LONDON – With strategic realities in South Asia radically shifting in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, India’s prime minister lost no time in reaching out to Afghanistan during a recent two-day visit to Kabul, where he announced a fresh commitment of $500 million toward Afghanistan’s development — above India’s assistance so far of around $1.5 billion.
New Delhi and Kabul agreed that the “strategic partnership” between the two neighbors, to be implemented under the framework of a partnership council headed by the foreign ministers of the two nations, will entail cooperation in areas of security, law enforcement and justice, including an enhanced focus on cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, organized crime, illegal trafficking in narcotics, and money- laundering.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, given the rare honor, addressed a joint session of the Afghan Parliament, underscoring Indo-Afghan unity in fighting extremism.
Though Singh initially was scheduled to visit Kabul earlier, the United States managed to persuade the Indian government to postpone the visit. The reasons for this request became clear only later, but it presented New Delhi with a new opportunity to focus the attention of the international community on its predicament in the region. New Delhi’s review of its regional foreign policy couldn’t have come at a more urgent time.
The Congress Party-led UPA government has largely left the management of its neighbors to the United States. A case in point was India’s decision not to take any serious action against Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which killed 166 people. Instead, New Delhi continued to put pressure on Islamabad via American leverage to bring the masterminds of those terror strikes to justice.
For some time now, it has been clear that this strategy has not really worked. Last year’s 60-nation conference in London, which advocated talks with the Taliban, jolted India, forcing a major rethink of its Af-Pak policy.
As India viewed with alarm its rapidly shrinking strategic space for diplomatic maneuvering, the first step was to restart talks with Pakistan, including back-channel negotiations with the Pakistani military.
While these attempts may fail to produce anything concrete in the near future, the hope is that they will stave off pressure from the U.S. to engage Islamabad. Therefore, even though negotiations with Pakistan remain hugely unpopular at home, the Indian government has decided to proceed. India hopes that by doing so it will be viewed as a more productive player in the West’s efforts at stabilizing Afghanistan.
Just as importantly, India is reconsidering the terms of its involvement in Afghanistan. Until now, India has relied on its “soft power” in wooing Kabul. It is one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan and is delivering humanitarian assistance as well as helping the nation build in myriad ways. India is building roads, providing medical facilities, helping with educational programs to develop and enhance long-term local Afghan capabilities.
Pakistan’s paranoia about the Indian presence in Afghanistan has led the West to underplay India’s largely beneficial role in the country, even as Pakistan’s every claim about Indian intentions is taken at face value.
The Taliban militants who blew up the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and tried again in 2009 have sent a strong signal that India is part of the evolving security dynamic in Afghanistan despite its reluctance to take on a more active role in the military operations.
After targeting personnel involved in developmental projects and emboldened by India’s nonresponse, these terrorists have trained their guns directly at the Indian state. Moreover, as India’s isolation at the London conference on Afghanistan affirmed, India’s role in Afghanistan to date has not been fully appreciated, even by the West.
When Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna underscored the folly of making a distinction “between a good Taliban and a bad Taliban” last year, he appeared completely out of sync with the larger mood at the conference: The West has made up its mind that it is not a question of “if” but “when and how” to exit Afghanistan, which, for the leaders in Washington and London, is rapidly becoming a quagmire.
For some time now, much to New Delhi’s discomfiture, senior American military commanders have been suggesting that peace talks with the Taliban might be imminent and that some Taliban might even be invited to be part of the government in Kabul.
So when it was decided in London that the time had come to woo the “moderate” section of the Taliban to share power in Kabul, it was a signal to India that Pakistan seemed to have convinced the West that it could play the role of mediator in negotiations with the Taliban, thereby underlining its centrality in the unfolding strategic dynamic in the region.
By pursuing a strategy that will give Pakistan the leading role in the state structures of Afghanistan, the West, however, is only sowing the seeds for future regional turmoil.
It would be catastrophic for Indian security if Taliban remnants were to come to power with the backing of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and military.
To preserve its interests in such a strategic milieu, India is therefore stepping up the training of Afghan forces, coordinating with states like Russia and Iran, and reaching out to all sections of the Afghan society.
More problematic for the West are the growing calls in India for taking a more militarily active role in Afghanistan, if only to support its developmental activities.
The U.S. has actively discouraged India from assuming a higher profile in Afghanistan for fear of offending Pakistan. At the same time, it has failed to get Pakistan to take Indian concerns more seriously. This has led to a rapid deterioration in the Indian security environment, with New Delhi having little or no strategic space to maneuver.
It is not surprising, therefore, that India is being forced to reassess its priorities vis-à-vis Afghanistan-Pakistan.
India will be forced to take a far more aggressive and leading role in foreign policy in its neighborhood, especially when it comes to Af-Pak.
Instead of ignoring Delhi, the West would be better served if it ceases to pander to Pakistan for short-term gains. Neglecting to support the only secular liberal democracy in the region will embolden radical Islamists in the long term. And that’s no way to enhance regional security.
The Indian prime minister’s visit to Kabul is a signal to the world that India remains a major player amid the evolving ground realities in Af-Pak.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.