India Insight

India stepping up to the challenge of post-2014 Afghanistan

November 12, 2012

Racing through the deserted streets of Kabul at nighttime, you are likely to be stopped at street corners by policemen once, twice or even more. If you are a South Asian, as I am, their guard is up even more. “Pakistani or Indian?” the cop barks out as you lower your window. When I answer “Indian”, he wants me to produce a passport to prove that, and as it happens, I am not carrying one. So I am pulled out of the car in the freezing cold and given a full body search, with the policemen muttering under his breath in Dari that everyone goes around claiming to be an Indian, especially Pakistanis.

To be an Indian in Kabul is to be greeted warmly wherever you go, whether it is negotiating a security barrier or seeking a meeting with a government official. There is an easing of tensions (in Afghanistan, the fear uppermost in the mind is that the stranger at the door could be an attacker and you don’t have too long to judge), Bollywood is almost immediately mentioned, and your hosts will go out of their way to help.

To be a Pakistani is a bit more fraught. The body search is rigorous, the questioning hostile, and, more often than not, you have to be rescued by a Western colleague especially if you are entering one of those heavily guarded, unmarked restaurants frequented by foreigners.

To the ordinary Afghan, India and Pakistan have followed two different paths in the country beginning from the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 when there was hope in the air and you could walk in the streets of Kabul (instead of trying to escape it) to the current time when the Taliban have fought back and hold the momentum as the West withdraws after a long and ultimately, unsuccessful engagement.

While the Indians have been applauded for helping build roads, getting power lines into the capital, running hospitals and arranging for hundreds of students to pursue higher education in India, the Pakistanis are accused of the violence that Afghans see all around them, from the attacks in the capital to the fighting on the border and the export of militant Islam.  It’s become  reflexive: minutes into an attack, the blame shifts to Pakistan. “They must have done it.”

A Rand study into the differing strategies adopted by the rivals in Afghanistan quotes a 2009 BBC/ABC News/ARD poll which showed that 86 percent of Afghans thought Pakistan had a negative influence in Afghanistan, with only 5 percent saying it had made a positive contribution. India’s impact, by contrast, was seen as positive by 41 percent of Afghans and negative by only 10 percent. Overall, 74 percent of Afghans held a favourable view of India against 8 percent of those who had a positive impression about Pakistan.

Quite a stunning reversal from the time when Afghanistan under King Zahir Shah supported Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 wars against India.

Since that opinion poll, things have only gotten worse for Pakistan, with the breakdown in its ties with the United States, principally over the sanctuaries that American officials say militants enjoy in Pakistan’s northwest, adding to its sense of isolation.

With America leaving while the fires still burn in Afghanistan, India may well be the country best positioned to pick up some of the slack, the authors of the Rand study, Larry Hanauer and Peter Chalk, argue.

Both India and Pakistan are in Afghanistan, not out of any sense of altruism, but their own strategic interests, and it just so happens that India’s are more in line with what the Afghans and the Americans are seeking than Pakistan’s. India’s biggest fear is that Afghanistan will again become a base for Pakistan-supported militants to launch attacks in India or against Indian interests elsewhere including its embassy in Kabul which has been targeted twice, the only one to be done so until the U.S. embassy attacks of 2011. A Taliban return to power could place Afghanistan back in Pakistan’s orbit and effectively put an end to Indian aid, investment and trade in the country, and cut off its own bridgehead into resource-rich Central Asia, a key potential source to feed the demand of a massive expanding economy, deficient in energy.

To this extent, New Delhi has sought to support a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic Afghan government. It’s been doing everything it can to open up its vast domestic market to Afghan exports to bolster the weak economy, but the routes run through Pakistan. It’s been trying to integrate Kabul into regional political and economic structures, so it doesn’t depend entirely on Pakistan, pushing its entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Last year, it held an Afghanistan investment summit in New Delhi to attract not just India’s vast entrepreneurial class, but others too in the region, virtually taking on the role of a promoter for the war-torn country as an investment destination. Ahead of the 2014 pullout, the idea was to change the “narrative from that of anxiety to a narrative of hope,” Indian ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya said at the time.

Which pretty much ties up with the U.S. aspirations for Afghanistan post 2014: a stable, strong and independent nation, which won’t become a base for militants and with an economy strong enough to pay its own bills.

Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan, are in contrast, seen as more India-driven, and hence security-focused. It has sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against an Indian invasion from the east, counter New Delhi’s efforts to project influence there and beyond into Central Asia, and prevent it from using Afghan soil  to support Baloch separatists. Separately, it cannot also have the emergence of “Pashtunistan” straddling the disputed border with Afghanistan which can only exert a further centrifugal force and threaten its very identity as a nation-state.

With its military-dominated decision-making apparatus focused on internal security concerns and on keeping other powers from exerting influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan has little of positive value to offer Afghanistan or its neighbours,” the authors write.

With its economy in stress,  neither is Pakistan in a position to invest in Afghanistan on a scale India’s fast-growing economy can.

“India’s democratic polity, institutionalized decision-making processes, relative internal stability, apolitical military, a large consumer base and growing economy make it a far more palatable partner for Kabul.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in India this week and while the two countries will sign accords on mining and new development projects, the core message that he brings to New Delhi is that Kabul cannot be allowed to sink into chaos once the United States leaves, said the country’s envoy to New Delhi. Afghanistan is looking to a bigger Indian role in boosting training of security forces including police, ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali said.

While a small number of Afghan army officers are trained in Indian military institutions under a long-running programme, a strategic agreement signed between the countries last year opened the door to a bigger programme. Some experts have called for training of officers at top Indian counter-insurgency schools. The Indian army has had a rather long experience dealing with insurgencies from the revolts in the northeast soon as the country became free in 1947 to Kashmir when it erupted in 1989. India may also offer pilot training for the new Afghan air force and even  provide some of its indigenously built advanced light helicopters, according to a February 2010 leaked cable from the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. It has also discussed the possibility of training Afghan policewomen and bomb disposal squads, but no training has yet taken place.

New Delhi has clearly recovered ground since it was caught off-guard at the January 2010 London conference on Afghanistan endorsing moves to open negotiations with the Taliban in which Pakistan would necessarily be a central player. But since then those talks have failed to get off the ground, and the turbulent relationship between the United States and Pakistan has taken such a turn for the worse that it is hard to see the international community allowing Islamabad a prime role in efforts to seek a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Islamabad still remains key to any effort to bring the Taliban to peace talks and any solution to Afghanistan’s conflict looks unlikely without settling with the resurgent Taliban one way or the other.

Indeed, so volatile are the politics of the region that much can still change between now and the NATO withdrawal in 2014.  The situation may deteriorate and New Delhi’s policy options may be reduced dramatically. In that event, India may put its development and commercial operations on hold and try and provide support to the elements of the Northern Alliance, like it did during the civil war and the 2001 war against the Taliban, says Daniel Norfolk in a paper on India’s engagement in the book “Afghanistan in Transition, Beyond 2014?” edited by Shanthie Mariet D’Souza from the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.

If in case a friendly government emerges or an India-neutral government retains power in most big cities and in the north while  a low-intensity conflict rages in other parts of the country, India’s greatest challenge will be to maintain its engagement without over-stepping the boundaries and squandering away the goodwill.

For in the case of other neighbours such Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka, India has often seemed as big and overweening and wasted precious political capital among its smaller neighbours.

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