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43: Should India change its Afghan strategy?

Farhad Peikar
President Karzai and Vice President Karim Khalili travelled to Islamabad and New Delhi in the past days respectively. The trips to the nuclear-armed arch-rivals were aimed at garnering support for the Afghan peace…
27.08.2013  |  New York

The decades-old Indo-Pak rivalry is entering a new phase as the US-led NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 approaches. The recent attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, renewed skirmishes in Kashmir, and murky reports about Afghan Taliban possibly deploying to the Indian Line of Control are all indications that the post-NATO era can force the archrivals to finally settle their regional disputes.

Or, alternately, they may be increasingly moving towards more aggressive containment of each other on the Afghan battlefield.

Karzai in Islamabad

On Monday President Hamid Karzai was in Islamabad on a trip where he hoped to persuade Pakistani authorities to help bring the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. The trip came less than a week after Karzai’s vice president, Karim Khalili, traveled to New Delhi to discuss Indian government support for post-2014 Afghanistan.

India has provided nearly 2 billion US dollars in aid to Afghanistan in the last decade.

For more than a decade, Kabul has sought to keep a balance with both India and Pakistan, albeit to no avail. In the first years following the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, both India and Pakistan competed in Afghanistan for influence by building roads and bridges and donating public service items, like buses that appeared in droves in Afghan cities. While the emerging global economic power – India – continued to provide some 2 billion dollars in the past decade.

Pakistan quickly lagged behind. At the same time, Islamabad’s relations with Kabul deteriorated, mainly because of Afghanistan’s accusations that elements within the Pakistani government and security establishment have been covertly supporting the Taliban’s almost 12-year insurgency. The border the two countries share, known as the Durand Line, also remains a cause of endless dispute over its delineations.

Countering attacks with cash

In an unprecedented move earlier this month, the Indian government provided monetary assistance after the Jalalabad attack in which a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden vehicle by a mosque. The suicide bomber had been targeting the Indian mission.

Nine Afghan children died and more were injured. In response, the Indian ambassador to Kabul announced payments of 10,000 US dollars for each victim’s family and another 20,000 dollars for the Afghan police for averting the strike on the consulate.

When the Taliban, the usual suspect behind most similar attacks, denied involvement, India accused foreign elements, apparently referring to the Pakistani security establishment and their proxies in Afghanistan, the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network.

Indian diplomat on Haqqani hit list

The attack came a few days after New Delhi, acting on intelligence information, warned its top diplomat in Kabul that Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency had paid the Haqqanis to assassinate him.

Karzai's trip generated new debates in the Afghan media about the nature of the Indian-Afghan relationship. (Photo: M Momin)

The August 4 attack was not an isolated one; militants allegedly linked to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's secret service, attacked the Indian Embassy compound in Kabul in 2008 and 2009, and an Indian guesthouse in Kabul in 2010. In the case of both embassy bombings, US officials publicly linked the attack to ISI affiliates.

While Islamabad denies any involvement in bombings of Indian targets in Afghanistan, it has made no effort to hide its opposition to the presence of Indian consulates in the Pashtun provinces of Nangahar and Kandahar, both bordering Pakistan. It has accused India of using the two locations for cross-border espionage and assisting anti-Pakistani rebels, a claim New Delhi denies.

Indian compensation paid to Afghan victims of the Jalalabad consulate bombing, an attack it was not responsible for, is clear evidence of New Delhi’s wish to win hearts and minds’ in this Pashtun dominated province and counter Pakistani influence in the border regions. It indicates India’s reliance on financial muscle to increase its leverage. What remains unclear is whether India’s current strategy is sustainable, especially if the attacks continue to grow in number and become deadlier.

Pakistan looking over its shoulder

Both countries have legitimate concerns and interests, but for many Afghans, the manner of achieving them - at least in Pakistan’s case – is a cause of alarm. Pakistan, the main backer of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan between 1996-2001, fears becoming sandwiched between its archrival India to the east and an Indian-backed regime in Kabul to the west. To avoid such a scenario, the Pakistani security apparatus has allegedly assisted and guided the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders have their council in Quetta City.

Border guards at the contested Af-Pak border, known as The Durand Line. (This and main photo: N. Allen)

India, for its part, does not want Afghanistan to turn into a militant hub, from where Islamic fighters could wage war in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Indo-Pak rivalry is nothing new: Relations have been characterized by conflict and full-blown wars since partition in 1947. Both countries have competed with each other in Afghanistan over the decades by supporting opposing warring sides.

In the scenario of post-NATO Afghanistan, India will likely be forced to either increase its military support – even to the extent of deploying forces in Afghanistan – to protect its gains in the country, or to minimize operations by closing consulates and decreasing the civilian foot-print in Afghanistan.

Although being one of the major donors to post-Taliban Afghanistan, India’s overall role has been limited. New Delhi has predominantly focused on economic projects and has confined itself to training a small number of Afghan military officers in India and providing English language courses for military personnel inside Afghanistan. It rightly fears that any larger involvement would be deemed provocative to Islamabad and would attract undesirable effects.

Karzai's weapons 'wish list'

India has refused to provide Afghanistan with weapons after President Karzai in May submitted in New Delhi a wish list for hardware ranging from long-range mortars to advanced technology for the nascent Afghan Air Force.  

India does not want Afghanistan to turn into a militant hub from where Islamic fighters could wage war in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid reportedly said his country was not “either in a position or willing” to provide lethal weapons to Afghanistan. "We think it is not advisable to go beyond that. It is a fragile area, there are stakeholders, there are other people. We don't want to become part of the problem”, he said.

Yet India is ignoring the elephant in the room by saying it does not want to be part of the problem. For ordinary Afghans, members of Karzai’s administration and Taliban alike, India is part of the regional 'Great game' in Afghanistan, whether it wishes to be or not. And the four major attacks against its diplomatic missions and citizens in Afghanistan are clear examples of its involvement in the eyes of Taliban-led militants.

More aid

In order to salvage its leverage with the Afghan government, New Delhi resorted to its traditionally dominant means of garnering influence - additional financial aid. India pledged 100 million US dollars in aid for 60 small projects around the country in the next four years.

During Afghan Vice-President Khalili’s visit last week, India reportedly pledged to provide the Afghan fledgling forces with military equipment, including reconnaissance helicopters. However, the details are still ambiguous and the military assistance is expected to be far less than what Karzai had asked for from New Delhi in his 'wish-list.

Military assistance in discussions

Even if India opts for a minimal presence in Afghanistan, it cannot escape from the
consequences of the Taliban’s potential strengths in the region, particularly in the volatile area of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Indian security sources have said that anti-Indian elements inside the ISI may try to increasingly push the battle-hardened Afghan Taliban into Jammu and Kashmir.

While the Taliban refuted any such scenario, Afghan experts believe that the ISI could still recruit a strong body of fighters from the Haqqani Network for a Kashmir mission.

Any presence of Afghan fighters in Kashmir will inevitably force India to be militarily more proactive in the Afghan war. What would be more complicated for India is to find a source to hold responsible for any infiltration: The Afghan government, as the fighters, in this scenario, would be Afghan citizens, or the Pakistani government? In this instance, Islamabad would be able to issue the same statements of denial regarding its alleged support to the insurgents.

Power to lead

To avoid the further radicalization of the region and spreading of insecurity to other parts of the region, India is the only country in the Afghan-Pak-Indo triangle that has the potential to lead a process for peaceful regional settlement. India’s willingness to kick-start talks with Pakistan on Kashmir would not only help to end entrenched hostilities between the neighbours, but also boost the Afghan government’s efforts to broker peace with the Taliban.