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The Curious Case of India’s Reluctance in Afghanistan360°ANALYSIS

A startling dichotomy is at play with India’s foreign policy in Afghanistan. There is an increasingly haunting gap between India’s opportunities and its strategic outcomes.

India has historically enjoyed amicable relations with every government in Kabul with the exception of the Taliban regime. After the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, India was one of the first countries to re-open its embassy in Kabul. With its pledge of more than $2 billion since 2002, India is, by a considerable margin, the largest regional donor and the sixth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. In 2011, India was the first country to sign a strategic agreement with Afghanistan, outlining an institutional framework for cooperation on economic development and security.

Facing Exclusion

No country enjoys greater soft power in Afghanistan than India. Opinion polls consistently indicate that Afghans perceive India more favorably than any other country. Indian influence permeates various aspects of the daily lives of Afghans. Bollywood movies, Hindi songs, and Indian soap operas are broadcast frequently on Afghan television channels. Tens of thousands of Afghans visit India every year for education, medical care, and tourism.

President Karzai repeatedly hails India as a “great friend.” Afghanistan’s strategic importance to India’s geopolitical aspirations is well pronounced in New Delhi. It is thus no surprise that, through its engagement, New Delhi envisions certain strategic outcomes in Afghanistan. Some of these are: democratic pluralism, political stability, rule of law, economic integration with the rest of the world, and a foreign policy that is relatively independent of the interests of its immediate neighbors.

Despite the favorable historical context, an inauspicious augury of events has taken over India’s aspirations in Afghanistan. Since the Istanbul conference in 2009, India’s concerns about the premature political accommodation of the Taliban before neutralizing them militarily have been categorically dismissed by the West. Over the last 18 months in particular, India has been systematically excluded from participating in major international forums that seek to chart a roadmap for Afghanistan’s political transition and talks with the Taliban.

The various Afghan peace processes today threaten to undermine India’s interests in Afghanistan. There is no country in the region other than India that would lose more from a return of the Taliban to Kabul. The hard lessons from the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814’s hijacking in 1999, and the haven provided in Afghanistan to anti-Indian terrorist groups during the Taliban regime are not lost on New Delhi. During the last 11 years, India has relied overwhelmingly on the US presence in Afghanistan for its regional security interests. India is therefore most vulnerable to the drawdown of US military forces from Afghanistan.

The Challenges

Given Afghanistan’s strategic importance for India, New Delhi’s response to every major challenge outlined above reeks of cluelessness.

First, as the US orchestrates a face-saving drawdown of its military presence from Afghanistan, New Delhi dithers over the responsibility to recognize its interests, articulate them and pursue them aggressively. It fails to convey its interests and concerns both to its allies and to its adversaries.

Second, New Delhi remains reluctant to openly voice its opposition to the peace processes despite their negative implications for India’s security interests. In May 2011, on his visit to Kabul, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “wished Afghanistan well” in the process of national reconciliation, adding that India would “respect your choices.”

Since then, despite no material change in the Taliban’s ideology, policies, and their practice of obstructing Afghanistan’s political evolution, India has not reconsidered its official endorsement of the Afghan government’s reconciliation with the Taliban. The Taliban have relentlessly continued to impede Afghanistan’s institutional building, burn schools, maim school teachers and students, harass Afghan women, intimidate children across all ethnic groups, and mock the Afghan government and its international partners. If that were not enough to shake New Delhi out of its complacency about the peace processes, consider this: since May 2011, the Taliban have assassinated several prominent leaders who fought against them ideologically and on the battlefront — a few of whom were close friends of India. Some of these were: General Daud Daud, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mutalaib Baig, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Jan Mohammed Khan, and Arsala Rahmani.

In spite of these major setbacks, New Delhi refuses to openly confront the dangerous idealism about reconciliation and challenge its merits. In expressing its continued support for reconciliation, New Delhi mistakenly assumes that reconciliation, in its current form, is a “collective Afghan wish.” It also falsely hopes that the peace processes are “Afghan-led.”

As things stand, the peace processes neither include participation nor agreement from all the ethnic groups within Afghanistan. Ultimately, it does not take much imagination to realize that if the security vacuum left behind by the US military in Afghanistan is filled by the Taliban, it would have serious implications for India, not just inside Afghanistan but also in India.

And third, in spite of Afghanistan’s strategic importance, India’s domestic media is passive on Afghanistan. Reporting on Afghanistan within Indian media remains minimal and the analysis on Afghanistan’s political evolution is mostly cursory. India’s commentary on Afghanistan thus fails to become a reference point for the western analysts and media who seek to understand regional narratives on Afghanistan. Instead, the regional narratives about Afghanistan are dominated by the commentary in Pakistan that remains superior both in quantity and in the sophistication of its analysis. Despite this, there is little in the way of incentives or initiative from New Delhi to change this situation.

Undermining India’s Credibility

Several notable contradictions merit further attention. After every major attack launched by the Taliban against Indians and Indian assets in Afghanistan, New Delhi “hails” the solidarity and the strength of its relationship with Kabul and rewards it additional hundreds of millions of dollars. New Delhi seeks to play a greater role in the development of the Afghan National Security Forces, but chooses instead to genuflect to regional sensitivities. It signs a strategic agreement with Afghanistan, but subsequently decides to scale down its economic footprint in Afghanistan. It wins the bid to invest in the lucrative mining sector in Afghanistan, but refrains from operationalizing the mining activities in the short term. It remains legitimately paranoid about the completion of US military withdrawal in 2014, but fails to calibrate its independent response to the security vacuum that would result from the drawdown.

Such contradictions undermine India’s credibility as a serious partner, and also raise fundamental questions about its ability to realize strategic outcomes in its own backyard.

And here’s the irony: New Delhi enjoys enough leverage both within Afghanistan and globally to realize the outcomes that it seeks. It maintains longstanding friendships with elites from every major ethnic group in Afghanistan. Its cultural-economic profile and regional standing can win over most naysayers within Afghanistan, albeit temporarily. Geopolitically and economically, India's importance to the United States has never been greater. Its global reputation has not scaled such heights before. And, within pockets of the Indian government and in certain non-government organizations, significant expertise exists on Afghanistan.

If lack of expertise, resources, networks, or influence do not explain India’s reluctance in Afghanistan, what does? According to a retired government official, two issues plague foreign policy formulation in India. First, the strengthening of regional parties and weakening of the center hinders the conceptualization and articulation of national interests in India. At present, the foreign policy formation has become federalized, catering mostly to the concerns of regional parties. For instance, Sri Lanka is mostly a concern of the political parties in Tamil Nadu; Afghanistan is of concern only to the policymakers in New Delhi. The second problem is that foreign policy formulation requires a strong domestic context, which is missing in India. The current economic model in India has created strains within the society. Large segments of the population feel increasingly disenfranchised, and thus fail to take ownership of the system. The current model, as a consequence, is unable to mobilize the talents and the expertise of the Indian population into strengthening the domestic polity, and thereby enhancing India’s role in the international sphere.

While these problems are fundamental to the working of the Indian polity and would require long-term solutions, a few areas where India could immediately take action in Afghanistan are fairly obvious. For a start, New Delhi needs to define its interests and articulate them. It should, with its Afghan partners, develop a coherent vision about the kind of Afghanistan that would enable Afghans realize their potential and identify with India’s geopolitical aspirations.

A Litmus Test of its Power

There are four areas where New Delhi could take concrete action.

First, it must create an alternative forum for deliberating Afghanistan's future, involving Russia, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, in addition to Afghanistan. While the US is vital to India’s interests in Afghanistan, India would be wise to not hinge its strategic outcomes to the changing priorities of the US in South Asia. Russia, Iran, China, and the Central Asian republics are a natural constituency for India’s outreach. These countries seek to lose from the return of the Taliban and share vital economic and geopolitical interests in the region.

Second, India must make its concerns known to Washington through more persuasive efforts. The narratives that punctuate the US withdrawal in 2014 inaccurately paint Afghanistan primarily as a “responsibility” or an “obligation” that is to be honored or dispensed with. India should frame Afghanistan as a country of strategic importance where India and the US share vital security interests – terrorism, narcotics trade, and arms smuggling. India should also develop a narrative that instability in Afghanistan has the potential to destabilize Pakistan. Open-source data would attest to this fact.

Third, it should make a concerted effort to expand its discussion of Afghanistan. India should aim to improve both the frequency and quality of its reporting on Afghanistan so that the media in the West refer to Indian commentary to understand the regional narratives on Afghanistan. New Delhi should endeavor to accomplish this by providing access and information on key developments in Afghanistan to domestic media outlets. It should also incentivize reporting and analysis on Afghanistan for well-established Indian journalists and analysts.

Fourth, and most importantly, New Delhi must investigate the reasons why President Karzai actually requested for military assistance from India. If the reasons are legitimate and are compatible with India's interests, New Delhi should consider providing the direct military assistance that Karzai recently requested. Doing so will signal the right intent: India is willing to defend and enhance its security interests in Afghanistan even when the West turns away. Skeptics may caution that doing so would risk provoking Pakistan, but look how well a strategy that has so far kowtowed to regional sensitivities has delivered for India.

In not urgently developing a strategy to respond to the changing dynamics in Afghanistan, New Delhi risks betraying not just the Afghans who are yearning to move past their darkest days, but also the democratic values that India stands for. That Afghanistan is at risk of further disorder after 2014 places a greater, rather than a lesser, responsibility on India to use its power assertively to halt and slow down the regressive trends. This should be a matter of top priority for India. If India desires to be respected as a great power, it must act like one. Afghanistan is a litmus test of its power. Realizing this may be a good starting point.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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