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India’s Afghan Policy: Beyond Bilateralism

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  • June 03, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Dr Arvind Gupta
    Discussants: Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney (Retd) and Prof Kalim Bahadur

    Dr Pattanaik’s paper critiqued India’s existing policy towards Afghanistan and offered some recommendations for Indian policy makers on how best to engage Afghanistan in the coming days, especially in the event of the much-anticipated troop withdrawal by the United States from July this year. She dwelt on India’s objectives, factors influencing its policy, the challenges it is confronted with and the measures it must take to achieve its objectives.

    Dr Pattanaik outlined India’s policy objectives in Afghanistan and held that India was wedded to the idea of rebuilding Afghanistan as a stable democracy. This would preclude the possibility of Afghanistan re-emerging as a hotbed of terrorism. So far India’s engagement with the conflict-ridden country had been primarily economic and development-oriented. This had earned India the goodwill of the people of Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan is far from stable and India has to adopt the right strategy. She argued that India would need to keep investing in reconstruction work, and find some way of working with the regionalpowers, especially Iran, to fulfill its strategic goals in Afghanistan.

    She emphasized India’s historical and cultural ties with Afghanistan and said that exceptfor the years when the Taliban ruled, India had excellent relations with this country. Afghan territory was used against India’s interests by Pakistan during the Taliban period and therefore a major objective of India has been to preclude the possibility of return of such fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan. This is in line with India’s policy of opposing radical Islamist forces, even during the period of Soviet intervention. India’s objective has also been to prevent Afghanistan from becoming too dependent on Pakistan which would revive forces inimical to Indian interests in Afghanistan.

    India’s policies during the post-Taliban period have been prompted by its awareness of geographical constraints and the limited role it could play in military and political spheres. Hence, India has chosen to build infrastructure like roads, hospitals and educational centres and engage itself in capacity-building like training the civil bureaucracy and security forces, providing scholarship for Afghan students etc.

    All these have been undertaken keeping in mind India’s traditional ties with Afghanistan and it has been a prudent way of making India’s presence felt without ruffling any feathers. India has also extended its support to the reconciliation process post-London conference even if it has genuine apprehensions that such process is either likely to fail or legitimise the hold of radical elements on the Afghan State.

    She also held that a critical study of Indo-Pak relations was necessary to understand India’s position on Afghanistan. Pakistan suffers from Indophobia and regards the Indian presence as detrimental to its national interests. It suspects an Indian role in the Baloch insurgency and alleges that India is using Afghan territory against its interests, despite Indian assurances to the contrary. To address the issue, India has resumed dialogue with Pakistan and agreed to the TAPI gas line not just for energy security but also because it could contribute to a stable Afghanistan. But, Pakistan has not been amenable to India’s offers of cooperative action and its primary objective has been to keep India away from Afghanistan.

    Dr Pattanaik argued forcefully that regional players were important in the changed circumstances and Iran was particularly important for its historical connection with Afghanistan. It shares its eastern border with Afghanistan and has links with the Hazara Shia population there. India and Afghnaistan share concerns about the return of the Taliban to Kabul and spread of radicalism in the region.

    Taking into consideration all the above, the paper concludes that India’s role in Afghanistan has to be of minimal political engagement and expansion of the existing relationship. Hence, the best deal for India is to maintain its presence through economic means and capacity building with relations going beyond state-to-state relations and promotion of goodwill amongst the population for a more stable region.

    Major points of discussion and suggestions:

    1. India’s engagement should be strategic and not apologetic as it has always been.
    2. Too much focus on Iran as a vital partner leaves out other regional actors like Russia and China.
    3. There should have been a more robust focus on the upcoming Afghan national security forces for a better account of strategy in the longer run.
    4. Some mention of Russia’ growing engagement in Afghanistan through bilateral and multilateral means needs to be made as part of India’s overall strategy as many initiatives are afoot leaving India out of the picture. These are Russia’s growing engagement with NATO and the US in Afghanistan, the Quadrilateral Tajik-Russia-Afghan-Pakistan format, the SCO and CSTO contact/ working groups on Afghanistan, the bilateral Russian-Afghan forum, etc.. India enjoyes good relations with both the US and Russia and should leverage this relationship.
    5. China as an important factor has been completely glossed.
    6. Withdrawal of western forces should have been dealt with more care and the nature of withdrawal, whether it is going to be token or ceremonial in nature should have been discussed.
    7. Any kind of engagement with Taliban has to be evaluated critically, as Taliban are not going to change their basic ideology and mere reconciliation will not do.
    8. Danger of increased Talibanisation of Pakistan and Afghanistan, post-withdrawal has to be studied as a serious threat to India.
    9. Analysis of non-Pashtun sentiments and views has to be incorporated in the paper.
    10. Success and failure of regional strategy and bilateralism does not come out well in the paper and has to be dealt with its nuances in details.

    Report prepared by Anwesha Ray Chaudhuri, Research Assistant, IDSA