Indian engagement in Afghanistan, a blessing or a headache

October 9, 2009

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal in his assessment of the war in Afghanistan last month only briefly touched upon the growing role of India, but his words were blunt and unsettling for India. In the light of Thursday’s attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that left 17 people dead, McChrsytal’s comments may yet turn out to be prescient.

“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India,” he said, according to the leaked version of his report.

New Delhi has held its counsel so far on who it thought was responsible for the latest attack, but if it eventually points the finger at elements in Pakistan – blamed for the 2008 attack by both New Delhi and United States - it will reinforce the view that Afghanistan is the foes’ current  battle ground, perhaps more than Kashmir, exhausted by 20 years of a proxy war. 

Last week the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the Los Angeles Times that Islamabad had real concerns about Indian involvement in Afghanistan.

“They have to justify their interest. They do not share a border with Afghanistan, whereas we do. So the level of engagement has to be commensurate with that. If there is no massive [Indian] reconstruction [in Afghanistan], if there are not long queues in Delhi waiting for visas to travel to Kabul, why do you have such a large presence in Afghanistan? ”

Indian diplomacy has certainly been on an overdrive in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Besides the embassy in Kabul, there are consulates in Herat, Mazhar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad  representing all four parts of the country, stirring fears in Pakistan of a strategic encirclement.

And while many Afghans hold Pakistan responsible for the brutal Taliban rule before 2001, New Delhi has positioned itself as the “soft power” combining the appeal of Bollywood and soap operas for the Afghans with aid projects that that seem to be delivering.  In May, an India-made power transmission line to Kabul and a sub-station were opened, bringing 24-hour electricity to the capital for the first time in 17 years.

In January, India completed building the 218km Zaranj-Delaram highway in south-west Afghanistan near the Iranian border.  Then, it is building a new parliament building in Kabul as also a dam in Herat

India says a stable Afghanistan is in its interest and it is not about to back down from it. Asked about McChyrstal’s remarks, Indian ambassador Jayant Prasad told the Business Standard  :”How can one agree that Indian assistance is creating a problem for Pakistan? This is not the objective of Indian assistance to Afghanistan. India’s objective is to stabilize Afghanistan. Getting the Afghans to stand on their own feet is good for the Afghan people, good for India and good for the world, including all the regional countries.”

As violence worsens in Afghanistan, and pressure builds up at home, is America going to intervene then and call a halt to the India-Pakistan battle for influence ?

[Photographs of the Kabul bombing and the aftermath]

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