Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-02-06 12:01:08 Published on Feb 06, 2020
India’s credibility at stake
Last month Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, was in New Delhi during which he addressed the Raisina Dialogue wherein he hailed India as a “key partner” of his country, sharing the vision “for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.” Underscoring that “violence and terrorism have no constituencies in Afghanistan,” Mohib asserted that “a ceasefire is necessary to create a conducive environment for talks.” And then in private, he reportedly asked New Delhi to consider deploying Indian troops in Afghanistan in a peacekeeping role as the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the US once again gains momentum. This is one of those discussions in New Delhi that no one wants to have. There is a seeming consensus in the Indian strategic community that this is a no go area for India. It doesn’t matter if the costs of inaction are mounting by the day and India’s reluctance to proactively shape the ground realities in Afghanistan has made it so marginal in the country that the only recourse it has is of asking other actors to keep its interests in mind. Officially, India has been repeatedly ruling out sending troops to Afghanistan, asserting that it would like to help Afghanistan through economic and humanitarian aid. But in the past, such requests had been coming from the US. It was easy to dismiss them. So long as the US policy supports Indian economic and cultural presence in Afghanistan, it is welcome. But when the US demands that India should go for hard power commitment in the war torn nation, New Delhi can look the other way. India’s default position on Afghanistan has been to rely on American military for furthering its interests. The fact that India could emerge as a significant economic player in Afghanistan, much liked by ordinary Afghans, has much more to do with American forces shaping the battlefield than with any strategic foresight on India’s part. The result of this extraordinary situation has been that every time there is a likelihood that Americans might be withdrawing their troops, Indian establishment would hector Washington on how short sighted that move is and the costs it would impose on the region. It is indeed ironical that a nation which doesn’t want to put any troops on the ground in what is its strategic neighbourhood has not been loath to criticise a nation from where Afghanistan is thousands of miles away. Now the request is coming directly from the Afghan government. The Ghani government is warily looking at the prospect of the peace deal between the Taliban and the US. It is under no illusion that after American forces depart, Taliban would challenge other actors to regain its past supremacy, leading to widespread turmoil and the frittering away of all the gains made over the last two decades. In such a context, allies of India would need Indian military’s protection and support. It would also be important to protect India’s significant investment in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Yet, the debate on Afghanistan in India is still stuck in the age old stock phrases and has hardly evolved. There is actually no policy beyond saying that “there shall not be boots from India on the ground .” There are multiple reasons for why Indian military involvement in Afghanistan will be problematic, ranging from the lack of success of foreign powers in Afghanistan to India’s inability to achieve anything militarily on its own to Indian forces getting sucked into a confrontation with Pakistan based proxies. All of these points have some validity but how is it that for a nation whose foreign policy has rapidly evolved in the last two decades, these reasons have been cast in stone? There needs to be a stock taking now that ground realities are changing rapidly in Afghanistan and for all of India’s claims at being a major partner, it is nowhere in the picture when it comes to the final outcome. Since the fall of the Taliban since 2001, India has emerged as Afghanistan's biggest regional donor, proving more than $3 billion in official assistance. It has undertaken some key infrastructural projects in Afghanistan and has been involved in building Afghanistan’s capacity in various spheres. In the military realm, however, apart from some limited training to the Afghan army and police and four Mi25 helicopters, India has been reluctant to move forward with any degree of seriousness. As far back as 2013, then Afghan President Hamid Karzai had given India a “wish-list” of military equipment which included 105 mm artillery and medium-lift aircraft among others. And that wish has now morphed into Mohib’s request for Indian troops. But India’s approach of no military involvement remains consistent, something that many in Indian foreign policy establishment hold dear. For a government that believes in shedding the shibboleths of the past, perhaps there is still time to reinvigorate the idea of India as regional security provider. If Afghanistan becomes a haven for extremists and Pakistan backed proxies become the ultimate arbiters there, India would have the most to lose. And its credibility as a power of any worth would be in tatters. It is time for Indian policy makers to start weighing the costs of inaction in Afghanistan.
This commentary originally appeared in The Mail Today
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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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