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The Afghan Maze and India's Options

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  • September 04, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: K C Singh
    Discussants: Ravi Sawhney and B R Muthukuma

    This paper is an attempt to assess options before India as insecurity and political uncertainty returns to Afghanistan. The author argues that with the re-emergence of the Taliban, some of the old issues that haunted Indian foreign policy makers in the 1990s have re-appeared in a more complex form. He notes that while the US has expanded the scope of its Afghan mission to the east of the Durand Line, it at the same time appears to be running out of time and strategy. The US-led ‘war on terror’ remains constrained by the ambivalence of its own allies, be it the NATO or Pakistan. Amidst these realties, he points out that India is often expected to play a ‘greater’ (or a different) role in the region, and yet exercise supreme restraint.

    The main argument of the paper is that India as a politically non-interfering and a benign regional economic power holds a better chance of exercising influence within Afghanistan in the long-run. He cautions that any adventurous policy would be counter-productive. India is more likely to be exploited given the highly factional and externalized nature of Afghan politics and conflict. Emphasizing that there are multiple centres of power in a socially polarized Afghanistan, over-identification with one could lead to alienation and deep suspicion among others. The author argues that a lack of balance in engaging actors could further limit India’s leverage and work to the advantage of forces opposed to its engagement with Afghanistan. It is also important to take into account the multiplicity of extra-regional actors involved and the changed regional environment. The paper observes that lack of coordination among the regional countries on the Afghan issue has to an extent widened the space for big power rivalry around Afghanistan.

    The paper raises some key questions. What kind of leverages India has within Afghanistan or in the region? How viable and achievable are India’s desired objectives in Afghanistan in the longer run? Moreover, before talking of options and counter-strategies, it is important to assess the nature and level of threat from the Taliban for India, and what exactly are India’s objectives in Afghanistan. Similarly, it is equally pertinent to recognise the relevance and perception of India’s actual and expected role across the political and social spectrum of Afghanistan. How far Afghans are willing to go with India’s interests and objectives?

    The paper argues that Pakistan shall remain indispensable to the US’ regional agenda. Despite the new Af-Pak strategy, the US has been unable to push Pakistan beyond a point, for where are the options before the US if the latter simply refuses to cooperate on the Afghan issue. Similarly, the US cannot be sensitive to India’s security concerns beyond a point where it begins to impinge on its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, by ceding territories to the Taliban and other Islamist groups, Pakistan has increased its leverages and bargaining power. Today the US is dependent on Pakistan more than ever, right from intelligence sharing on al Qaeda, to ensuring regular supplies via the Khyber Pass for its growing number of troops, and checking Taliban and al Qaeda militants from crossing over into Afghanistan. In view of the above, India’s role and options vis-à-vis Afghanistan are likely to remain reactive and curtailed. The paper posits that patience, information, innovation and sustained focus are critical to strengthening India’s position within Afghanistan and the wider region.

    The paper is broadly delineated into three sections. The first section brings out India’s engagement and objectives in Afghanistan; the second section evaluates the mutual perceptions of India and the Taliban; and the third section examines the implications of the US’ new Af-Pak strategy for India. The paper concludes with perspectives on India’s options in Afghanistan.

    The author brings out the Indian involvement in Afghanistan. The overthrow of the Taliban regime and the subsequent involvement of the international community in re-building Afghanistan were in consonance with India’s perceived interests and objectives in Afghanistan. India felt vindicated. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, India also found its interests converging, and those of Pakistan conflicting, with US interests on a regional issue. He points out that in the Indian view a strong, unified and an independent democratic Afghan state capable of deterring the return of Taliban would be in its interest. India set out to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and in strengthening the capacity of the central administration, through both bilateral and multi-lateral mechanisms. He points out that India has been conducting training programmes for Afghan government officials since 2003, and has also deputed Indian civil servants as mentors and guides developing training modules in Afghan ministries and departments since 2007. Since 2006, India has been extending nearly one thousand scholarships, both long-term and short-term, for Afghan students and young professionals in Indian institutions of their own choice on an annual basis.

    India is the sixth largest bilateral donor and the largest regional donor country to Afghanistan with its reconstruction assistance totaling $1.2 billion till date. Around 2003-04, India announced the commencement of various huge projects in Afghanistan, such as, the construction of Zaranj-Delaram road in south-western Nimroz province (completed in 2008); the Salma Dam project in western Herat province (completion by 2011); construction of Afghan parliament building in Kabul (completion by 2011); construction of 220 KV transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a sub-station at Chimtala to bring additional power from the northern grid to Kabul (completed); restoration of telecommunication infrastructure in 11 provinces; and expansion of national TV network by providing an uplink from Kabul and downlinks in all 34 provincial capitals (completed).

    The construction of the 218-km long road linking Zaranj close to the Iranian border with Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat national highway was probably the largest and most challenging of all the Indian reconstruction projects. The Zaranj-Delaram road is supposed to link up Afghanistan’s national highway with the upcoming Iranian port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf. The project was said to be crucial to improving India’s accessibility to Afghanistan in view of Pakistan’s refusal to provide overland transit facilities for Indian goods. Presently, India takes a long circuitous route via sea to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to transport goods to Afghanistan. This road is also supposed to improve landlocked Afghanistan’s access to the sea for commercial purposes. Similarly, India’s other huge projects were aimed at strengthening the authority of the Afghan state.

    India later turned towards small development projects based on local needs and community participation. This was also done keeping in view the continuing limitations of the Afghan government in taking developmental activities to people in the provinces. These were projects with direct, immediate and visible impact on the lives of the Afghan people and enjoyed local support and ownership. Presently, 84 such projects mainly in the field of agriculture, rural development, education, health, vocational training, and solar electrification are in various stages of implementation in 19 provinces of Afghanistan. In fact, India’s reconstruction assistance has been multi-sectoral comprising education, health and services, transportation, telecommunications, civil aviation, agriculture, irrigation, power generation & transmission, industry, and rural development. India played a significant role in ensuring Afghanistan’s entry into SAARC as its eighth member in 2007 in order to integrate the Afghan economy with the South Asian region. India also hoisted the Second Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan in November 2006

    Indian interests in Afghanistan are increasingly being threatened by rising violence and growing instability brought about by the growing influence of the Taliban on either side of the Durand Line. However, India remains steadfast in its commitment to Afghan rebuilding. Moreover, unlike projects executed by Western NGOs, Indian projects are highly appreciated by the Afghan people as they are carried out in full consultation with the concerned Afghan ministries and provincial/district administration, and are based on the specified requirements of the Afghan people. India thus engaged the people of Afghanistan, key to the success of any reconstruction or rebuilding policy especially in an in-conflict environment. The author asserts that the Indian commitment to Afghanistan against all odds shows the way forward in Afghanistan. It serves as an example for countries whose commitments to the Afghan mission have been floundering as they keep looking for a way out of Afghanistan. He concludes the section by flagging off the question- Is abandoning Afghanistan a solution?

    The author notes that India’s stated policy towards the Taliban has been very clear since the beginning. In the Indian view, the Taliban regime was “obscurantist, bigoted, blinkered and sadistic” which took “Afghanistan to a dark age scarcely to be credited in the world today” and that “the Taliban should go, lock, stock and barrel.” India strongly believed that the Taliban “have to be extirpated from the roots, in the interest of not just Afghanistan but also the countries in its neighbourhood, as well as of the international community”, and that it is “a collective imperative and obligation” of the international community “no matter how long it takes or how demanding it may become.” By sponsoring the Taliban, Pakistan created a strategic space for itself inside Afghanistan from where it could carry out anti-India activities with ease, especially training and mentoring of militants for carrying out subversive activities in India, while maintaining a denial mode before the international community. India would often cite strong linkages between Pakistani terrorist outfits operating in Kashmir valley and the Taliban regime. It was in view of the above that India had supported the anti-Taliban coalition, the United Front (or the Northern Alliance), along with Russia and Iran.

    In an attempt to gauge Taliban perceptions towards India, the author referred to articulations by the former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, and the former Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. In an interview in February 2001, Zaeef had spoken of the Talib’s explicit desire to have “normal relations” with India based on a policy of “non-interference”. Zaeef was of the view that as neighbours both countries must have “diplomatic relations and commercial ties.” Zaeef had also asserted that Afghanistan’s close relations with Pakistan “is never an obstacle to have good relations with anyone else” and that adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan “will not have an impact on Indo-Afghan ties.”

    Similarly, the former Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil, in an interview in July 2009, had argued that “India should look at Afghanistan through its own lens, not through the Pakistani lens.” He was of the opinion that “one of India’s biggest mistakes was to support the puppet Soviet regime in Kabul because the mujahideen were based in Pakistan” and “India’s second mistake was not to recognise the Taliban.” He further argued that “the Indian government should accept the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and support the peace process. After all, the Taliban are a part of Afghan society.”

    The paper argues that while the Taliban are a mix of both ethnic and Islamist politics interspersed with geo-political aspirations of regional and extra-regional actors, it is at the same time neither a credible Islamist nor a wholly ethnic movement as is often projected. This is precisely where, the paper forewarns, India has to tread carefully while dealing with Afghanistan.

    The author asserts that any attempt to expand the mandate of Af-Pak to India would prove counter-productive for the US. Merging Af-Pak with Pak-India, or mixing the two separate issues of Afghanistan and Kashmir, will only complicate the environment and work to the advantage of the Taliban, al Qaeda and pro-Taliban elements within the Pakistani establishment. Though the US has repeatedly ruled out any possibility of India being part of Richard Holbrooke’s mandate, the division of opinion within the Obama administration remains. In the given circumstances, the challenge before the Obama administration is to ensure that the Af-Pak strategy is spared from motivated efforts to divert its attention and resources.

    The paper argues that the idea of engaging “non-ideologically committed” Taliban, especially “mid-to-low level” insurgents, is not likely to bear any concrete results. The white paper on interagency policy group’s report on US policy towards Af Pak warns that the “practical integration” of reconcilable Taliban “must not become a mechanism for instituting medieval social policies that give up the quest for gender equality and human rights.”

    The new Af-Pak strategy appears to be very Pakistan-centered as well. The author asserts that the whole idea of setting benchmarks to ensure the effectiveness of the huge aid being doled out to Pakistan is not likely to work vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban. Where are the options before the US if Pakistan simply refuses to adhere to the conditions attached or fails to meet the benchmarks? Remember how the ISI chief had refused to meet Admiral Mike Mullen and Richard Holbrooke when they had visited Islamabad. The author observes that a flip side of the new strategy is that it could make the US more dependent on Pakistan and thus more open to exploitation, which in turn could dilute the Af-Pak strategy over a period of time. Though Pakistan argues that targeting militant hideouts inside its territory through drone attacks is strengthening the hands of the Taliban, but not sending drones will not weaken them either.

    The author refers to possible US pressure on India to ‘normalise’ its relations with Pakistan by resuming the composite dialogue in order to ensure that Pakistan is able to concentrate on its western tribal frontiers. Pakistan could use its India-specific threat perceptions to ensure sustained Western pressure on India while militants based in Pakistan carry on with their subversive activities against India. In such a scenario, the key question for India would be how to react in case of a repeat of a 26/11 Mumbai-style terrorist attack?

    The author argues that the centrality of the core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda in the new Af-Pak strategy makes the US approach relatively selective as far as anti-India terrorist outfits based in Pakistan are concerned. It also makes the US agenda narrow in terms of sparing resources and attention for institution-building in Afghanistan. The paper warns that there could be a point where the Indian view may start diverging from those of the US in the region.

    The proposed Contact Group on Afghanistan and Pakistan (mainly comprising of US’ NATO and other allies, Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China) in the Af Pak strategy is likely to run into rough weather. A West-initiated and dominated contact group on Afghanistan may not be acceptable especially to Russia in view of its known opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion and growing differences on the Georgian issue. While Russia has agreed to provide transit facilities for NATO supplies to Afghanistan, at the same time it has been re-asserting its influence in the former Soviet space. Same is the case with Iran given the ongoing standoff with the West on its nuclear programme. Not surprisingly, for China, the Afghan problem; problem between Afghanistan and Pakistan; and India and Pakistan, are all inter-related. In the Chinese view, the new Af-Pak strategy will not succeed until Pakistan is stabilized and India-Pakistan differences are resolved.

    Interestingly, an Asian initiative too would not be an easy proposition. The special international conference on Afghanistan organized by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at Moscow on the day the Obama administration announced its new Af-Pak strategy, and the subsequent UN special conference on Afghanistan at Hague on March 31, are reflective of the geo-political competition taking place around Afghanistan. The author is of the opinion that India is likely to remain marginalised in the regional processes on Afghanistan in view of the ongoing big power contest (the US, NATO, Russia and China) for control over vast Eurasian resources, unless it gears up for a strong regional diplomacy.


    The author concludes by saying that the biggest challenge before India in Afghanistan is sustaining the momentum of its engagement with the government as well as the people of that country. The paper points out that given the highly externalized security architecture of Afghanistan, India’s involvement in reconstruction activities would remain entwined with the success and failure of the Western military strategy. In view of India’s stated interest in the stability and security of Afghanistan, he notes, India is often expected to ‘do more’, a veiled reference to India militarily contributing to the Western efforts.

    In this regard, the author pointed out that it is important to grasp whether the Afghans (not only the Afghan government) want Indian boots on Afghan soil? How different sections of the Afghan population are going to perceive and respond to it? Would it not bring Indian forces in conflict with Pashtuns (even if Indian forces are positioned in a non-Pashtun area)? And, why India alone should do this? How many other Asian powers are willing to put their boots on the Afghan soil? Is there any support for India’s military involvement at the regional level? And, is India as a nation prepared to play the ‘game’?

    It is clear that the Russians and Chinese are not willing to send their troops to Afghanistan. It is equally important to take into account how Sino-Pakistan relations are likely to play out. In the given circumstances, India could do much better in terms of training Afghan military officials and contingents at its own facilities within the country or in a third country.

    Today India is the only country which singularly and vociferously argues for the need to extirpate the Taliban. India remains a lone voice against a chorus calling for reconciliation with the Taliban. Even Kabul and the former opponents of the Taliban, the National Front, are willing to reach out to the Taliban, who are now increasingly considered as part of the solution. Even the Russians to some extent appear to have accepted the idea of engaging the ‘moderate Taliban’. The Russian position is similar to that of Kabul and Washington.

    There is no doubt that the Taliban should not be the future of Afghanistan, at the same time it is more than evident that they cannot be physically eliminated. They are Afghans and part of the Afghan polity. Whether Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are alive or dead, it is their legacy, their ideas which have to be fought in a patient and collective manner. If categorizing them as ‘moderate’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ helps in weakening them, splitting and splintering them, so be it. The US missed the opportunity of completely destroying Taliban as an organization, and to an extent as an ideology, between 2002 and 2006. An enemy, a force, or an ideology which can’t be destroyed, has to be engaged after a point. The West cannot stay on in perpetuity. This is what keeps the Taliban going and it shall remain so. The other option is to deny a fall back option to the Taliban which exists in Pakistan. But is Pakistan willing to completely de-Talibanise its Afghan policy? Pakistan too is waiting and buying time.

    On the US policy which remains al Qaeda-centric, the author argues that it was clear from day one that Operation Enduring Freedom was not meant for fighting the Taliban in every nook and corner of Afghanistan. The US too seems to have kept the option of integrating them open. Meanwhile, reconciliation with the Taliban too will not easily come through. Where is the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate when they know that they may not be winning the battles but they are not losing the war either, and that kills the asymmetry.

    The paper observes that India may have to deal with a ‘government’ in Afghanistan that includes Taliban members. Taliban are to be seen as a manifestation of various regressive tendencies resulting from the adversarial politics of the Cold War era. The author states that the Taliban too are not going to stay on in its current form for perpetuity. The dynamism of Afghan polity would sooner or later consume them or may even present them in a different form. The Indian obsession over the destruction of Taliban is only contributing to its re-hyphenation with Pakistan. Longer the hyphenation, lesser the chance for India’s candidacy, as far as regional mechanisms are concerned. Openly engaging Kabul-based former Taliban in New Delhi would send a stronger message to Islamabad than sending forces to Afghanistan. It has to be understood that terrorism is a non-conventional threat which cannot be countered with conventional means alone. At times it requires unconventional measures to address it. Could there be a regional strategy to make the Afghan Taliban relatively independent of Pakistan in order to gradually neutralize them?

    As for the rising threat levels to India’s presence in Afghanistan, it is proof of its steadfast approach towards rebuilding of the Afghan state, something Western countries have been notably lacking. Afghan reconstruction is not about pumping billions of dollars, but working with and for the Afghans. Today, the need to protect the achievements of the Bonn Agreement and the political process that flowed from it, however flawed it may have been, is more than ever. Never before in the history of Afghan conflict, has the international community been involved in such a manner in rebuilding a modern Afghan state. The paper argues that there will be corruption, violence, short-sightedness, misunderstandings, dissatisfaction, repeated failures, but the process must go on.

    Given the current limitations, the author recommends that India will have to do some strong diplomacy at the regional level to be able to craft new options in Afghanistan. As part of a regional approach, India can explore possibilities of forging consensus with countries like Russia, Iran, and Turkey to train the Afghan National Army. India can contribute military instructors and trainers, and the Russians can equip the Army. Turkey’s presence could be significant from NATO’s viewpoint. This can go a long way in taking the load off the US and the NATO so that both could concentrate on fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda. However, this option is open so far as Western troops are deployed in Afghanistan.

    The paper concludes stating that India may not presently have great options in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. But there is one option which India should practice and always protect: the option of not going terribly wrong, of not over-hyping itself, in Afghanistan.

    Points raised during the discussion:

    • Need to explore options of engaging Iran on Afghanistan.
    • In the regional approach dealing with Iranians and Russians will have its own set of problems.
    • Taliban ideology is what we have to combat not the Taliban. Education and economic development need to be strengthened on this front.
    • There is no short term strategy for Afghanistan.
    • Options for India require greater analysis.
    • We need to examine socio-economic, political and military options separately.
    • Military training, military supplies and providing military infrastructure as options should be explored
    • One needs to look at the alternatives clearly and military options need to be explored in greater detail.
    • There is a need to fight the Taliban on the basis of ideas.

    Prepared by Medha Bisht, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.