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India should rethink its Afghan policy

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 28, 2015

    Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai’s visit to India comes too late. The dominant perception in the Indian strategic affairs community is that Ghani has not only not appreciated but has also ignored India and instead has given priority to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Iran. While his reasons for visiting all these countries may have been tactical, the symbolic snub to India cannot be discounted. Surely, he will try to mollify New Delhi but the outcome of his visit is likely to have little strategic significance.
    Analysts see Ghani’s shift of positions as being guided by a) the calculation of a Pakistan-sponsored breakthrough with the Taliban, and b) the need to convey the message that Afghanistan no longer wishes to be a battleground for an India-Pakistan proxy war. Ghani’s shift also comes amidst disappointment among many Afghans about India’s failure to grab the opportunity.

    Ghani has already rescinded a request for weapon supplies from India, suggesting that he can get arms from anywhere. India’s delay in delivering these weapons is quite normal, but the fact is that New Delhi had firmed up with Russian companies to supply the weapons required by the Afghan National Army (ANA). Now that Washington has promised to support 352,000 Afghan personnel until 2017, the Indian help gets becomes even less relevant. But, to cover it up, India is expected to hand over three multi-role Cheetah helicopters to Ghani.

    Many in India suspect that even India’s economic role in Afghanistan may become diminished and that Ghani might review the gamut of Indian projects including the Chabahar Port linking project, iron-ore blocks, and steel plant in Hajigak. Nor are there any prospects for the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), with Kabul looking to Islamabad for military support. Consequently, it appears that agreements concluded during Ghani’s ongoing visit are likely to be on softer areas such as trade, transit, motor vehicles movement, mutual legal assistance, etc. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the implementation of even these agreements including interregional connectivity will ultimately hinge on Pakistan’s cooperation and forbearance.

    A plan for connectivity through Iran has existed for decades but there has been no substantial movement on this front. The latest Pakistan-China Economic Corridor plans would further challenge the prospect of the Indian connectivity project. What is left after all this is India building a home ground for the Afghan national cricket team. By now, India’s Afghan watchers can also guess what President Ghani will focus upon in his lecture at the Indian Council for World Affairs: “The (re)birth of the Asian Continental Economy: Regional cooperation and Afghanistan’s cooperative advantage.”

    Is India’s Afghan policy in crisis? Firstly, it appears that India’s somewhat impulsive efforts have not cut much ice. A Pakistani analyst slyly put it thus: “India trains Afghan forces but does not arm them…does not build houses – so morally weak army join the Taliban insurgents.” Interesting observation, although what drove India to adopt such a course was respect for Pakistan’s sensitivity in the first place.

    Secondly, India’s $2 billion commitment for Afghanistan seems to have been driven more by woolly ideas of ‘gaining goodwill’ rather than being based on a sound strategic assessment. India’s desire to help may have been genuine, but not everyone viewed it that way, nor has it worked that way, because politics does not necessarily work on the logic of showing benevolence, magnanimity and a display of riches.

    Thirdly, why did India go alone without joining hands with other partners? Did Indian policy makers get carried away? In contrast, the Iranian, Russian and Chinese thinking proved smarter. This question requires serious discussion in order to avoid a repeat in the future.

    Alas, there are no visible strategic gains for all the resources spent. It seems as if all that money has gone down the drain. And India can at best console itself for having earned some good punya (merit) in Afghanistan; hopefully this will help the country in its future destiny.

    All likely scenarios are visible, including Pakistan gaining a leeway to thwart Indian plans. In the current context, even Russia seems to be lending support to Pakistani efforts. Clearly, India needs to reassess its Afghan policy.

    In the past, India’s Afghan policy worked albeit ironically because of Pakistani follies. For instance, in April 1992, even the pro-Pakistan Afghan mujahideen refused to become Islamabad’s puppet and turned to New Delhi. By 1996, even long time ISI protégé Gulbuddin Hekmatyar fell out with Pakistan to join the Rabbani group. It was indeed quite an irony when, upon becoming the new Afghan Prime Minister, Hekmatyar received a congratulatory message from his Indian counterpart. Not just that, Hekmatyar even attended India’s Independence Day celebration at the Indian Embassy in Kabul on 15 August 1996.

    With the Taliban coming to power on 27 September 1996, India departed from its traditional practice of recognizing any regime that controlled Kabul. It even rebuffed the Taliban’s attempt on at least three occasions to establish contact. To be fair to them, the Taliban did not show any particular antagonism towards India.

    India vowed to get the Northern Alliance back to power, but the Gujral Doctrine for better relations with Pakistan poured cold water on that plan. In May 1997, when Mazar-i-Sharif fell to the Taliban, India signalled that it would deal with whoever was in control in Kabul. The BJP, then in the opposition, stood up to criticize the government’s indecisiveness. Afghanistan also featured in the BJP’s 1989 manifesto, with Vajpayee asking for a thorough review of the policy towards that country; the rest is history now.

    India’s concerns today seem to be more on terrorism and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s networks in Kunar and Nooristan. Instead, the focus should be more on Afghanistan’s ethnic politics.

    The option of joining hands with Iran is still on the table. To stop the reversal of gains, some even suggest India changing its Pakistan policy. This is ideal but not an easily reachable option.

    Of course, there are likely to be many bewildering twists to the Afghan situation. For now, most countries are adopting a wait and see attitude because none is willing to be played by the Afghans. One might have to wait for another cycle of chaos to begin before making a move. Alternately, differences could erupt among Afghan leaders or between them and Pakistani leaders. After all, the two countries will compete for the same strategic space. Thus, it is unlikely that the Afghan game will end anytime soon. India should continue to play the game but no longer by showering financial largesse but by deploying its skills of political manoeuvring.

    The author is a former Ambassador and strategic thinker.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India