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India’s shambolic Afghan policy

by Harsh V. Pant

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in New Delhi in mid-December, holding talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a time of looming transition in Afghanistan. He once again pressed for stepped-up aid — both civilian and military including lethal and nonlethal weapons — a demand that he also made during his last visit, only to be rebuffed by New Delhi.

This time, however, the response was slightly more positive with the government indicating that “the demand was being considered taking into account various factors including two major issues — our ability to supply based on our surpluses and licensing from other countries, such as if India is to supply a Russian tank, it would require the permission and license from Russia to do so.” Karzai also appraised New Delhi about Afghanistan’s negotiations on the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States; the peace process with the Taliban and the broader transition process.

This visit came at a time when the final passage of the long-term U.S.-Afghan security pact, as part of which the U.S. could keep up to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 focused largely on counter-terrorism and training of Afghan forces, is in turmoil. The on-again, off-again security pact between the U.S. and Afghanistan has been mired in differences between Washington and Karzai with both indulging in brinkmanship.

Karzai has made it clear through his actions that he is not too eager to have a residual U.S. presence in Afghanistan and has tended to postpone a final agreement with the U.S. The U.S., meanwhile, has been reaching out to other stakeholders such as Afghan defense minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, army chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi and deputy interior minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi.

Karzai has underscored that he would sign the long-term security pact with the U.S. only if it helps his government begin peace talks with the Taliban and agrees to release all 17 Afghan citizens being held in Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. has retaliated by making it clear that if the agreement is not signed, the U.S. forces would begin planning for a complete withdrawal at the end of 2014. The NATO countries have also underlined that they won’t be able to leave even small forces behind in Afghanistan without guarantees from Hamid Karzai.

Indian policy elites have been debating Afghanistan in a context that often appears devoid of any sense of realism. The debate about Afghanistan is not a debate between various “schools of thought” in India. It is a matter of life and death for ordinary Afghans. They should have an important voice in how India decides to reorganize its Afghan policy in light of the impending departure of Western forces from Afghanistan this year and the resulting security vacuum that is likely to ensue.

The debate on what sort of security footprint India should have in Afghanistan has been going on for years in New Delhi and there has been no urgency in coming up with a coherent response. Even when it is clear that the stakes for India in Afghanistan cannot be higher, the Indian foreign policy establishment has been content in suggesting that India’s developmental role makes India an important player in Afghanistan.

The truth is that all the developmental investment that India has made will come to naught once Western forces leave Afghanistan unless India makes it unequivocally clear that it intends to strongly protect and enhance its Afghan security interests even in the absence of a Western stronghold.

Over the last decade, Indian policy, despite the nation’s self-image as a rising regional and global power, has been unusually dependent on the actions of other actors. Till very recently, there was a widespread belief in the Indian policy making community that the American presence in the region would continue and this would be enough to secure Indian interests. This was a strange position to take for a nation that otherwise has had no compunction in underlining its credentials as a nonaligned nation and in bemoaning the use of military power by the U.S.

The Indian prime minister had been candid in requesting the U.S. not to leave Afghanistan as he knows full well that stepping up India’s security role in Afghanistan could mean political mayhem. But even if American and Indian interests converged in Afghanistan, as they did and continue to do, there was no excuse for not articulating an Indian response to the Afghan crisis. And as Western forces prepare to leave the region, New Delhi is once more at a loss in responding to the new strategic environment. If Indian security situation deteriorates post-2014, as most serious observers believe is very likely, New Delhi will only have itself to blame.

New Delhi needs to put its own house in order. Indian policy toward Afghanistan has evolved in fits and starts over the last decade. Part of it has been a function of the rapidly evolving ground realities in Afghanistan to which India has had to respond. But a large part of it has been India’s own inability to articulate its vital interests in Afghanistan to its allies as well as its adversaries.

There is an overarching lack of coherence in the Indian response as New Delhi seems to be perpetually on the defensive, first making Washington the sole pivot of its outreach to Kabul and then petulantly complaining about American unreliability. On the one hand, India has been signaling to the U.S. that it views a long-term American presence in Afghanistan as integral to its regional security. On the other, it has been reaching out to the Iranians who want to see a full and complete U.S. withdrawal from the region.

Even as India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan promising to enhance its role in Afghan security sector, it has at the same time been reducing its economic footprint in Afghanistan. As a result, New Delhi has not only complicated its own future options but it has also lost allies who are having difficulty in viewing India as a credible partner in the emerging strategic realities in Afghanistan.

India stands at a crossroads where it remains keen to preserve its interests in Afghanistan but has refused to step up its role as a regional security provider. New Delhi needs to recognize that there is no short-cut to major power status. Karzai’s visit to India was another reminder for New Delhi as to what’s at stake in the unfolding great game in South Asia. India will either have to step up to the challenge or get ready to be marginalized in Afghanistan and beyond.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at the Defense Studies Department, King’s College London. He is also an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.