India must commit to Afghanistan

India cannot sacrifice its legitimate interests in Afghanistan at the altar of Pakistani sensitivity.

Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan submitted a wish list of military equipment to the Indian government during his recent visit to Delhi. Although South Block has been taciturn on the contents of the “wish list”, Unconfirmed sources have revealed that it includes artillery, medium-lift aircraft, helicopters and bridge-laying trucks and equipment. The proposal presents an interesting foreign policy dilemma for India in the backdrop of an impending withdrawal of NATO (ISAF) forces in 2014 coupled with a gradual resurgence of the Taliban.

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A stable Afghanistan is vital to India’s interests for multiple reasons. A reduction in Islamist militancy, increased trade and economic integration and access to Central Asian energy resources are just a few of the prominent benefits that India has to gain. Being an important stakeholder in the security of the region, India has thus far adopted a very pragmatic policy in a volatile Afghanistan. The 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement between India and Afghanistan provides for India to “assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).” India currently trains Afghan military and police personnel in its military academies but provides very little in the way of military equipment. With the exception of personnel deployed purely for the protection of Indian embassies and infrastructure and without a counter-insurgency mandate, India has no boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

While we have avoided getting involved militarily, we have increased trade, development assistance and private investment, winning Afghan hearts and minds in the process. With over $2 billion in aid, Afghanistan is the largest recipient of Indian aid. Humanitarian assistance, medical aid and building of schools and hospitals among other infrastructure have helped cultivate a positive image of India among the populace. The soaring popularity of Bollywood has further projected Indian soft power. The Indian Border Roads Organisation has also been very active, in particular, connecting highways to the Iranian port of Chahbahar and building rail infrastructure in the country. Access to Iranian and Central Asian energy resources through such transportation links that bypass Pakistan can provide us greater energy security and result in enormous economic benefits. It also serves the additional purpose of countering Chinese and Russian influence in the region. Furthermore, India has always been careful to engage all the different ethnic factions in the country, winning grudging praise even from the Taliban.

There are four fundamental factors to consider. First, arming Afghanistan is bound to be viewed as a provocation by Pakistan and could invite an aggressive response. A recent RAND paper has noted that there is a fundamental difference in Indian and Pakistani strategies in Afghanistan. While India seeks a stable Afghanistan that minimises the cross-border terrorist threat and increases access to trade and economic benefits, Pakistan’s strategy is India-centric and focused on maintaining a safe haven for extremists while gaining “strategic depth” by reducing Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan. New Delhi has therefore traditionally always been mindful of Pakistani sensitivities on the issue, focusing its energies on development assistance and economic reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.

This is not the first time that President Karzai has made a request for military equipment. Similar requests in December 2012 were met with indecision and a non-committal approach from India, primarily in deference to the bilateral relationship with Pakistan. This latest request has come in the aftermath of a clash on May 6th between Afghan and Pakistani forces on the Durand Line, which left an Afghan solider dead. (Border skirmishes are usually a result of Pakistan’s attempts to enforce a border by building outposts on the Durand Line– the result of an 1893 agreement enforced by the British, this line cuts ethnic Pashtun and Baloch regions in two and has never been recognised by modern day Afghanistan.) The clash prompted Karzai to exhort the Taliban to “turn their weapons” away from Kabul and towards the ‘hostility’ from outside. The decision to arm Afghan soldiers could easily cause ripples in the India-obsessed military and bureaucratic elite in Pakistan, manifesting itself in the form of increased cross-border militant activity on our western front.

Second, the United States and the rest of the international community appreciate India’s constructive role in Afghanistan and have advocated for more robust Indian involvement. Dependent on Pakistani support for its War on Terror, Washington has repeatedly accommodated Pakistani sensibilities on the issue, sidelining India from conversations on Afghanistan. For example, India was not invited to an international conference in Turkey in 2010 on Afghanistan. However, there has been signs of a shift in the US policy of late, exemplified in 2012 by then Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta’s remarks that Washington had reached the “limits of its patience” with Pakistan’s refusal to cooperate in the fight against terrorists. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has also publicly castigated the ISI’s support for the Haqqani network. Pakistan has been paid handsomely for their non-cooperation with over $16 billion in aid in addition to lucrative defence deals. The stakes, however, have undergone a gradual shift. Given the impending 2014 drawdown of combat forces, the US imperative to accommodate Pakistan is fading. Consequently, they now see India as a potential partner that can fill the security vacuum left by them in Afghanistan. The policy shift is not idealistic as much as straightforward realpolitik: the US needs India. Nevertheless, that does not mean US support is not a significant boost to India’s role in Afghanistan.

While the exact numbers and modalities are still being negotiated, It is expected that up to 10,000 US troops will remain in Afghanistan and subsequently be phased out over another three years. Although the US combat role will largely come to an end, the Pentagon is hesitant to withdraw all their forces from the region in 2014 to avoid losing hard fought battle gains. The Taliban mounted their “spring offensive” in April 2013, resulting in over 200 attacks over the course of the season so far. Most recently, they succeeded in attacking the ICRC building and targeted the governor’s house in a relatively stable north eastern province as well, demonstrating the extent of their increasing reach.

Third, India is keen to avoid the spectre of the Taliban grabbing power and the probable subsequent rise in Islamist extremism in the region following a NATO withdrawal in 2014. The Taliban have already demonstrated their ability to take advantage of a power vacuum following the Soviet withdrawal in 1996. The million dollar question of course is whether they can take advantage of a similar situation in 2014? A Taliban takeover is likely to turn Afghanistan into a hotbed of militant activity again. The ISI and Pakistani military have well established links with the Taliban. Terrorist outfits like the JuM, LeT and others have all trained on Afghan soil under Taliban auspices and with active Pakistani encouragement and support before mounting attacks on India. Kashmir experienced its bloodiest times following the Taliban takeover in 1996. Can India afford a repeat?

India needs to take advantage of the similarity in interests that it shares with the United States. Washington is in need of India’s democratic credentials, stability, relative security and positive image in the Afghan region. India can benefit from Washington’s influence in Islamabad that will find it difficult to release a wave of terrorism while the Americans still maintain a presence. The ANSF, responsible for all security operations in Afghanistan as of this week, has resisted the Taliban “spring offensive” reasonably well so far (despite the heavy casualties). However, it retains control of very little territory outside Kabul and will be harder-pressed in the fight against a stronger Taliban in 2014 following the drawdown in ISAF forces. Pentagon officials have recognised the ANSF’s need for support and have been vocal in their advocacy of maintaining a significant combat force even post-2014. Due to similar strategic interests, India should actively encourage such a residual American military presence in Afghanistan. Additionally, Afghanistan will need the support it can get from India – through training as well as the provision of military equipment, the framework for which already exists in the Strategic Partnership.

Last, the ANSF is weak and ethnically divided and therefore the wisdom of putting Indian weaponry in unstable hands at a time of political flux is questionable. It must also be acknowledged that the administration in Kabul is rife with corruption, an uncertain election looms on the horizon and the ANSF is deeply divided on ethnic lines. The flip-side of increasing support for the ANSF therefore is the potential for Indian arms to end up in the wrong hands in the event of a disintegration of the force. While the risks are very real, India’s interest is clearly in a stronger and more stable ANSF. The alternative of yet another chaotic struggle for power in our backyard and/or the return of the Taliban is a much worse alternative. That said, India needs to continue playing a difficult balancing act and must refrain from using the Indian military to directly participate in counter insurgency operations. Afghanistan is a land that has been repeatedly occupied by foreign forces. By deploying troops, India stands to lose its biggest assets in Afghanistan –goodwill and popularity. Perceived “imperial” ambitions and local disenchantment with the IPKF in Sri Lanka, despite its noble cause was a timely historical lesson.

The upcoming Afghan Presidential election is the critical wildcard factor. President Karzai, propped up by the U.S so far, has stressed that there is no way for him to seek another term. It is difficult, if not nigh on impossible to predict the outcome. If the elections are perceived to be rigged, it could fracture the already ethnically divided Parliament and strengthen the hand of the Taliban. India has reluctantly agreed to the involvement of the Taliban at the Doha Peace Talks, not as a matter of preference, but in order to continue to have a voice at the negotiating table. Some analysts have suggested that India should avoid making responding to Karzai’s wish-list and continue to keep its card close to its chest in order to maintain strategic flexibility in the event of Taliban joining the government or a rival group rising to power. The argument is not without merit. However, if India can maintain the crucial current levels of popular Afghan appreciation while continuing engaging with different ethnic factions, it is doubtful that a transparent transfer of equipment to the legitimate government could hurt us in the future.

The 2011 Strategic Partnership was a cause for much consternation in Pakistan. A positive Indian response to President Karzai’s wish list will doubtless be met with hostility from Islamabad. Pakistan used its influence within the Taliban to hold the ongoing Doha Peace Talks hostage at one stage by demanding that Kabul cut its relations with India as a pre-condition for Pakistan and the Taliban to sit at the negotiating table. Afghanistan, however, has attempted to forge closer ties with India in response. President Karzai noted that Afghanistan “had the right to choose its friends”. India too has the right to choose its friends. This calculus begs the question – How much can India afford to bend over backward to appease Pakistan? How much longer will India sacrifice its legitimate interests in Afghanistan at the altar of Pakistani sensitivity?

Such a chain of thought does not imply an overtly aggressive Indian stance but merely a more nuanced one. India must avoid making unnecessary provocations while simultaneously exercising our legitimate sovereign rights as stakeholders in Afghan security under an already existing framework established between two sovereign nations. While helicopters, small arms etc. are useful in counter-insurgency, the provision of artillery guns for example, is more likely to be trained across the border at Pakistan, a provocation that India would be wise to avoid. This is the nuance that our foreign policy needs. There has been much talk among analysts of the necessity to de-link our Afghan policy from Pakistan. As long as each commitment in Afghanistan is weighted against the expected Pakistani reaction, that is an exercise in futility. Appeasement didn’t work in Munich 1939 and it isn’t working today.

Photo: James Gordon