Why It Is Time for India to Play a More Strategic Role in Afghanistan!

For its own fight against terrorism and for securing proposed energy corridors through Afghanistan, India cannot afford to let Afghanistan lose to Pakistan backed Taliban again

Last month while announcing his new Afghanistan Policy, US President Donald Trump mentioned the following,’ We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States—and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.’ This statement was preceded by the following, ‘Another critical part of the South-Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India; the world’s largest democracy, and a key security and economic partner of the United States.’

In rest of his speech, the US President left no stone unturned in castigating Pakistan and calling the bluff of the double game of being recipient of billions of dollars of US aid for fighting terrorism even while harbouring and nurturing the same very terrorists that, as per the US President, America is fighting against. For long this was an unspoken truth but this time a US President took the onus of stating it unequivocally.

Trump’s mention of India in his speech on the issue of India’s role in a new Afghan policy, may have come as a mixed surprise for many but the mention is not without reason. Coming against the backdrop of stoic resolve that India had shown while confronting China in the Doklam Plateau,  US may have not be faulted for harbouring dreams of a resolute India that US has been in quest of for long in its Asian Policy.

The Indian Role thus far in Afghanistan

However, the issue of Indian involvement in Afghanistan is nothing new and neither it is for the first time that US has shown keen interest in seeing India playing a bigger role in Afghanistan.  From building the Afghan Parliament Building, to the construction of the crucial 218 km long Zaranj-Delaram road in south-west Afghanistan, from the construction of the Salma Dam power project in Herat province to providing Mi-25 helicopter gunships and training more than 4,000 Afghan Army Officers, India’s role in reconstruction of Afghanistan deserves more than a passing mention.

Since 2001, India’s gross aid to Afghanistan has been a stupendous $31 billion. Yet India has consistently restrained itself from committing ‘boots-on-ground’ in Afghanistan, a decision which has its own set of merits, in spite of repeated US insistence on the same. However, the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia is changing fast and in this rapidly altering paradigm, India’s role in Afghanistan may have to be more profound and strategic in nature than just a benevolent aid provider and do-gooder.

The Increasing Rift between US and Pakistan: What exactly is Triggering it?

One key indication of the altering landscape of South Asian geopolitics is the rising hostility between the US Administration and Pakistan. While Pakistan’s rabid support for terror elements is one reason, its complete submission to China and literally becoming a proxy state of Beijing is another factor behind the rising American discontent with Pakistan. Beijing’s coming in defence of Pakistan against the Trump’s onslaught and the subsequent suspension of talks by Pakistan would have been hitherto unprecedented.

Even when US went for Osama hunting deep inside Pakistan, the latter did not have the gumption to do anything beyond the tokenism of veil protest which was more for public consumption than a disapproval of the American action. Drone attacks by US on suspected Al Qaida and Taliban hideouts likewise have continued for almost a decade in Pakistani provinces of NWFP and FATA, with the Pakistan Administration accepting the inevitable with a smile in face. But now with Chinese crutches as support, Pakistan, it seems, is willing to even see eye to eye with US at the altar of parting of ways.

The China Factor in Pakistan

It is a foregone conclusion that the impoverished Pakistan economy is in perpetual need of aid and cannot sustain for long without it. The intransigence that Pakistan is now showing through suspension of talks can only mean that the lending of the much needed loans would now be happening from China.  How China would extract the mileage from it and eventually reduce Pakistan to a stooge colony through financial stranglehold and debt burden is anybody’s guess. But for a country devoid of a resilient economy, that is not exactly the thought ringing in the minds Pakistani policymakers right now. For the sake of voicing their protest and taking a strong stand against the new American foreign policy in Afghanistan which would literally push out Pakistan from the scheme of things, it is quite apparent that Pakistan is willing to go to the last mile. If that means to succumb to the Chinese tantrums in lieu of their support, they seem to have no qualms about it anymore. Its consequences may be riddled with danger and direct confrontation with US, but that, it seems, is the gamble Pakistan is willing to take for the time being. And needless to say, the extent of terror nurturing is not likely to come down either in Pakistan.

What is at stake for India?

Fight against Terrorism cannot afford losing Afghanistan to Taliban again

There are several reasons for which, like US, India too simply cannot afford to allow Afghanistan to be under Pakistan influence anymore. In the first place, India’s battle against Islamist terrorism in J&K is reaching a critical stage with the armed forces almost on the verge of decimating both the financial infrastructure as well as the manpower of terror organisations operating in J&K. A repeat of a Taliban rule in Afghanistan would only mean that the fangs of Islamist Jihad in South Asia would get a renewed lease of life both morally as well as through financial and manpower means.

Securing the Emerging Energy Corridor in Afghanistan

Secondly, India cannot continue to be hamstrung forever by its lack of direct access to Central Asia. TAPI pipeline is now a Pied-Piper’s dream but India’s sustained economic growth would need unprecedented amount of energy in future, part of which can surely be quenched by the vast reserves of gas in Central Asia.  Therefore India’s entire strategy of investing in the Chhabahar Port followed by the investment in the 500 km long rail line to connect Chhabahar Port to Zahedan for eventually getting access Central Asia via Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan would be of no utility if Afghanistan Government collapses and the country returns into the dark ages of ISI-backed Taliban rule again.

Securing Investments in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is crucial for India not just for the access to Central Asia but also because of the enormous prospect that Afghanistan itself holds owing to its estimated $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits. Over the next one decade, several Indian companies are expected to invest billions in Afghanistan and it is invariably in Indian interest to protect them.

Containing China in Afghanistan

The Doklam standoff may be over but the possibility of the same being repeated elsewhere or for that matter the Chinese planning some other kind of intransigence cannot be ruled out. Incidentally the Doklam stand-off may have taught the Chinese some bitter lessons about the difficulty of making India succumb to its psychological warfare tactics. Its eventual acceding to Indian demand of not constructing a paved road, may have resolved the issue for now, but the possibility of China attempting mischief through other means cannot be ruled out. Its support for Pakistan in Afghanistan would not just be to contain India but also for spreading its own realm of influence there. Therefore, India can simply not afford to play a passive role anymore in Afghanistan and would have to do more.

The Road Ahead for India in Afghanistan

Modi Administration’s decision to give Mi-25 gunships to Afghanistan was an extremely positive step towards military cooperation between India and Afghanistan but now it has to be expanded to include more military hardware. For long Afghanistan has been asking for 105 mm Field Guns made by India and it is high time that India starts supplying the same to them apart from other necessary weapon systems including Arjun Tanks and Pinaka rockets.

Indian Military Base in Afghanistan: Explore the Possibility

While the issue of having ‘boots-on-ground’ is a contentious one and India may not eventually do that, India should instead actively consider setting up at least a few  military bases in Afghanistan with airlift capabilities. This would not only enhance strategic reach of India but would also act as a morale booster to India’s support for Afghanistan. Such bases can be used not just for military exercise but would send a signal of India’s resolve to protect its investments in Afghanistan. With the world expecting India to play a bigger role in the global affairs and while India herself nurtures similar ambitions; it is high time that setting up of more military bases abroad is considered actively. What better place to start it than Afghanistan.  In the eventual scenario of a two frontal war that Indian Armed Forces are preparing for, Indian bases in Afghanistan can play a major role as a force multiplier. They can also play critical role in securing Indian investments in Chhabahar.

On a concluding note, it is important to note that the shift in American stand on Pakistan is also because of sustained Indian diplomatic initiatives. While it is important for India to seize the opportunity and get ready to play a bigger role as a US partner in Afghanistan, to eventually bring to an end the menace of terror breeding in Pakistan, it is equally crucial to make sure that the terms and conditions are on equal terms and not imposing in nature on India.  Further, if eventually US finds in India the elusive partner with the resolve and leadership to deal with global issues, it should also be ready to pay heed to other pertinent concerns of India, including matters of trade and investments.

Pathikrit Payne