In the run-up to the 2014 election and after, the state of the country gives India many opportunities to use its political, military and economic tools for long-term engagement

New Delhi will be confronted by a host of rapidly changing scenarios in Afghanistan as the country heads for transition in the security and political sectors in 2014. The interplay between different actors jockeying for power could either allow India to retain its present level of engagement, provide opportunities to expand its influence or bring an abrupt end to its presence in that country. If it wishes to remain relevant and engaged in playing a key role in the long-term stabilisation of Afghanistan, India will have to recalibrate its strategy to deal with a range of options emerging from the four most probable scenarios.

Four points

Scenario 1: A new Afghan president is chosen in 2014 through a relatively free and fair election process. The Afghan security forces, with continuing assistance from the residual U.S. forces on Afghan soil, thwart the Taliban insurgency. Violence would continue, but would not escalate enough to destabilise the government. This optimal scenario would mean business as usual for India. However, to ensure this, New Delhi would need to work with the present Afghan government and other political groups to ensure free and fair elections. It will also have to play a more proactive role in building the capabilities of the Afghan security sector.

Scenario 2: The presidential elections scheduled for April 2014 could either be delayed indefinitely or marred by widespread malpractices and fraud, thereby undermining the role and power of the new Afghan president. Alternately, Hamid Karzai could extend his term by amending the constitution and convening a Loya Jirgah, or nominate a successor to assume the presidency, leading the Opposition political groups as well as the influential warlords and power brokers to call for regime change. Afghan society could fracture along ethnic and tribal lines with regional powers supporting their proxies. With Afghanistan divided into various spheres of influence, India would be constrained to choose sides not just among the present regime and other political groups, but also among the warlords and regional commanders. This would be a case of high risk involvement with diminishing returns, with little guarantee of securing India's interest in the long term.

Scenario 3: Following a negotiated political settlement, the Taliban (Quetta Shura Taliban) could return to Afghanistan under a power-sharing arrangement, allowing it to administer key provinces as well as retaining significant influence in the national government. This would gradually lead to instability and fragmentation, with anti-Taliban political forces, women and civil society groups opposing such deals, leading the country to a 1990s-type civil war situation. In case of the precipitous withdrawal of international forces, the danger of a complete Taliban takeover is also highly probable. This is possibly the worst case scenario. India will have little option but to wind-down its operations, strengthen its homeland security measures and increase vigilance along the India-Pakistan border.

Scenario 4: A political dispensation backed by Pakistan or headed by a pro-Pakistan personality like Muhammad Umar Daudzai, the current Afghan Ambassador to Islamabad, or a protégé of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from the Hezb-e-Islami, assumes power. This could also lead to a surge of influence and area domination by the Peshawar Shura of the Taliban in the South and East or the ceding of territory (Paktia, Paktika, Khost) to the Haqqani network. New Delhi will have to recalibrate its mode of engagement by extending support and building linkages among tribal networks, refugees, and nomadic groups in the bordering areas of Afghanistan-Pakistan and build on the Kabul Shura as an effective counterforce.

In the months leading to 2014, India will have to utilise a range of diplomatic, military, and economic tools and set clear policy markers to sustain the democratic order and deny the space for the return of the extremists. The near to medium-term projects could include training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), particularly its officer corps, the police, paramilitary, and the air force, and also helping to build the justice sector. In the long term, security sector reform and building sound civil-military relations would remain critical in preventing the disintegration or loss of civil control of the army.

Development the key

The transition in the political sector is more challenging. There is an immediate need for India to push for a national dialogue in Afghanistan which addresses the concerns of the impending election and reconciliation process. In addition to broad based engagement with the other political groups, New Delhi needs to work on strengthening the electoral reform process.

On the economic sector, in the near and medium term, India could help establish small and medium enterprises, alternate livelihood programmes and revive the Afghan indigenous economic base. India’s aid and assistance programmes involving high-visibility infrastructure projects have created national assets for Afghanistan, shaping India’s image and generating a measure of gratitude. However, an enduring Indian influence would remain linked to New Delhi designing and helping implement development programmes to address poverty, illiteracy and systemic administrative dysfunction.

Afghanistan stands at a critical crossroads in its nation building exercise. It could either emerge as a sovereign, stable and prosperous country or once again disintegrate into chaos. The stakes are high and time is running out. New Delhi needs to act on a range of available options if it wants to avoid a “stalemate” or even the loss of decade-long investment and “goodwill.” Afghanistan would be the “test case” of New Delhi’s major power aspirations in the region.

(Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore. Email: isassmd@nus.edu.sg)

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