Originally Published 2010-08-16 00:00:00 Published on Aug 16, 2010
India's Afghanistan policy has for long been hos tage to the vagaries of policy making in Washington and the enormous baggage of myths and wishful thinking which burden its strategic outlook.
Time for bold options in Afghanistan
India’s Afghanistan policy has for long been hos tage to the vagaries of policy making in Washington and the enormous baggage of myths and wishful thinking which burden its strategic outlook.  India must now end this stupor and wake up to the realities of shouldering the responsibility of an emerging power in the global arena. A leader must have a vision and a will. Afghanistan could be a starting point.

In Afghanistan, India is in a tight squeeze, as much as the United States of America. With the Obama administration firm on beginning the withdrawal of its  troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, India is faced with the un-enviable option of following suit, more quietly perhaps. India should not; that would be an easy way out, and would be seen as a defeat by Pakistan and its proxies operating in Afghanistan. We can perhaps live with that; what we cannot is how the Afghans would view the Indian retreat. It would seriously undermine the goodwill India has with ordinary Afghans.

We have reached this cul-de sac in Afghanistan largely because of our fear and obsession about Pakistan gaining extra ground there, and almost a blind belief in the American policies which shifted with as much alacrity as the wind blowing across the passes and valleys of Hindu Kush. To justify such a policy acrobatics, we manufactured certain `strategic interests` in the region which we do not seem to be within our reach, now or ever, despite heavy financial and other commitments. It is time we revisit these `interests` and policies.

What are Indian interests in Afghanistan? We dream of a stable, democratic Afghanistan. We would like to maintain the `neutrality` of the Afghanistan government. We do not want the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan. We would like Afghanistan to be our gateway to Central Asia and beyond. A stable, democratic and independent Afghanistan can only be brought about by the will and capability of the country’s leadership and people. We can at best help them in finding their feet, and not walk. We are already doing it in considerable measure by funding, building and supporting the creation of institutions of governance. Our substantial investments in infrastructure in Afghanistan amply reflect our commitment.

The Taliban is a reality in today’s Afghanistan and cannot be wished away, at least not for the moment. Although the Taliban regime, in its previous avatar, had not been popular, the rise of the Taliban after the US bombing of Afghanistan following 9/11 has religious and ethnic provocations. The presence of foreign troops fans such sentiments.

India has three options on hand—open negotiations with some elements of Taliban leadership who can be persuaded,  help the Karzai government to negotiate the treacherous waters, and prepare to pack up when the Americans leave. The last one is no option. Therefore it is more worthwhile to think of other ways to address the immense challenges the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan today pose to the world, particularly to India.

We must first wholeheartedly support the Karzai government in finding a toehold. This support must be both vocal as well as material. To begin with, we can declare a hefty hike in aid to Afghanistan, offer to consider new infrastructure projects, offer additional scholarships and seats to Afghan students in Indian educational institutions, including schools, and open military and police training institutions in India to Afghan candidates. These steps are merely indicative of the whole basket of measures we can undertake in the next few months to strengthen economic and diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan. We need to take these decisions now. Even if we are forced to evacuate in case the Taliban takes over Kabul sometime in future, we must leave behind seeds of future engagement.

Second, given our new found bon-homie with the US leadership, we must impress upon the Obama administration to plan for a gradual `re-organisation` of troop deployment instead of a `withdrawal`, total or partial, in Afghanistan next year. Leaving Afghanistan in the hands of a weak Karzai, a stronger Taliban-al Qaida combine and Pakistan Army will not only spell disaster for the region but also for the US strategic interests. The most worrisome fall-out from such a situation will be the unravelling of a nuclear Pakistan, a renewed civil war in Afghanistan and the emergence of a de facto Pashtoonistan embracing areas both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

India can, and must, undertake another task. It must utilise its diplomatic resources and experience to create a regional bulwark against Afghanistan falling into the Taliban trap. This can be crafted by opening a consistent and comprehensive dialogue with Iran, Russia and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours. Seeds of this initiative have already been sown but will require time and effort for it to sprout and blossom.

Diplomacy should also find a way of impressing upon Pakistan’s military and civil authorities that India’s development activities in Afghanistan pose no threat to Pakistan’s interests and the perils of its own adventurous Afghan policies pose for itself. Whether the Taliban takes over Kabul or settles for a negotiated arrangement, its relationship with Pakistan Army will not be that of a master and client. The possibility of the Taliban-Pakistan souring sooner than later cannot be discounted. The Taliban is not going to let Pakistan dictate terms. The Taliban’s Pashtun card is bound to come into place sooner or later in Khyber-Pakhtunwa and the tribal areas. And in such a situation, neither China nor the US will be able to help.

In any case, under the prevailing circumstances, India must accept that terrorist groups and their influence and activities will expand and pose a graver threat to its interests than in the past, and prepare itself for such an eventuality. The terrorist networks, emboldened by the unnerved, if not defeated, western forces in Afghanistan, will strengthen their hold over larger territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan which are de facto their sanctuaries today. The withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan, if and when such an event happens, will trigger a renewal of al Qaida’s ideology and activities and a wave of jihad will sweep not only across Asia but Europe as well. The threats of spectacular attacks and nuclear terrorism could magnify especially if a strong extremist stranglehold of the region weakens civilian institutions in Pakistan. India must therefore be prepared to defend itself from external forces and their proxies within the next decade with renewed vigour and capability. This would call not only for a generous financial commitment to set up a robust and dynamic security mechanism but also a strong political will.

Wilson John is Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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