By Shakti Sinha
The fast-changing situation in Kabul with a new president heading a government of national unity, the end of NATO and US' combat roles and increased insecurity poses severe challenges for India.
This comes at a time when the government of Narendra Modi has been busy consolidating its position domestically, trying to revive the economy and defining a role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Attention to Afghanistan seems to have slipped below the horizon even though the Indian mission in Herat was attacked just before Modi assumed office, and then president Hamid Karzai attended Modi's inaugural ceremony along with other South Asian heads of government.
Independent India's relations with Afghanistan have generally been on an even keel with the exception of two short periods of time where India faced either indifference or hostility. The first was with the Mujahideen takeover of Kabul in 1992 following the fall of Najibullah which left India friend-less and isolated; its public support for the Soviet intervention and for the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) regime meant it was on the wrong side of history. The second was, paradoxically, when the Mujahideen regime was evicted from Kabul by the Taliban (1996), who proceeded to torture and execute Najibullah.
For most of the past year, the conduct and outcome of the presidential election dominated the Afghan scene. It saw unprecedented enthusiasm and high turnout but controversies about illegalities held up the final results. Ultimately, the final outcome was a US-brokered agreement between the two main contenders, Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah; the former after being sworn-in as the president appointed the latter as chief executive. If all goes well, the constitution would be amended to shift to a parliamentary system of government. For the time being, even three months after the inauguration, disagreements have held up the appointment of ministers.
The year began with president Karzai pursuing his wish-list of assistance from India including reportedly tanks, ammunitions, helicopters and transport aircraft as well as enhanced cooperation in intelligence and security matters. Karzai visited India in May and December of 2013 to push Delhi to increase its support to the Afghan government. Many in Delhi's strategic community were critical of the then government's diffidence, arguing that India should break free of looking at Afghanistan through American eyes, which in turn was mindful of Pakistani sensibilities. Many prominent Afghans also felt let down by Delhi's attitude as they feared that in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, their country would descend into mayhem unless the Afghan security forces were adequately armed and trained. That Afghanistan as a sovereign country had a right to seek support from whom they wanted regardless of what Pakistan felt; the subtext was that for a peaceful resolution of the Pakistan-backed Taliban insurgency, the Afghan government would need to negotiate from a position of strength.
Paradoxically, it was India’s overwhelming popularity among the Afghans, and substantial development support to the elected Afghan government that Pakistan cited as proof of its own fears of insecurity of being encircled. Pakistan further developed a dubious argument that Afghanistan was the site of a proxy war between Pakistan and India, both as a way to justify its support for the Taliban and to constrain India's freedom of action in supporting the Afghan government.
US' ambivalence in the face of relying on Pakistan to support its Afghan mission while recognising Pakistan's role in undermining that very mission meant that the former did not want India to 'muddy' the waters. Not wanting to upset the Americans, the Manmohan Singh government went along and did not entertain Karzai's request, a sign that India would only do so much to shore up a government in a neighbouring country whose stability is of vital interest to India.
The new Afghan president made China his first international destination. He followed this up with a visit to Pakistan, where in an unprecedented move he called on chief of the Pakistani army Gen Raheel Sharif at his headquarters before meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Subsequently, the Americans handed over to Pakistan Latif Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader who had crossed over to Afghanistan and had more or less come overground to negotiate. Further, Gen Raheel Sharif flew to Kabul within hours of the horrendous attack on Peshawar's army school and demanded of President Ghani action against Pakistani Taliban forces who he said were operating out of Afghanistan.
In this whole narrative, India seems missing in action. This is understandable since there can be no doubt that the Pakistani army is the key to peace in Afghanistan, and only the Chinese have leverage over them. Seeing the weakness of the Afghan security forces and the increased insecurity of Afghanistan, President Ghani has little option but in engaging with both these actors.
Whether the Chinese or the Pakistani army can deliver is beyond the scope of this piece, but there is no doubt that in this equation India has no role. It shares no physical borders, has desisted from supplying arms to the government security forces, is not involved with any armed groups and has no favourites among the local political groups and individuals. On the other hand, hundreds of Afghans travel to India every day for medical treatment and thousands study here. Indian films and TV serials provide mass entertainment and showcase a common heritage. India's development role, though low key is much appreciated. And it is this mix that is India's strength in Afghanistan.
The present policy of continuing India's development role and forbearance in strategic matters should not be mistaken for negligence, or irrelevance. India cannot do, or seem to be doing, anything that undermines Afghanistan's democratic regime, for both share a common goal of a stable Afghanistan, not a dysfunctional state that provides sanctuary to transnational terrorists.
(Shakti Sinha is a former civil servant who has worked in Afghanistan for the UN for three years and coordinated donor support for the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)