The Kabul Game

In foreign policy, as in domestic politics, timing matters a great deal. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Afghanistan could not have come at a more opportune moment. The killing of Osama bin Laden has concentrated the international community’s attention on the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre as few developments could have.

As the Afghan government and the various international actors prepare for the much-awaited “endgame”, the visit afforded India an opportunity to clarify its own interests, goals and strategy. These will need to be fine-tuned as the situation unfolds, but the basic markers of Indian policy in Afghanistan have been laid down.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, India has sought to carve out for itself a distinctive space in Afghanistan. The emphasis in Indian policy has been on cultivating strong political ties with Kabul and on reaching out to the people of Afghanistan. The principal — but not the sole — instrument deployed by India in pursuit of these objectives has been economic and developmental assistance. India has emerged as the largest non-traditional donor to Afghanistan and has already extended aid to the tune of $1.6 billion. Much of this aid went towards the reconstruction of infrastructure (especially roads and electricity), health, education and community development projects. Successive opinion polls and surveys have shown that the Indian effort is viewed positively by an overwhelming majority of the people. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has remarked more than once that India provides “emotional strategic depth” to the Afghan people.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Dr Singh announced an acceleration of India’s efforts in this direction. He has pledged an addition $500 million for developmental activities. The focus will be on increasing our contribution in the areas of health, education, transportation, agriculture and small developmental projects. Further, India will also scale up its assistance in building the capacity of the Afghan state at various levels. Equally significant is the decision to embark on a “comprehensive economic partnership”. These, together with New Delhi’s willingness to participate in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project, underline the new instruments of statecraft that a rising India is capable of employing.
On the political front, India has focused on building links with the elected government of Afghanistan. After 2001, New Delhi has sought to shed its image as solely a patron of the non-Pashtun groups that had opposed the Taliban (the so-called Northern Alliance). It has not only built close ties with the Karzai government, but has urged the other non-Taliban groups to work with Mr Karzai. It is no coincidence that many of India’s developmental projects have been undertaken in the Pashtun-dominated areas. Indeed, India has systematically sought to refurbish its standing amongst the Pashtuns as well as other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Similarly, India has sought to steer clear of the Western coalition in Afghanistan and has focused on interacting directly with the ministries in Kabul and in the provinces.
In the last couple of years, though, questions were raised about India’s willingness to stick on in Afghanistan. Not only was the insurgency gathering strength, but Indian installations were directly targeted. Further, the United States seemed to sympathise with Pakistan’s demand that India keep a low-profile in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, famously warned of Pakistani counter-measures against India. Dr Singh’s visit has reaffirmed India’s commitment to Afghanistan. Dr Singh rightly emphasised the bilateral dimension of this relationship and refused to accord excessive importance to the Pakistan angle.
This approach is realistic. India has some key and irreducible interests in Afghanistan, but these interests should not be overstated. Unlike Pakistan, we do not share a border with Afghanistan. The notion that India and Pakistan are in a zero-sum game in Afghanistan is not merely erroneous, but problematic too. By unnecessarily magnifying our interests, we at once risk strategic overreach and setting ourselves up for failure. Fortunately, the Indian government’s appreciation of its interests is more subtle than that of its critics who routinely present Afghanistan as a “test case” for an emerging India.
In line with this assessment of its interests, the Indian government has also recalibrated its position on two key issues. The first relates to the process of reconciliation with elements of the Taliban. Dr Singh explicitly stated that India “welcomes and supports” the Karzai government’s efforts in this direction. In the past, New Delhi has spoken out against attempts to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban, so indicating its unease with the reconciliation process. But it is now clear that these efforts will go on. Indeed, there are multiple tracks through which attempts are being made to reach out to the various Taliban groups. India has done well to modify its earlier position and come out in support of Mr Karzai’s plans. To be sure, the reconciliation process will give Pakistan renewed importance. But there is little India can do apart from impressing upon Mr Karzai the need to stick to the red lines drawn by his own government, that is, the insurgents should be willing to forsake violence and abide by the Afghan Constitution.
The second issue pertains to security. Dr Singh observed that India was willing to extend its support for Kabul’s efforts in this area. Such assistance, it appears, will mostly take the form of police training. Strengthening the police is critical to preparing the Afghan state to assume responsibility for counterinsurgency operations in the months and years ahead. But it is equally important that New Delhi keeps an eye on the performance of the Afghan Army. On paper its numbers have increased considerable. But its effectiveness remains to be tested.
The drawdown of Western troops in Afghanistan is inevitable. But this does not portend a return to the 1990s, when India became a marginal player in Afghanistan.
A strong political and economic presence coupled with focused security sector assistance seems the appropriate strategy. Those demanding a muscular military presence in Afghanistan would do well to recall Talleyrand’s dictum: Above all, no excessive zeal.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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