India finesses its Afghan policies

M.K. Bhadrakumar September 16, 2016 12:58 PM (UTC+8)
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Afghans have enormous goodwill toward India. Delhi’s US$1 billion dollar assistance program will nurture that goodwill, provide underpinning for enduring friendship and enhance India’s ‘soft power’. 

There are two good things about the outcome of the visit to Delhi on Tuesday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

One, the visit has been characterized by strident rhetoric aimed at Pakistan.

Delhi could let off steam at a time when there are no takers for its insistent demands to sanction Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism and to censure Islamabad on its human rights record in Baluchistan province.

Generally speaking, when Delhi resorts to virulent rhetoric during a high-level visit that grazes India-Pakistan ties, it makes up for the lack of any ‘cutting edge’. In this case, Delhi appears to be holding back on any major policy shift to position itself as a supplier of lethal weaponry and armor to Afghan armed forces.

Two, alongside anti-Pakistan rhetoric, which was echoed enthusiastically by Ghani, Delhi pledged US$1 billion as fresh development assistance for Afghanistan for capacity building, strengthening democratic institutions, education, health, agriculture and energy.

Taken together, the two templates can be seen as mutually reinforcing insofar as while Delhi continues to be circumspect regarding any entanglement in the Afghan conflict, Kabul can remain confident that India nonetheless intends to play an active role in the stabilization of that country and will keep strengthening the bilateral relations.

The US$1 billion pledge makes India, perhaps, the number one donor country among all regional states, outstripping even China. (India has already rendered U$2 billion in assistance to Afghanistan since 2001.) To be sure, India is making an assertive statement here.

The ‘Pakistan factor’ that creeps into the India-Afghan equations merits handling with sophistication. The ‘hardliners’ in Delhi root for using Hindu Kush as a platform to bleed Pakistan, the logic being ‘the enemy-of-my-enemy-should-be-my-natural-ally’.

But they overlook that Afghanistan has a consistent history of balancing between India and Pakistan. Kabul has always regarded Pakistan as the most consequential neighbor.

Equally, despite the high turbulence in India-Pakistan ties at the moment, the policymakers in Delhi cannot overlook that injecting predictability and stability into the relations with Pakistan is fundamentally of much greater consequence to India’s long-term interests than reveling in the momentary pleasures of a ‘great game’ in the Hindu Kush.

Looking back, the ‘forward policy’ toward the Northern Alliance cost India hundreds of millions of dollars without commensurate returns. But for the 9/11 attacks and the US intervention, the Taliban regime would have consolidated its grip all over Afghanistan and squashed the residual resistance.

Corruption is endemic to covert operations and many Northern Alliance leaders ended up becoming extremely rich. As for India, unlike in most mature democracies, it has no constitutional mechanism to make intelligence agencies accountable to the parliament or to empower lawmakers to oversee covert operations.

Thus, India, being a ‘stakeholder’, has to weigh very carefully how its vital interests in Afghanistan can be safeguarded optimally without risking backlash or wasting resources. Since the Afghan conflict has been at its core a fratricidal strife, the best course is not to take sides, and at the very least, being a neighboring country, India should not antagonize any of the Afghan groups struggling for ascendancy in the civil war.

The Taliban recently cautioned Delhi against any policy shift toward supplying lethal weaponry to the Kabul setup. Interestingly, the Taliban statement reminded Delhi that they never interfered in India’s internal affairs.

The heart of the matter is that Taliban’s skirmishes with India over the past quarter century narrow down to the ‘Taliban’ rubric being exploited by Pakistan’s Interstate Intelligence (ISI) to undertake covert operations against India.

Delhi estimates that the attacks on Indian diplomatic establishments in Afghanistan were in reality ISI covert operations. This was a smart ploy on ISI’s part, since these attacks also ensured that Delhi had a closed mind on the Taliban.

In sum, reading the tea leaves in India-Afghan-Pakistani equations is never easy, but Ghani’s visit suggests that Delhi fine-tuned its ‘engagement-cum-detachment’ approach to the Afghan problem. There are several reasons for saying so.

First, there is great fluidity in the Afghan situation and only fools would rush in to prejudge the outcome of the uncertainties that are playing out uncontrollably at different levels — Ghani’s growing isolation; rift between Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah; future role of former President Hamid Karzai; legitimacy of the National Unity Government; reform of electoral laws; holding of Loya Jirga; Obama administration’s ‘lame duck’ phase’ and policy vacuum through next several months; creeping shadows of Islamic State; territorial gains by Taliban; and the near-certainty that at some point in a conceivable future a settlement will become inevitable and that will include reconciliation with the Taliban.

Second, Delhi has no reason to fear a replay scenario of the mid-nineties when Pakistani military and ISI blatantly moved into Afghan territory to pitchfork the Taliban into power in Kabul. Pakistan had enjoyed the tacit acquiescence of Washington at that time, since the interests of Big Oil were involved.

Whereas, geopolitical reality today is that another Pakistani invasion and takeover in Kabul will not be acceptable to the international community — including, arguably, for Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ China — and will also be resisted militarily with organized force and advanced weaponry.

Besides, it is one thing for the ISI to keep its Afghan proxies on tight leash during an insurgency stage-managed from Pakistani soil, but it is another thing to manipulate them once they are safely ensconced in power in Kabul.

The Mujahedeen leadership was installed in Kabul in April 1992 personally by the then (and present) Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (who escorted the leaders of the ‘Peshawar Seven’ in his own aircraft first to Mecca to pray for god’s blessing and then on to the Afghan capital to rule so as to promote Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’.)

Yet, within four months, Kabul was reaching out to Delhi for direct engagement, bypassing Islamabad. Suffice it to say, ‘Afghan-ness’ of the (Pashtun) Taliban is bound to surface once they return to mainstream Afghan politics.

Third, Delhi should try to fathom with an open mind the meaning of the Taliban statement that noninterference in the internal affairs of the two countries by either side can be the basis of a modus vivendi.

The problem here is that although India does not suffer from ‘Islamophobia’ — unlike Russia or China — Indian security analysts have a closed mind toward Taliban (just as they had toward Mujahideen.) They do not seem to be even aware that the Taliban regime in the nineties had craved for US recognition and UN’s development assistance.

Delhi’s trump card lies in the enormous goodwill that Afghans have toward India. A US$1 billion dollar assistance program will nurture that goodwill, provide underpinning for enduring friendship and enhance India’s ‘soft power’. The Afghan people are tired of war and it is to India’s advantage not to be perceived as fueling the conflict.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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