Securing India’s interests in Afghanistan

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao during her visit to the Indian Embassy which was targetted in a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul. File Photo: AP/PTI   | Photo Credit: AP/PTI

The October 8 attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, a grim reminder of the July 7, 2008 strike, has yet again highlighted the challenges of India’s involvement in that country. While the Haqqani network aided by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence was blamed for the July attack, this time the Taliban claimed responsibility, posting a statement on a website (shahamat.org). The site is now dysfunctional.

The actual perpetrators would enjoy the benefits of deniability guaranteed by the complexity of Afghan insurgency. The growing bonhomie between New Delhi and Kabul, coupled with the increased presence of India’s development projects in Afghanistan, remains the target of the Taliban-led insurgency, which includes a huge array of insurgent and anti-government forces operating in tandem beyond south and east Afghanistan, with increased symbolic and high-profile attacks around Kabul. Moreover, as the debate in the United States intensifies about the nature of the Afghan war, President Barack Obama’s indecisiveness on a further increase in troops or limiting the “long war,” coupled with the political stalemate in Kabul in the aftermath of the August 20 polls, is playing into the Taliban propaganda.

In contrast, India’s unwavering role in long-term Afghan stability continues to pose a significant challenge to the Taliban and its supporters, who view its assistance as strengthening the democratic regime in Kabul.

Despite the loss of fewer lives, mostly visa seekers, than in the 2008 attack (which killed 58 people, including three Indian officials), mostly because of the reinforced security arrangements, the October 8 strike did deliver the message of intimidation. Intended as a warning to India to downsize its role, the attack was in a way aimed at raising the costs of the policy of “winning the hearts and minds” of local Afghans. The attack comes at a significant time when there is an increased scrutiny of India’s role in Afghanistan as indicated in a recent confidential report by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

He summed up: “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment.” While acknowledging that “Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people,” he pointed out that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.” Such thinking finds a resonance in western analysts, who posit that “the road to peace in Afghanistan runs not just through Kabul and Islamabad, but Delhi as well.” This, in turn, works well into Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in its quest for ‘strategic depth’ and reinstating a pliant regime in Kabul.

As instability and violence in Afghanistan intensify, and the policymakers in the U.S. grapple with the right strategy -- counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism -- New Delhi has indicated a ‘strategic shift’ in thinking from a military to political solution to the Afghan war. In an interview to The Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said India did “not believe that war can solve any problem and that applies to Afghanistan too.”

There has been a significant shift in New Delhi’s thinking in the political uncertainty following the recently-held Afghan polls, in which allegations of fraud have marred the early claims of President Hamid Karzai’s victory. Afghanistan’s Election Commission has called a runoff for November 7 after investigations dropped Mr. Karzai’s votes below 50 per cent. Alternatively, intense diplomacy to cobble together a national unity government is being explored to avoid the scenario of a ‘runoff.’ Without a legitimate government in place, the troop surge could come to resemble foreign occupation. Such concerns confront President Obama, who awaits the ending of the political stalemate before sending more troops.

India expressed support for a ‘national unity’ government. There is also a recognition of the need for a reconciliation process in building a politically inclusive order. In an international closed-door seminar held recently, India’s Foreign Secretary made a specific reference to “reintegration of individuals into the mainstream.”

This could have been construed as weaning away the reconcilable tribal fighters from the ideologically hardened leadership -- “separating the fish from the pond” -- a classic counter-insurgency principle India has used in its own counter-insurgency campaigns. This could have triggered a response mechanism of attack on the embassy to project the Taliban as not amenable to talks or reconciliation, thus denying India a larger political role in Afghanistan.

India, being the sixth largest bilateral donor, has pledged around $1.2 billion in several reconstruction and development projects within Afghanistan. While there is no denying that India’s strategic interests lie in the long-term stability of the country, most of these projects are directed at capacity building and triggering economic growth. India has been providing educational and vocational scholarship, health services, it has dug tubewells across Afghanistan and is now building the Parliament structure. One of the most visible and strategic projects is the 218-km Zaranj Delaram road connecting landlocked Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar. The road reduces Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan, providing a potential alternative route connecting Central Asia. However, optimal utilisation of this road would require greater security mechanisms.

Interestingly, India’s “aid diplomacy” has generated intense domestic debate, given the vulnerabilities its projects and personnel face in Afghanistan. While some would want India to send troops, others propound continuation of the ‘aid only’ policy. While the latter option would not be in India’s long-term strategic interests, an outright military response of troop deployment, apart from its limited utility, would work straight into propaganda of the Taliban and its sponsor.

What India needs in the near-term is a reinvigorated policy in terms of protecting its projects and carving out a larger regional role in the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Amid talks of U.S. withdrawal, India needs to consider long-term scenarios of its political, diplomatic and military options.

In a revamped diplomatic strategy, India can work towards the creation of a “concert of powers” — a regional grouping including the U.S., Russia, the EU, India, Iran, CAR (Central Asian Republics) and China.

While the American policymakers are looking for an exit strategy, Indian policymakers will have to take bold and innovative ideas of evolving regional mechanisms for anti-terror activities. There is need for seamless information-sharing, joint patrolling, border regimes and confidence-building measures among the regional powers.

At a local level, India needs to widen its web of engagement beyond the Karzai government. Its Afghan policy in the past few years has alienated its traditional support base among the Northern Alliance groups who have increasingly aligned with Iran. There are alienated Pushtun communities in southern and eastern Afghanistan, who are in need of India’s support in building local capacities. These groups can be cultivated as protectors of Indian aid projects by making community participation and local ownership a key plank of the aid policy. On the military front, India can enhance the training for the Afghan National Police in counter-insurgency given its experience in building a COIN grid in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Obama administration is caught in a dilemma between heeding its top military commanders’ request for more troops or limiting the war. Irrespective of the decision the U.S. takes on its future in Afghanistan, India needs to remain engaged in that country, with a clearer strategy and renewed commitment.

(Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Shanthied@gmail.com)

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