Saturday, May 15, 2010

Some Reassessments in India’s Engagement in Afghanistan

India has now been pushed to overhaul its policy options towards Afghanistan due to the fast changing security matrix. The reassessment is mainly due to three factors: attacks on Indian projects and interests in Afghanistan, increasing military success of anti-government forces and the exit of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the foreseeable future.

Indian targets in Afghanistan have so far suffered four attacks in the past two years, killing about 101 people and wounding 239. Attacks were made by Taliban and Pakistan-sponsored militant groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, basically to stalk India out of Afghanistan. Pakistan fears that any greater involvement of India in Afghanistan is detrimental to its national security interests. Any India-friendly dispensation in Kabul is not acceptable to Islamabad and it does not wish to get caught between two adversaries. Also, if peace, stability and development return to Afghanistan, Pakistan would lose its strategic importance. So, it is good to keep the pot boiling or to have a Pak-friendly regime like the Taliban in Kabul.

On the other hand, India’s prime interest is to see peace, stability and democracy in Afghanistan free of any outside interference; certainly it does not have any geo-political ambitions in Afghanistan. Irrespective of whoever rules Afghanistan, New Delhi’s would like to ensure that the regime in Kabul should not sponsor/encourage terrorism; and secondly, it should not be subservient to Pakistan and work for the latter’s interest. The Taliban failed on both counts and therefore, India was extremely uncomfortable with that regime. Part of the reason was that India was closely associated with the Northern Alliance that was bitterly opposed to Taliban. After the overthrow of Taliban, India-Afghan relations took a U-turn. From zero involvement, India became the third largest donor to the war-ravaged country. India willingly helped reconstruction in Afghanistan.

However, despite its deep engagement, India has not been invited to any of the international meetings on Afghanistan. The main reason for this is Pakistan’s objection. India believes that it understands Afghanistan better than any other extra-regional power. India being ignored, however, is perplexing. This is despite the fact Washington knowing fully well that India is an important actor in Afghanistan’s stability. This was reiterated by the Obama administration during recent visit by Manmohan Singh to Washington.

In the light of these developments India has come to three major conclusions on its engagement in Afghanistan:

1. India will stay engaged in Afghanistan, come what may. New Delhi thinks that it cannot go back on its commitment to the people of Afghanistan. India, however, knows well that it is going to be long-drawn process and has prepared to dig in. India also firmly believes that it is important for the international community to stay on in Afghanistan for as long as it is necessary; hasty withdrawal will backfire by bringing back the very forces it wanted to eliminate in 2001.
The immediate interest of India is the safety of about 4000 Indians engaged in various reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. The government of India does not want to send a signal that India is bending its will in the light of recent attacks. This may be read as victory to militants and may increase further attacks. There are intense consultations to increase the number of CISF personnel. The main problem is that projects in which India is involved are scattered. India is also talking with the Afghan government of taking their help in securing Indian personnel. An idea of creating security enclaves clustered to few projects has been heard of. The practicality of this idea will be discussed in detail with other actors in Afghanistan and implemented only after a trial run.

2. India is contemplating on making some readjustments as far as unimportant projects are concerned. This does not in any way mean scaling down its reconstruction programmes; only the methodology of how things presently are done will be revisited. Cases of any lethargy in security are being looked into for rectification. If necessary, strength of Embassy and Consulates staff may be pruned down and only those essential will be retained.

3. At the same time, India is looking at options of securing its long-term interests in Afghanistan. One of the options thrown is to open a channel with Taliban, of late favoured especially by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Although, India firmly believes that Taliban is bad not only for Afghanistan, but also to the entire region and the world, it is willing to “do business” with the group if three conditions are met: renounce violence and sever connections with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups; accept the Afghan constitution; reintegration into the mainstream Afghan politics and society. The watchword is “reintegration” and not “reconciliation”. India is willing to support the former as the latter has already been rejected by Taliban. Even to achieve this, India has to work hard by co-opting important actors like Russia, Iran and Central Asian Republics. The US also favours this approach of “peeling off” amenable elements in Taliban and giving them a way out. Unless everyone gets together leaving aside differing individual national interests, it is difficult to press the fast forward button to stability.

Article by:
Dr. N Manoharan
Senior Fellow, CLAWS

Credits for the Article to Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)

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