indeed laudable. The Prime Minister and his government gave full support to all such efforts, which was why India has emerged as the major supplier of vaccines, not just for its own population, but also to the world.
A major fall out of the pandemic has been the disruption of supply chains. The supply shock that started in China in February 2020 was followed by a demand shock as the global economy shut down exposing vulnerabilities in many critical sectors and leading now to what can loosely be termed as economic nationalism.[iii] This is a lesson India and indeed the rest of the world has learnt to its cost, as many countries had critical dependencies on China. The need for diversification of imports for critical items, especially in critical sectors such as pharma has to be ensured, to avoid shortages in times of crisis.
The Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was a foregone conclusion, once an agreement was reached between the US representatives and the Taliban leadership in Doha on 29 February 2020.[iv] The Afghan government was not part of the accord which further eroded its credibility. President Biden committed the US to withdraw all forces in Afghanistan by 31 August, the deadline being given to mark the passage of two decades of the September 11 terror attacks on the United States. The Taliban however did not wait for the deadline to end and by mid-August, in a series of attacks on the Afghan forces, had taken over most parts of the country and were on the outskirts of Kabul. By the evening of 15 August, Kabul fell to the Taliban without a shot being fired, leaving the country in total control of the Taliban.
The implications of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan are many. It marks a shift in the geo-strategic landscape of Central Asia, with the US no longer a major voice in the region. Surprisingly, none of the regional players, especially Russia and China have moved in to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of US forces. As of 31 October 2021, no country has accorded recognition to the new regime. An essential condition to regime recognition will be a more inclusive government and the grant of rights to women in Afghanistan. The Taliban may be constrained in treading a more liberal path as other terrorist outfits in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic State could exploit this to further their own agenda. In the meantime, the possibility of Islamic terrorist organisations making their way to Afghanistan, to seek a safe haven, is high. This could lead to such groups using Afghan territory to plot attacks in other parts of the globe. How the situation unfolds is to be seen, but the possibility of Afghanistan slipping into civil war remains a high possibility.
For India, the events in Afghanistan can have three possible major repercussions. One, it could lead to a spurt in terrorist activity within the Union Territory of J&K. This is premised on the possibility of Pakistan sending in terrorists from Pakistan based organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which were earlier fighting alongside the Taliban and which now can be used against India. This level of threat however, will pose but a limited challenge to India, as security in the hinterland as also along the Line of Control is adequate to deal with such elements.
A more insidious threat however, is the spurt in radicalisation that could occur within India, through a virulent Islamic ideology emanating from Afghanistan, calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in India. Some of the states that could be vulnerable to such an insidious form of subversion are West Bengal and Kerala as also the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Indian agencies would need to keep a tight watch on the social media and on the activities of subversive groups to prevent such an occurrence from gaining credence. It would show in civil disturbance movements which could align themselves with political groups and NGOs, ostensibly to highlight local concerns, but with an ulterior motive of destabilising the state.
The third threat that could possibly manifest is the Pakistani state coming under Taliban rule, facilitated by the military. While the possibility is low, seeing the extent to which Pakistani society has been radicalised, it cannot be summarily dismissed either. The danger to India would be a human crisis in Pakistan that could potentially lead to millions of Pakistanis fleeing their homes to seek shelter in India, just as the Afghans are fleeing their homeland now. How such a situation is to be dealt with, should it come about, needs to thought of and factored into our security calculus.
The threats we face are not confined to the internal and external security domains but reflect in other sectors as well. Here, I make mention of three potential areas of concern, whose impact on India could be debilitating. The first of these is the impact of climate change leading to a rise in ocean levels. Amongst India’s neighbours, Bangladesh would be greatly impacted, with large swathes of its land mass getting submerged. This could possibly lead to a lead to a huge human migration, with the only refuge being in India. How such a contingency can be handled, would also need to be a part of the security matrix of the country.
Shortage of resources caused by a black swan event could also be a critical destabilising factor. We need to look into probable events that could occur, such as the possibility of a conflagration taking place in the Gulf, which could potentially lead to the closure of oil producing facilities as well as of shipping across the Strait of Hormuz. As India is dependant on energy from the Gulf, such an eventuality would be catastrophic and would set back India’s development effort by many years.
Of equal import is the need to protect our indigenous industry. Not just our hostile neighbours, but all our competitors would like to see India dependant on them. As an example, there is a distinct attempt being made to stifle India’s copper and aluminium production. The intent is covered under the garb of environmental protection and other such social causes. But we need to take a deeper look at who the beneficiaries are in this game and ask why buying from them is not creating similar environmental concerns in their country. We need to stop being gullible and chart a course that is in India’s interest and not get enslaved again by foreign powers.
Advanced technologies will play a major role in the ability of major powers to gain dominance in the world order. Emerging fields such as Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, spatial computing, Green Hydrogen, Biometrics, Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality, Blockchain, Robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) are some of the exciting technologies that will shape the way we live, work and interact with each other. The leaders in these fields will be the dominant players in the new world order, and India cannot miss the bus as we did earlier in the industrial revolution. This is a filed where competition is intense and the line between friend and foe get blurred. India will not only have to invest in these technologies, but will have to ensure the safety of our scientific manpower.
The challenges India faces in the emerging new world order are immense and encompass a wide range of conventional and non-conventional threats. Our ability to maintain social harmony will be a critical factor to enable the achievement of development goals. We have a political leadership that has the vision to take India forward, but it would require a very agile bureaucracy to foresee potential challenges and to implement the goals set out. A change of mindset in the bureaucracy from controllers to facilitators is also the need of the hour. Bharat can rise if the ordinary Indian is unshackled, the society remains cohesive and an environment for excellence is created across all domains.
Author Brief Bio: Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch is Editor, India Foundation Journal and Director, India Foundation.
[i] Amy Maxmen & Smriti Mallapaty, The COVID lab-leak hypothesis: what scientists do and don’t know available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01529-3