India's Strategy in Afghanistan: A Farewell to Dilemmas


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
India's Strategy in Afghanistan: A Farewell to Dilemmas


India's foreign policy towards Afghanistan urgently requires a better definition of our engagement. Over the course of the past year, India's fortunes in Afghanistan have suffered a reversal. In the context of the London conference where India's concerns in Afghanistan were relegated to lower priority by the governments shaping the agenda, India must depart from a reactive and passive approach and make a sustained commitment of resources towards proactive initiatives in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is vital to India's interests and India should have an independent, long-term policy towards the country and its demographics.

Dam built in Afghanistan by India
India's engagement with Afghanistan from 1947 till date has been greatly affected by its relationship with the Pashtuns and given the zero-sum nature of the current conflict, India's support for the Northern Alliance during the civil war and the current government has led to misperceptions and disenchantment with India among sections of the Pashtuns. This needs to be a serious issue of reflection for Indian decision-making in Afghanistan.
India's interests in Afghanistan are multifaceted. Afghanistan cannot be allowed to be used as a base for anti-India activities by non-state actors and hostile states. India has the responsibility to use all its capabilities to maintain stability and foster prosperity in the subcontinent. And given its close historical relations, the interests of the Afghan people are of paramount concern to India. It became clear through Interviews undertaken across Afghanistan in the course of the preparation of this paper that even Afghans who profess a preference for the Taliban over the Karzai government, do not want a return of the draconian form of sharia law and brutality of the Taliban years.
India's immediate challenges in Afghanistan include securing its citizens, dealing with US perspectives on India's role in the country, and winning back Pashtun sentiments. Close to 3800 Indians work in Afghanistan developmental projects. Indian casualties in Afghanistan, though small, are on the rise. The likelihood of the creation of a forum of regional powers appears remote at the moment and the US does not believe that there is any consensus of opinion about Afghanistan between Iran, Russia, China, India and Pakistan. Given the stakes of the US' two biggest rivals – China and Russia, and most near-term threat – Iran in the question, the US is unlikely to see such a regional forum as the solution for the Afghan conundrum. Consequently, the only regional actors that are likely to dominate debates about Afghanistan in the capitals of the US-led coalition are India and Pakistan. Hence, US pressure on India to offer concessions to Pakistan is likely to increase.
India faces a distinct dilemma vis-à-vis the Taliban. Despite the latter being an indigenous force, their patron-client relationship with Pakistan and their relationship with ISI are clear evidence of their being beholden to the neighbouring country. Yet, Afghan Taliban- Pakistan nexus is at best opportunistic as the former have often double dealt with Pakistan. India correctly recognises that Taliban cannot be categorised as Good or Bad based on their propensity to violence alone. Yet, the Taliban are not a monolithic political entity. The foot soldiers of the Taliban include disaffected, unemployed youth, peasants working part-time, disenfranchised tribes and criminal gangs. Despite Pakistan's ability to affect the intensity of the conflict, there are many factions within the Taliban. This paper recommends that India therefore needs to differentiate its policy depending on the influence, control, allegiance and composition of the different factions.
India favours an internal political solution to Afghanistan's conflict. But the defining debate that emerged at the London conference vis-à-vis the Taliban was "Reintegration or Reconciliation?". Reintegration would mean weaning away the foot soldiers while Reconciliation is a broad euphemism for power-sharing with the Taliban leadership. There is a divergence of views on this subject within the US-led coalition and other regional powers. Both Pakistan and UK favour reconciliation, though for different reasons. On the other hand though France and the United States initially favoured only Reintegration, they are now curious as to the contours of Reconciliation. After the May 2010 visit of President Karzai to the US, it seems likely that the US will support the Reintegration process even as it remains sceptical of the scope of the Reconciliation process being proposed by President Karzai. India on its part needs to trust the instincts of the Karzai government since if the strategy backfired, few stakeholders would have more to lose than the Karzai team itself.
India's biggest challenge in engaging with the Taliban would be their linkages with anti-India terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. A differentiation needs to be made between the various groups of the Taliban in terms of the extent of the linkages with such groups. Suspicions among sections of the Taliban such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) about Lashkar's proximity to the ISI have led to clashes between the two groups. It appears that the Lashkar-e-Taiba operate more in eastern Afghanistan and enjoy a close relationship with Taliban factions from that area.
To revise India's strategy towards Afghanistan it is recommended that the new strategy consist of breaking new ground in some areas while maintaining continuity where policies have yielded significant dividends. The elemental shifts that are recommended include pursuing a region centric strategy, engaging all provincial level leaders and diversifying focus to include small scale developmental projects. It is necessary to look at Afghanistan as a collection of regions each with their specific grievances and dynamics, rather than as an agglomeration of ethnicities. India also needs to engage Kabul-appointed provincial level officials as well as mid-level commanders of the Taliban in various provinces. The projects implemented by India should be a mix of large-scale infrastructure projects driven by Afghan economic priorities and micro-level projects whose content is entirely driven by the declared needs of the local communities.
India needs to continue to make a substantial investment in its public diplomacy efforts. India should continue its efforts in Education through increased scholarships for Afghan students, enhance cultural diplomacy through television programs and movies, and develop Afghanistan's sports system through training opportunities in body building, soccer & cricket. India must continue its focus on development of Afghanistan through infrastructure projects for electrification and transmission lines & water supply. India should also continue its efforts in the field of Governance reform by sharing of best practices. To win at the home front the immediate task for the government is to improve its public communications within India, about the importance of Afghanistan for India and send reassuring messaging about the security of Indians there.
India should moot a forum for multilateral organizations that have an interest in the political economy of Afghanistan- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to reduce duplication of efforts and wastage of resources.
India also needs a coherent political policy towards the regional powers that wield influence in Afghanistan. The objective of India's policy toward Pakistan should be that Afghanistan and Pakistan deal with each other as sovereign states and not have a patron-client relationship. India needs to support the Karzai government's own reconciliation efforts, encourage the deployment of a credible mediator to the conflict such as Turkey, and support the US-led coalition's strategy as it unfolds in the country. India needs to treat Iran as a strategic interlocutor on Afghanistan and continue regular exchange of ideas. Any political collaboration with Iran at multilateral forums on Afghanistan, however, has to be done keeping in mind international sensitivities about Iran. Given their ethnic and historic stakes in Afghanistan, relations with the Central Asian Republics especially Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are a priority. These relations should be developed in consonance with Russia. India and Russia have thus far had a convergence of views about not allowing the Taliban to displace the Karzai government and to prevent narcotics smuggling out of Afghanistan. There is however considerable divergence over the support to the continued presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Going forward, India would do well to maintain a studied silence on the issue of NATO troops' presence as NATO decisions are unlikely to be influenced by Indian interests.
Medical and Defense diplomacy should be the other pillars of Indian strategy in Afghanistan. India should build healthcare capacity inside Afghanistan through funding and establishment of Afghan-run health clinics with India-trained personnel. Indian pharmaceutical companies should help develop an indigenous pharmaceutical industry in Afghanistan. Increasing the military-to-military interaction with Afghanistan needs to be a strategic priority for India. For the moment, efforts should be stepped up to train Afghan military personnel in India. The Indian Army's substantial counter-insurgency experience can be of great utility to the Afghan National Army.
The dilemmas to Indian policymakers on Afghanistan are immense and varied. And yet the stakes for India could not have been greater than they are today. Indian diplomacy has a tricky tight rope to walk in the months to come, but it is a path that has to be taken in order to realize the shared destiny of the Afghan and Indian people.
Indian foreign policy finds itself at a crossroads in Afghanistan today. A rethink of strategy is of urgent necessity not only to defend India's interests in the region for years to come but also to continue delivering the benefits of development to the Afghans. What India next does in Afghanistan not only has the potential of impacting Indian foreign policymaking for decades to come, but it also end up shaping the attitudes of neighbouring states towards India. In fact, India's policy for Afghanistan can bolster or dent India's efforts to be a major power in the international system.

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