If New Delhi is serious about its concerns over rapid western withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should along with other governments form a multinational joint working group to assess the points of vulnerability for Afghan forces

Afghan President Hamid Karzai cannot get enough of Delhi. He has just concluded his third visit to the capital in the space of a year, a remarkable tally that underscores the great potential of the India-Afghanistan relationship. But India is at risk of wasting opportunities to build on what has been one of its greatest diplomatic successes in the past decade.

For over a year, India has warned that the NATO-led western coalition in Afghanistan erred in announcing a departure date; that the coalition is drawing down combat forces too quickly; and that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are being left ill-equipped to fight insurgent and terrorist threats that remain entrenched in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. Today, India is in a strong position to shape each of these factors to its advantage, but its policies are marked by indecision and confusion.

Security agreement

First, consider the question of western troops. Contrary to the popular Indian understanding, western forces do not intend to “withdraw” from Afghanistan next year. Kabul and Washington have agreed on the text of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would allow a force of 8,000 to 10,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 for training purposes and limited counterterrorism missions, albeit under strict conditions. Mr. Karzai initially convened a largely hand-picked Loya Jirga (tribal assembly), which overwhelmingly urged the President to sign the agreement. But now, he has changed his mind. He wants new and implausible concessions from the U.S., and also insists that the BSA should be signed by his successor after the Afghan presidential elections in April 2014, perhaps hoping to maintain leverage over Washington in case the elections are as flawed and contested as those of 2009.

The U.S. has retorted that this would not give them enough time to prepare for such a large mission, and that U.S. troops might therefore have to leave altogether — the so-called “zero option.” This would also put at risk the many billions of dollars of American aid that will flow to Kabul for several years after 2014. Without this money, the survival of Afghan security forces and the Afghan state itself is in question. After all, it was not the departure of Soviet forces in 1989 that produced the collapse of the Communist government in Kabul to the Mujahideen, but the withdrawal of Soviet funds three years later. As the Afghan National Security Advisor put it, Kabul without the BSA “would be isolated again, like a lamb stuck among wolves in the desert.”

India, with its panoply of economic, political, and strategic investments in Afghanistan, therefore has a profound interest in ensuring that NATO forces stay. One might think that India would be urging Mr. Karzai to sign. Indeed, only last week the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, hinted at private Indian support and said that Mr. Karzai’s trip to Delhi would be “quite influential” in persuading the President of the urgency of an agreement. Yet, New Delhi’s policy messaging over the past days and weeks has been downright masochistic.

India first indicated that it wanted the BSA to “reflect the concerns of India as well as Iran.” Yet, Iran is the one country that opposes the BSA — even Pakistan is more supportive. If New Delhi’s intention here is to reach out to Tehran in the aftermath of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, this is understandable. But this is a curious way to go about it.

Then, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Mr. Karzai on Saturday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs declared that Mr. Karzai “will do whatever is best for the people of Afghanistan and … we will support it,” adding for good measure that Mr. Karzai — who has recently reached new heights of paranoia and capriciousness — was “a wise and sagacious leader.” New Delhi should be offering full-throated support for an agreement that is vital to its own regional interests. Instead, it has produced tepid and confused signals that encourage Mr. Karzai to continue his dangerous game of chicken with the U.S. India should be alarmed by this behaviour, not indulge it. Uncritically pandering to Mr. Karzai is the easy option in the short run, but it constitutes immature diplomacy that poses long-term risks to India’s national security.

Indian military support

Second, consider the question of India’s military support to Afghanistan. India certainly hasn’t been entirely passive here. It is intensifying its valuable efforts to train Afghan army officers in Indian establishments, and will soon be training over 1,000 annually. Mr. Karzai himself indicated on the weekend that India’s training was “much better than what appears in the press.” But for much of this year, and with growing volume, he has been pleading with India to supply second-hand Indian arms that he can’t obtain from western allies. With the exception of a few helicopters and some minor equipment, the government has stalled on this request, as well as others to send military trainers. Mr. Karzai’s weapons wish list has met with death by committee in South Block.

India has proffered a baffling and implausible set of excuses for this reluctance: that the equipment could end up in the wrong hands, that Moscow must give permission for the transfer of Soviet-era arms, that India lacks “surplus capacity” in arms, and that the matter is, euphemistically, “under review.” India’s policy is now nothing short of incoherence. Indian officials privately criticise western powers for failing to arm the Afghans more heavily, but India vacillates over doing so itself. India publicly insists that it has confidence in Afghan security forces, but then intimates that their potential dissolution is a reason to avoid shoring them up.

India’s real concerns have little to do with a lack of capacity or Russian permission. Many of the items on Mr. Karzai’s weapons wish list are being phased out of India’s arsenal anyway, or are built by India itself. Its reluctance has more to do with chronic risk-aversion, compounded by the next year’s looming Indian and Afghan elections. This Indian government has struggled to take bold domestic or foreign policy decisions at the best of times, let alone when national polls are within sight. New Delhi is also concerned about arming the ANSF at a time when the post-Karzai environment is so murky (will the next president be as pro-India?), and anxious that the provision of heavy weaponry might provoke Pakistan into intensifying support for anti-Indian groups in Afghanistan. It was only earlier this year that the Indian consulate in Jalalabad was struck by suicide bombers. These concerns are legitimate, but India cannot hope to “free ride” on western efforts while complaining incessantly about how western policy is leaving threats to India unaddressed.

Point of engagement

If India is serious about its concerns over rapid western withdrawal and Afghan weakness, it should get serious itself. New Delhi, Kabul, Washington, London and other governments with an important role in the security sector of post-2014 Afghanistan should form a multinational joint working group to assess the points of vulnerability for Afghan forces. A good starting point would be for India to send trainers to the British-established Afghanistan National Army Officers’ Academy (ANAOA). This would not only integrate with existing NATO efforts, but it would afford Indian trainers with much greater protection from attacks by the Haqqani network or the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In turn, trainers from NATO countries, with over a decade of combat experience in Afghanistan, could also be placed in Indian institutions that host Afghan officers. Only last week, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, explicitly stated that even Islamabad had no problem with New Delhi’s assistance to Afghan security forces.

India has played an important and constructive role in post-2001 Afghanistan. It will continue to do so long after the last western troops depart. But New Delhi’s current policy appears to be to seek influence without commensurate responsibility. India wants western troops to stay, but won’t expend the diplomatic capital required to push Mr. Karzai to sign the BSA. India wants Afghan forces to be better armed, but shies away from taking on the talks itself. India opposes the speed and scope of the nascent American talks with the Taliban, but is bereft of ways to shape this process.

The drawdown of western forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will be one of this decade’s most significant geopolitical shifts. If India doesn’t like the way it’s going, it must decide whether to step up to the plate, with all the attendant risks, or keep shouting from the sidelines.

(Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, London.)

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