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India Means Business in Afghanistan…And All over Central Asia

With everyone from Pakistan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization aiming for influence in postwar Afghanistan, India is rolling up its sleeves and getting involved. At the end of June, New Delhi hosted an “investment meet” with representatives from 40 countries and five Afghan ministers, all to discuss the creation of economic opportunities in a nation that for decades has seen mostly toil and trouble.

The Diplomat details how India is getting less and less shy about taking a role in investment and development:

India’s foreign minister S.M. Krishna pointed out what lies ahead. “We visualize Afghanistan’s mineral resources, agricultural products and human resources as possible drivers of growth and regional economic development that together with the energy resources of Central Asia, Iran and the Gulf, the growing economic prowess and markets of China, Russia, Turkey and India, could knit the entire region between Turkey in the west, Russia in the north, China in the east, and the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in the south, in a web of trade, transit and energy routes and economic cooperation”

In the face of the U.S. and NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, Via Meadia has been watching the growing relevance of the country’s neighbors, whether they decide to cooperate with each other or not. Perhaps India spearheading this conference, however symbolic, might be what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had in mind when he called for a more active Indian role in Afghanistan.

Americans, except for the handful of South Asia specialists who immerse themselves in the region, often misread moves like this. The press will often present a move that either India or Pakistan make as indicating something of their feeling about us. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s partly true, but often these decisions have little or nothing to do with Indian-US or Pakistani-US relations.

Virtually the entire Pakistani national security establishment, and a significant chunk of India’s, are concerned with their bilateral relations to the exclusion of all else. What outside powers want or don’t want is secondary to the intricate and sometimes ugly games the two countries have been playing with each other since independence from Britain led to the first of their four wars. Lots of senior officials on both sides think a fifth war is coming one of these days; preparing for it occupies a lot of planning time on both military staffs.

The game isn’t just about the huge armies massed on the two borders. It’s about the efforts both countries make to destabilize the other. Indians are convinced that Pakistani intelligence is working to foment unrest and violence in Kashmir and hopes to unleash some kind of wider struggle by radicalizing India’s 165 million Muslims. Pakistanis, for their part, see India’s hand behind the bloody insurgency in Baluchistan, a large, mineral rich and strategic province in large parts of which unarmed Punjabis fear to tread.

Pakistanis still remember how India intervened to destroy Pakistan’s hold on what is now Bangladesh, and many think India would be happy to see Pakistan’s fractious and divided ethnic groups separate into still smaller states — a Sindh state centered on Karachi, an independent Baluchistan, an independent Northwest Frontier province that might or might not join up with its ethnic comrades in Afghanistan, and a rump “Pakistan” consisting of the Punjab. These small states would be putty in the hands of the Indian regional superpower either to absorb or leave nominally independent but unable to resist Indian goals; many quite senior Pakistanis think that Delhi constantly and unvaryingly acts in pursuit of this goal.

Afghanistan is for both parties yet another theater for their never ending, zero sum contest. Pakistan wants to control it for several reasons. The first is perhaps fear that a strong Afghanistan under Pashtun rule will appeal to the Pashtun’s in Pakistan itself. Afghan governments have never recognized the British-drawn imperial boundary that divided some of the Pashtuns from the majority of their fellows. The second is a need for “strategic depth” against the possibility of an Indian ground assault against Pakistan proper, and the third is that Afghanistan offers and excellent source and training grounds for deniable jihadis who can be used at will against Indian rule in Kashmir.

Naturally, India wants to block these Pakistani ambitions and at the very least wants to see the Pakistani military distracted and tied down by instability to its north. Keeping the anti-Taliban and non Pashtun tribes armed and active is an easy way to torment Pakistan and block its security; an unstable Afghanistan also benefits insurgents in Baluchistan, should anybody in India care about that.

Both India and Pakistan see the United States as on the way out of Afghanistan and indeed of Central Asia more broadly. They are maneuvering for the post-American phase of Afghan life, and it is that more than any thought of pleasing or cooperating with the United States that shapes their approach at this point.

Pakistan has important advantages over India in the race for Afghanistan. It is closer; it has better ties with the most powerful tribes with the strongest armed forces, and it shares a religion. On the other hand, India is richer and no other country in the world wants to see Pakistan succeed in Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran and the United States would all like to see an Afghan future that fits Indian ideas better than Pakistan’s vision of a loyal, jihadi little brother.

Meanwhile, India is doubling down. The latest step: it plans to reopen a military base in — Tajikistan. According to The Hindu:

As negotiations for the withdrawal of international security forces in Afghanistan by 2014 gather pace, India has decided to revive its only overseas military base in Farkhor, Tajikistan. Officials from the Ministry of External Affairs will travel there next month to finalise arrangements, following which Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon is expected to visit India in September.

The revival of the Farkhor airbase and the upgrading of the military hospital on its premises, where former Northern Alliance leader and ‘Lion of Panjshir’ Ahmed Shah Massoud was treated for his fatal injuries from the suicide bomb attack on September 9, 2001 — two days before the September 11 incidents in America — is a crucial link to India’s revamped Connect Central Asia policy unveiled in June at a dialogue forum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, by Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed.

There are hundreds of billions of dollars of energy and mineral wealth in this part of the world, maybe much more. India is in the game.

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  • Kris

    “Pakistanis … think India would be happy to see Pakistan’s fractious and divided ethnic groups separate into still smaller states”

    Partition? Inconceivable!

  • ash

    This is a pessimistic article about the regions future however as things stand at least in Afghanistan,the war maybe entering another phase.

    Things will probably settle down to a low level conflict like pre US invasion with proxies fighting for power.

    This time however the region may have learnt its lesson to cooperate more for the potential economic benefits atleast.

    Central Asia needs to open to its southern flank to have another trade zone and access to Asian sea ports.A regional agreement to cooperate in opening up the trade routes through afghanistan will benefit all countries and stabilize the region.

    India is deffinately involved with the insurgency in Balochistan,its the weak Pakistan Goverment that has not taken them to task for it.

    Kashmir will continue to bristle till the next uprising and the conflict resurfaces

    This military intervention could have been better handled by mediating the regional disputes for a more stable Afghanistan in the future as danger of proxy war between India and Pakistan would have subsided.
    It did not happen as India did not want third party involvement in Kashmir and US succumbed to its pressure.

    2014 increasingly looks erily like pre invasion period, except main the pretext for the war does not exist any more in Afghanistan.

    It has cost thousands of civilian and military lives with not much else to show except a booming expatriate run economy that will shrink when the foreigners leave and the flight of capital if security situation worsens.

  • Abdul Qadir Baloch

    hindustan is indeed in the game…however, this is a game she will eventually lose strategically speaking…especially as Pakistan and Iran slowly work towards setting aside a few strategic differences and uniting to work towards Afghan development while also decreasing NATO/hindutva footprint from Afghanistan.

    given Pakistan’s vast experience in Afghanistan dating back to the time of the jihad against the soviets, it wont be possible to turn the country into an outwardly hostile land against Pakistan…the enemies of Pakistan have been trying; to some extent they did succeed but on a broader level it will be a failed strategy.

    india should know better than to use afghanistan soil in a nefarious manner; theyre (late) defence attache found out, the hard way, unfortunately.

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