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India in Afghanistan: Engagement without Strategy

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 28, 2011

    India’s policy towards Afghanistan after 9/11 has rested on three prongs – greater economic engagement, support for the Karzai government, and thwarting the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. The Indian objective is to prevent Afghanistan from emerging as a theatre for radical Islam and a launch pad for terrorism against India. However, India has failed to convert the third prong of its strategy into reality. The London conference, held last year, made the return of the Taliban – good and bad – a reality. After years of a spiteful relationship, Karzai has warmed up to Islamabad to seek its help to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban.

    India’s strategy to prevent the Taliban from returning to the centre stage of Afghan affairs had relied on America’s ability to militarily enforce stability and on the Karzai government’s capacity to provide effective governance. However, India underestimated Pakistan’s capacity to play the role of a spoiler. With the Taliban return to power appearing inevitable, India has introduced an important nuance in its position. In the words of Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna “the process (of reintegration of the Taliban) should be Afghan-led, inclusive and transparent, and any external interference in the reintegration process would be detrimental both for its success and for the future of a democratic, stable, pluralistic and prosperous Afghanistan.” The truth of the matter is that Pakistan remains central to the success of the process of reconciliation and reintegration. In the words of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, “nothing will happen without us, because we are part of the solution.” American helplessness and frustration are evident from the increasing number of drone attacks to alter the strategic equations in Afghanistan. Writing in the New York Times, Bruce Riedel noted that there are serious limitations that America faces in Afghanistan and “we cannot make Pakistan stop being naughty.”

    The economic crunch and increasing casualties have made a long term Western presence in Afghanistan untenable. The United States has linked its exit strategy to a relatively stable Afghanistan that does not pose a serious threat to its interests. At the same time, it refuses to recognise the organic link between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and continues to remain focussed “on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan…”

    Groups that can make a significant difference to the escalating violence in Afghanistan are the Haqqani group based in North Waziristan, the Quetta shura, and now the Karachi shura (as speculated in the media) – all controlled by Pakistan’s intelligence agency. There is very little influence that India has over these groups which are now poised to play a major role in Afghanistan. India realises that any workable strategy in Afghanistan would involve Pakistan. Like the US, it prefers those Taliban who abjure violence and accept the Afghan constitution. Under these circumstances, what India needs is a new strategy that protects its interests in Afghanistan.

    The US has described its exit strategy as ‘aspirational goals’ which are not cast in stone since it realises that there are difficulties in operationalising the strategy that was put together at the Lisbon NATO summit in December and which was reiterated in Obama’s speech of December 16. India has argued that any troops pull out must be situation-based rather than calendar-based. Moreover, a 42 per cent increase in Afghan security forces by October 2012 to facilitate the exit strategy is not plausible give the shortage of 700 trainers.

    India faces immense challenges in Afghanistan. It is engaged in developmental work in Pashtun dominated areas, yet it is seen as a friend of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and cannot count many friends among the Pashtun leaders. Karzai’s controversial election, corruption charges against his government, and his attempt to sideline detractors, have all made his government unpopular at home and invited scathing criticism from abroad. India’s support for Karzai only accentuates the Pashtun mistrust, though India is left with no choice but to support an elected government.

    India’s economic engagement in Afghanistan has earned immense goodwill at the popular level. However, India lacks a political strategy to cater for the return of the Taliban. It is apprehensive about making further investments as it is not sure of the political configuration that may emerge in the future. It is plausible that the Taliban may not replicate their old regime, but there is a possibility of political instability that may offset India’s economic presence. However, given the geo-strategic flux, India needs to chart a policy that minimises its losses in Afghanistan.

    India needs to take proactive steps to mobilise other countries of the region that have similar concerns regarding the reconciliation and reintegration of hardcore Taliban elements. There are several options that can be attempted in cooperation with countries of the region. One way would be to prevent the Pakistan-backed radical groups from assuming a dominant position in Afghanistan. The other option would be to reduce the Afghan government’s dependence on Pakistan for trade and transit, which would enable Kabul to be more independent and less subject to Pakistani arm twisting. India needs to take the lead in engaging countries that border Afghanistan. Pakistan should also be engaged to minimise mistrust and suspicion. India has already signed on to the TAPI pipeline project along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and consultations must be directed at facilitating future energy cooperation. India needs to seriously pursue the development of Chabahar port. There are reports that Indian companies are bidding for Hagijak mines in Bamiyan province and they would need an outlet to get these minerals. To ensure stability in Afghanistan, the countries of the region need to ensure that Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities find adequate representation in a future government.

    Other countries of the region are preparing for the post transition phase as is evident from the first visit of Russian President to Afghanistan. Iran for the first time attended the NATO dominated international contact group meeting in Rome in October 2010. Like India, Iran would have an interest in ensuring that the future government in Kabul does not become an extension of the security establishment in Rawalpindi and should be truly an Afghan initiative. There is a need to engage China and Tajikistan which are unlikely to be comfortable with the return of Taliban. Countries of the region have followed separate policies in Afghanistan and this has tilted the balance in favour of Pakistan. India should therefore step up its engagement of these countries. This is likely to bear more fruits than formal multilateral forums that tend to take a geographical criterion rather than a commonality of interests.