The American Interest
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Beyond U.S. Withdrawal: India’s Afghan Options
Published on April 6, 2012

When President Barack Obama announced the ‘surge and exit’ strategy for Afghanistan in December 2009, Delhi, like so many others, was surprised. The significant expansion of Indian influence in Afghanistan since the U.S. ousted the Taliban regime at the end of 2001 was rooted in the stability and security provided by the American and international military forces. The Indian apprehensions about Afghanistan’s uncertain future after the U.S. ends its combat role there by 2014 acquired a sharper edge as the Obama Administration sought negotiations with the Taliban that Dehli has long seen as a proxy of the Pakistan army. That Washington might cede the south and east of Afghanistan to the Taliban and allow the Pakistan army a big say in future political arrangements in Kabul became potential nightmare for India’s strategic community. The initial widespread concern in Delhi has now been replaced by a stoic resignation and determination to pursue its enduring interests in Afghanistan on its own steam. This essay lays out various policy options being debated in Delhi as India prepares to deal with the situation in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal of its troops.

Structural Constraints

Delhi’s debate is tempered by the emerging ground realities, India’s strategic limitations and the need for great flexibility in coping with the dynamic conditions in Afghanistan. Although India would have liked to see a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan, Delhi is convinced that public opinion in the United States has gotten tired of the war and sees little hope for turning around the situation there. The realists in Delhi’s establishment are also reconciled to the fact that the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan is not really the end of the world. All it means is that one more tragic episode in Afghanistan is drawing to a close and another about to begin. Some in Delhi’s policy making world believe that an early U.S. withdrawal might bring a measure of clarity to the geopolitical dynamic in the region and allow the emergence of a new one within and around Afghanistan. From Delhi’s perspective, a prolonged and inconclusive debate in Washington might be a lot worse than an early American retreat.  

As it looks to the future, Delhi is acutely conscious of the geopolitical limitations on its role in Afghanistan. Despite much talk in Washington about India’s “rivalry” with Pakistan in Afghanistan, Delhi is acutely aware that it is not a “primary” player there in the manner that Islamabad is. The absence of a physical border is India’s greatest strength and main weakness in Afghanistan. Paradoxically, the 2,500 kilometer-long open border with Afghanistan—the Durand Line—is Pakistan’s greatest advantage and principal weakness. Because Afghanistan is once-removed from India, few Afghans distrust Delhi. The absence of a border means India cannot undertake and defend a unilateral security role in Afghanistan.

Delhi, nevertheless, is an important secondary player that can influence the calculations of the primary players: the United States, Pakistan and the various Afghan factions. It could magnify its role in Afghanistan by acting in concert with friendly Afghan forces as well as regional and great powers.

Masterly Inactivity or Forward Policy?

One option, most likely the default one, for India after 2014 might be called “masterly inactivity toward Afghanistan. As the British Raj confronted the turbulence of the trans-Indus tribal territories in the 19th century, its approach oscillated between the “forward policy” that sought to control the bad lands and the “masterly inactivity” that recognized the costs and futility of the search for dominance and emphasized defense and tribal conciliation. For the risk-averse Indian security establishment in Delhi, “masterly inactivity” in the contemporary context underlines the virtues of patience. It emphasizes that there is no reason for India to rush into Afghanistan in the wake of American withdrawal. It would bet that opportunities for influence would present themselves even in the worst-case scenario for Afghanistan. The return of the Taliban with the Pakistani army’s support is bound to produce a backlash, and those Afghan groups contesting the Taliban regime will turn inevitably towards Delhi for support.

While “masterly inactivity” would seem the most prudent course for India, Delhi has kept the door open for a “forward policy” if circumstances turn conducive. In October 2011, India signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. India’s emphasis since 2002 has been on economic cooperation rather than on military engagement with Kabul. Concerned about Pakistan’s objections, the U.S. too discouraged Delhi from adopting a military role in Afghanistan. The Delhi-Kabul strategic partnership agreement has, however, put security cooperation right at the top of the bilateral agenda. It states: “India agrees to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces.” The question of Indian military boots on the ground in Afghanistan has deliberately been excluded. Senior officials of the government say much of the military training will take place in India, and potential arms transfers will depend upon the kind of requests that Kabul makes, as well as Delhi’s ability to deliver them. Cautioning against an overinterpretation of the agreement, Delhi argues that the pact provides an “enabling framework” for security cooperation if and when the two sides decide to move forward. As important as the military training is the understanding that Delhi will step up the training of Afghan police forces.

Between Regional Cooperation and Rivalry

Although Indian diplomats formally welcome the idea of a regional approach to stabilize Afghanistan, the realists in Delhi are deeply skeptical about the effectiveness of regional conferences involving Afghanistan’s neighbours and great powers. The pieces of paper agreed at such conferences, they believe, are unlikely to survive the first test of reality as the United States draws down its forces. While the conference can emphasize the principle of respecting Afghan sovereignty and nonintervention in its internal affairs, the question is: Who can guarantee against the intervention of the Pakistani army? If the mighty United States has not been able to bend the Pakistani army after more than $20 billion and military and economic assistance and relentless drone attacks on its territory, there is little hope that any one else, individually or collectively restrain it. India has welcomed the U.S. plans for a New Silk Road that can integrate Afghanistan into a regional economic framework. Delhi has everything to gain from greater trade and connectivity between South and Central Asian regions and the emergence of Pakistan and Afghanistan as bridge states between the two regions. China and Russia, however, have been sceptical of the U.S. initiative and so are a number of regional powers.

That brings us to the prospect of  regional competition for influence in Afghanistan. Some in India’s strategic community see a return to the situation where Pakistan backs the Taliban and India supports  the non-Pashtun minorities that are bound to resist the domination of the Taliban. The external component of this divide is the potential Indian cooperation with Iran, Russia and interested Central Asian states. This would be similar to the correlation of forces Afghanistan during 1996-2001, when the Taliban ruled Kabul and the coalition of minorities—the so-called Northern Alliance—fought against it. India’s determination to maintain a relationship with Iran even at the risk of incurring American displeasure in the unfolding confrontation between Washington and Tehran must be seen in this context. In the event of a Taliban takeover, India most certainly needs Iran to retain any physical access to Afghanistan and exercise some influence there.

Reconciliation with Pakistan

Although the roles of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan are not symmetric, as I have argued earlier,  the contradiction between the interests of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan appears irreconciliable. There are two ways in which Delhi can hope to overcome this. One is through stepping up the confrontation with Islamabad and doing all it can to weaken the Pakistani army. This can be done by turning up the heat on Pakistan’s eastern borders while Islamabad tries to gain influence across its western borders in Afghanistan. India could intensify its support to the Northern Alliance, or even more imaginatively try and cultivate the Taliban or renew its historic empathies with the Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

India’s options for a muscular role in Afghanistan, however, must be understood in the context of the enormous political investment that Delhi has made in normalizing relations with Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and two of his predecessors—Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Inder Kumar Gujral—have made better ties with Pakistan one of the highest and enduring priorities of India’s foreign policy since the mid-1990s. If given a choice between a larger role in Afghanistan and friendly ties with Pakistan, realists in Delhi’s establishment would surely embrace the latter. The realist case in Delhi is that Islamabad is not ready for peace, and if it gains influence in Afghanistan, its challenge to Indian security will multiply.

This traditional assumption, however, is coming under close scrutiny as multiple crises envelop Pakistan, and its civilian leaders are signaling the desire for a rapproachement with India. In a paradox, as Pakistan’s relations with the United States headed south in 2011, its relations with India have begun to look up. The regime of Asif Ali Zardari, one of the weakest civilian governments that Pakistan has ever had, broke a long-standing political taboo in early 2012 by agreeing to liberalize trade with India. Delhi is not ready to wager that a transformation of relations with Pakistan is at hand. But it is acutely aware of the prospects for a different relationship with Pakistan if the civilian rulers gain control of national security policy.

Many in Delhi and Washington are not ready to imagine such an outcome. With the Zardari government on its way to becoming the first civilian government to last a full five-year term, it might be a good moment to ponder the improbable. The key to a stable future in the Subcontinent might lie in producing the long overdue structural change inside Pakistan and with it the definition of its interests in Afghanistan and India. As it grasps at the slim chance of reordering the relationship with Pakistan, India will need all the support it can get from the United States. Even as it retreats from Afghanistan, the United States could yet leave a positive legacy for the Subcontinent if it focuses on changing the internal political balance within Pakistan.

C. Raja Mohan is on the editorial board of The American Interest. He heads the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and is a foreign affairs columnist for The Indian Express. Mohan is a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, and a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.