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Is Indian ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan working?

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — In the second such strike in as many years, a suicide car-bombing outside the Indian Embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul recently left at least 17 dead (none of them embassy staff) and scores of others wounded. India has long been developing its “soft power” strategy in Afghanistan, sticking to civilian rather than military matters, but attacks on its embassy and the loss of Indian lives may force a change in strategy.

The blast was similar in most ways to the one that struck the Indian Embassy on July 7 last year, killing 60 people including a Foreign Service officer and a defense attache at the embassy. Subsequent investigations have determined that that attack was the brainchild of the Pakistan-based Haqqani group, with possible participation by some of that country’s intelligence agents.

The same story is being repeated, as the Afghan envoy to the United States pointed to involvement of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI in the most recent attack. It is the first time a top Afghan official has blamed ISI for a terror strike.

It is clear that forces unsympathetic to Indian involvement in Afghanistan are upping the ante and doing their best to force India out of Afghanistan as well as rupture burgeoning Indian-Afghan ties. Though the security revamp undertaken after last year’s attack has improved protection at the embassy, this latest attempt underscores that India’s increasing profile in Afghanistan will be accompanied by attempts to demoralize civilians who put their lives at risk to undertake development and humanitarian projects there.

Indeed, ordinary Afghans appear to have welcomed Indian involvement in their country. It was only in early October that a 202-kilometer-long transmission line was completed to deliver electricity to Kabul with India’s help. India is building roads, improving medical facilities and helping with educational programs to develop and enhance long-term Afghan capabilities at the local level. Toward this end, it has been India’s deliberate policy to refrain from giving its support a military dimension and to stick to civilian matters.

Western observers, on the other hand, have tended to view Indian involvement in Afghanistan as problematic, since it has undercut Pakistan’s influence in the country. The result is that India’s attempt to leverage its “soft power” in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly risky.

India has a tough road ahead as the perception grows that the Taliban are on the rebound, a heightened sense of political uncertainty prevails in Washington and the Obama administration vacillates on whether to accept the advice of military commanders to send more troops.

There is a general consensus in India that it should not send troops to Afghanistan. Yet, beyond this there is little agreement about what policy options it has if turbulence in the Af-Pak region spills over into India. The Indian stance so far has been to help the Afghan government in its reconstruction efforts but not to become engaged directly in security operations. This tack is becoming harder to maintain.

A debate therefore should emerge as to whether India should start supporting its humanitarian endeavors in Afghanistan with a stronger military presence. For India there can be no question of scaling back its development works in Afghanistan. If anything, such attacks should strengthen India’s resolve to carry on with assisting a neighbor. But the time has come for India to achieve some clarity on its strategic objectives vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

India has much to consider. The return of the Taliban to Afghanistan would pose a major threat to its borders. In the end, the brunt of escalating terrorism will be borne by India, which already has been described as “the sponge that protects” the West. Indian strategists warn that a hurried U.S. withdrawal while the Taliban still poses a threat to Afghanistan will have serious implications for India, not the least of which will be that eternal rival Pakistan will step into the fray more aggressively.

India’s role in Afghanistan should not be viewed through the eyes of those Western observers who have dubbed its role provocative, or in the eyes of Pakistan, which chafes at its own waning influence. Rather, India’s involvement should be for the Afghan people to consider. They are the ones, arguably, who are benefiting from the use of its neighbor’s “soft power,” whatever its end motivations.

While the debate over how to deal with Afghanistan is not close to a resolution in India’s political corridors, any change in strategy will have serious implications for the future of India’s rise as a global power and regional security in South Asia. More often than not, India is forgotten in Western media’s analysis of the situation in Afghanistan, which largely focuses on the West and Pakistan.

Should it relinquish its “soft power” strategy and replace it with something more forceful, that could change. There is also a larger issue at stake: Indian elites keep talking of India as a rising power in the international system, yet the world still waits to see what that rise implies.

If India cannot tackle challenges in its own backyard, or at least contribute to bringing stability to the region, it is difficult to see how it can accept the responsibilities expected of a global stakeholder. If India wants the world to recognize it as a global power, then the time has come for India to step up to the plate and respond to the latest attack with greater military engagement to support its presence in Afghanistan.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is currently a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore.