India’s Afghanistan dilemma, and the way forward

Pakistan’s obsession to control most, if not all of Afghanistan, comes from its long-stated desire to make Afghanistan its strategic backyard as a fall-back position in the event of Indian aggression.


India’s role in the future of Afghanistan, in the aftermath of a US withdrawal – quite certain following President Trump’s announcement – is being seen by many experts as an opportunity for India to further cement the country’s standing in that war-torn country, regardless of Mr Trump having mocked India’s contributions in Afghanistan, which will soon see a US troop drawdown. And though he dismissed India’s contributions of nearly $3 billion dollars in rebuilding infrastructure (with some 116 projects) in Afghanistan, to “five hours of what we spend” – which Mr Modi had countered – the US still has nothing to show, after a 17 year campaign in a yet another un-won war! That land is the graveyard of empires, and thus New Delhi would do well not to get more deeply involved in Afghanistan, despite the assertions of many Indian pundits. The Taliban, which is now being engaged by the US indirectly, had known all along that eventually, the US would withdraw, and so did their minders in Pakistan. They are thus already on a high. The question for us in India is: “How can India skillfully navigate through the mess in this war-torn land?” The first logical step would be to at least determine where India’s must lie, and how could it achieve the same?
Ideally, India would like the Afghans to be left on their own, with a peaceful settlement that is ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’. But this possibility is best left to the seminar circuit and to romantics who believe that everyone- especially the Pakistanis – will play by the rules. Pakistan’s obsession to control most if not all of Afghanistan comes from its long-stated desire to make Afghanistan its strategic backyard as a fall-back position in the event of Indian aggression. This comes from its thinking of the 1980’s- and though much has changed in military doctrines since then – Pakistan has refused to let go of this line of thought. On the other hand, India’s planners are obsessed with an altruistic view, to continue to do selfless good for the people of Afghanistan, who no doubt hold India in high regard. To that effect, India has made some $3 billion dollars worth of investments in Afghanistan in the form of their Parliament building, hospitals, schools, roads, dams and much more. But what was and is our strategic purpose? Was it just to unsettle Pakistan? Or is it now, as some have robustly argued, to stop Afghanistan from becoming the new home for the ISIS cadres, on the run from Syria? Even if the latter was true, the ISIS has to try and reach India via the landmass of Pakistan, where the local jihadi groups- supported by the Pakistan army – aren’t going to give in very easily.

Perhaps India’s desire to unburden the Americans in Afghanistan comes from Washington’s desire to rope India in as its partner in southern Asia, though at what cost, only time will tell, or maybe to get a shot at Afghanistan’s natural wealth, eventually. It is said that Afghanistan is endowed with trillions of dollars worth of natural and mineral wealth. But it is unlikely that India would get its hands on anything substantial from that lot, since the US, China and now even Russians have their eyes on it. And if the intention was to use the western parts of Afghanistan to push ahead the north-south rail corridor, from the Chabahar port in Iran – that India will now manage – via Afghanistan into Central Asia, which would also benefit the Afghans, then New Delhi must let it be known, that its intentions are just that. The impression that India’s actions have given is that New Delhi wishes to box Pakistan in from two fronts, to dilute the efficacy of Pakistan’s military forces. And hence the Pakistani reluctance to allow India even the high table rights on any discussion on the future of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have managed to get their way with the US and other western powers because they still control the major land routes into Afghanistan.

There are those in India that argue why should we now abandon Afghanistan since India has made so much investment there in terms of money, time and effort. But the wiser strategic approach would be to remain engaged with the Afghans – minus the Taliban, whom India clearly abhors – without putting Indian military boots on the ground to replace the outgoing Americans, even though the US would like that. An oft-repeated dictum in all military institutions is to ‘never reinforce a failure’, and India shouldn’t be suckered into reinforcing the failures of the US and its NATO allies. The US went into Afghanistan as a knee-jerk reaction after the 9/11 attacks, to get even with the Al-Qaeda that they had strengthened along with the Taliban to push the Russians out of that country in the ’70s. India’s reasons for being there then and now are based on its long-standing ties with the Afghans. But if we still have another $2 billion dollars or more to spare, then New Delhi would be wiser to put this money with no strings attached projects in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, that will help us counter the hard-nosed Chinese investments there, to strengthen ties with these neighbours now.

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