India’s close ties with Afghanistan mean it is well placed to step in when the west has flown its last soldier out of Kabul
guardian.co.uk Shashank Joshi Friday 25 December 2009
In the 19th century, Indian armies twice crossed the Hindu Kush, hoping to stitch together the patchwork political authority of the territory in the service of their British masters. Over a century later, the sovereign republic of India once more has a renewed presence in what was once its mountainous buffer from the Tsarist, and then Soviet, giant to the north.
A year ago, Indians completed the construction of Afghanistan’s new parliament building and, to compound the symbolism, provided training to the legislators who would make the country’s laws. Over a billion dollars in aid and investment, multiple consulates, and a little-reported thousand-strong troop presence all testify to the flourishing ties between the two democracies.
India is Afghanistan’s fifth-largest donor, pledging $1.2bn since 2001 and providing aid that spans education, health and infrastructure. The most eye-catching project, a 215km road connecting the Iranian border to Afghanistan’s arterial highway, will eventually allow India to transport goods by sea to an Iranian port it is developing, and thence to Afghanistan and beyond. This circumvents the overland route, blocked by Pakistan, but also gives a fillip to Indo-Afghan trade ($538m during 2007-8). Hamid Karzai, himself educated in India and the beneficiary of Indian military support during the 1990s, visited India four times in the first five years of his tenure. The Afghan national army, the linchpin of the new American strategy to pacify the country, receives training across India.
Not everyone is happy with the widening Indian footprint. Pakistan, long reliant on Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” has invoked fears of encirclement and Indian-sponsored separatism. This is in addition to the panoply of wild “conspiracy theorists who insist that every one of Pakistan’s ills are there because of interference by the US, India, Israel and Afghanistan”, says Ahmed Rashid, a noted Pakistani journalist.
Among other attacks, a car bomb at the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 41 in July 2008. According to the New York Times, American officials quickly presented “intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack” to demonstrate Pakistani culpability and “the ISI officers had not been renegades”.
Then in September 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, suggested in a leaked assessment of the war that “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”. The scarcely veiled threat of further bloodbaths such as Mumbai prompted renewed anger in the Indian media.
India has responded cautiously. Indian defence minister AK Antony insisted “categorically there is no question of Indian military involvement in Afghanistan not now, not in the future”. A former head of India’s foreign intelligence service has said that “sending troops is not an option”.
There are sound and perhaps compelling reasons for this reticence. There remain bitter memories of the 1,200 deaths suffered by an Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, and although Indian security forces have six decades of counterinsurgency experience, they face multiple intensifying guerilla wars at home from Maoists and separatists. Moreover, India’s coalition politics, featuring local parties with parochial interests, is hardly suited to sustaining ambitious foreign policies.
Yet more than 1,000 members of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police are deployed in Afghanistan. President Obama’s affirmation to withdraw US forces by 2011 has generated a prospective vacuum, inducing Pakistan to renew its support for the Taliban. This has produced loudening, though still marginal, Indian voices in favour of more boots on the ground.
Amir Taheri, writing in The Times, suggests that a military commitment is “surprisingly popular in India”. One former diplomat argues that “influential sections of Indian opinion are stridently calling for an outright Indian intervention in Afghanistan without awaiting the niceties of an American invitation letter”.
The editor of the “realist” journal Pragati writes that “military involvement will shift the battleground away from Kashmir and the Indian mainland”. An affiliated blog draws on the idea of “force fungibility” to argue that “since it is not feasible for Indian troops to directly attack Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, India should ensure that US troops do so” by “reliev[ing them] of duties in areas where they are not actually fighting the Taliban – especially in western and northern Afghanistan”.
Others have suggested that “the best contribution might be in the areas of combat training and creating capacities in logistics and communications”, still sorely lacking in the embryonic Afghan national army.
Support for the war is faltering in western capitals, partly because citizens cannot see how it furthers homeland security. The frequency and scale of attacks on India mean that Indians have no such trouble. National caveats on force employment – particularly from France, Italy, and Germany – hinder the efficacy of Nato troops, but Indian casualty sensitivity is almost certainly less than that in, say, Britain.
India’s longstanding cultural ties to Afghanistan – Bollywood movies are wildly popular there, for instance – mean that Indian soldiers would be less likely to be stigmatised as occupiers, with 73% of Afghans professing a favourable view of India (and 91% holding the opposite view of Pakistan).
India is also experienced at counterinsurgency, enjoys good relations with regional powers such as Iran and Russia (including bases in Tajikistan), and the large reserves of available forces. India has nearly 9,000 troops with the UN, and just withdrew 30,000 from Jammu and Kashmir.
The obstacle to India’s involvement is Pakistan. Yet few stop to evaluate the absurdity of having “today’s most active sponsor of terrorism” as a frontline ally against terrorists. In December 2009, the New York Times reported Pakistan’s refusal to crack down on Siraj Haqqani, the strongest Taliban commander in Afghanistan, on the basis that he was a “longtime asset of Pakistan’s spy agency”.
The truth downplayed in western capitals is that India is one of the only interested parties, the US included, that has an interest in both state-building and counterterrorism on the Afghan side of the Durand line. Creating incentives for it to expand its provision of security could lay the groundwork for a commitment that will last long after the last western soldier is flown – or desperately airlifted – out of Kabul.