India’s Afghanistan dilemma

India’s Afghanistan dilemma

India may be able to help stabilise Afghanistan, but it must tread carefully to avoid inflaming old tensions with Pakistan

When Obama proclaimed an 18-month deadline for his Afghan “surge”, he had two purposes. One was to assuage the concerns of the anti-war constituency back home. The other was to provide a wake-up call to countries in the region who will, so the reasoning goes, pay the highest price for continuing instability in Afghanistan.

That call is being answered in India, where officials are starting to fretover what happens in their neighbourhood when the US starts packing up shop. Shashank Joshi recently made a strong case in the Guardian that now is the time to build on India’s considerable soft power presence in Afghanistan – which consists of development aid, cultural ties and symbolic projects such as the building of the new parliament building in Kabul – and combine it with an increased hard power posture.

Others have started to flesh out what that might look like: more combat troops in north and west Afghanistan, and large-scale training programmes for the Afghan national army.

There are two problems with all this. The first is that “filling the vacuum” left by the Americans could easily become “leaping into their quagmire”. It is very much in Obama’s interest to spread the burden, and the difficulties he faces in extricating the US from the Long War ought to be a sobering lesson for those seeking to step up their involvement.

The other problem is Pakistan, whose military establishment dreads the prospect of an India-friendly government on its western flank and may sponsor further militancy against Indian interests in retaliation. Advocates of a bigger Indian footprint in Afghanistan argue that they should not kowtow to the neurotic concerns of a paranoid Pakistani establishment. They are wrong, for it is that very neurosis that is India’s real enemy – much more so than the Taliban or even the militant cells seeking a repeat of the Mumbai attacks. India may be able to contribute positively to a more stable Afghanistan, but the starting point for any policy decision must be how it will play with the Pakistanis.

What has somehow been lost in this discussion is the central role of Kashmir. When Obama was still on the campaign trail, he frequently called for a comprehensive regional solution linking Kashmir to problems on the AfPak border. But once in office, things changed. When Richard Holbrooke was appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was notable that his brief did not include India or Kashmir. The reason for the change of heart, it turned out, was that India hadintensively lobbied Washington to leave Kashmir off Holbrooke’s agenda, incensed at the idea of outside interference. India’s wishes have been realised: not once did the word “Kashmir” appear in Obama’s Afghan strategy speech at the start of December.

And yet it is common knowledge that Kashmir remains priority number one for the Pakistani military and the main reason for its reluctance to commit fully to the US effort in Afghanistan. The whole point of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban during the 1990s – and in a more nuanced fashion to the present day – has been to give it “strategic depth” in its long-term struggle with India.

Having successfully isolated the Kashmir issue, Indian hawks now risk treating Afghanistan as if it, too, were a stand-alone problem. Keen to exert their growing regional influence, they ask: “What can we do to support the government in Kabul and bolster Indian interests there?” when the key question should be: “How will our actions be perceived by the Pakistani establishment and will it encourage them to crackdown on terrorists in their midst?”

Pakistan’s neurosis cannot simply be dismissed – it is the hammer that will continue to drive a wedge between the two countries for as long as it exists. No amount of military superiority or regional influence will ever make India truly safe from another terrorist strike while the Kashmir question remains unresolved. Part of the Pakistani neurosis stems from a history of violence between the two, but recent years have surely added an element of resentment to the mix. How easy can it be to watch as India extricates itself in the world’s eyes from the old India-Pakistan dynamic – which conjured images of intractable conflict, wasted potential and the threat of imminent nuclear war – to forge a new hyphenation of India-China, which speaks instead of booming growth figures, acceptance into the civil nuclear club, and banquets at the White House? This is how the world increasingly looks on India – as a potential superpower for the 21st century – while Pakistan remains mired in the past, playing out centuries-old battles between Shia and Sunni, Mehsud and Wazir, and looking to a future already mortgaged to foreign debtors.

The harsh reality that Indians face is that despite frequently being the victim of aggression in recent years – from the bombing of its parliament in December 2001 to the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 – the impetus for change must come from them. With a landslide election victory last April, its government has the political capital for bold moves that its counterpart in Islamabad lacks.

Reflecting his strong position, the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh took a brave first step towards restarting negotiations (which have been stalled since Mumbai) when he signed a joint declaration on terrorism with Zardari in July 2009. He did so despite the inclusion of suggestions that India has supported separatist insurgents in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, for which there is little or no proof. Inevitably, this did not play well back in India, but the prime minister understood that the aim cannot be one of apportioning blame – the decades have created simply too much on both sides for that to be productive.

Rather, India’s goal must be to build a new trust, ease anxieties and find a way for Pakistan to share in some of the benefits that relative stability has brought. This does not preclude India from offering assistance to Afghanistan, but whatever form that takes must be determined with a clear understanding of how it will impact on Kashmir negotiations and the broader anxieties of a neighbour to which it is inextricably tied.