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Manmohan's US trip

India must aggressively pursue to protect interests and stake in Afghanistan’s future

Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US coincides with Thanksgiving week and the first anniversary of 26/11.  During the Prime Minister’s visit, the debilitating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be on the agenda.  It is on this issue that some incredibly silly, wantonly naive advice is being shoved the US President’s way.

Two broad themes on India’s place in the regional security discourse seem to periodically appear, which can be summarized thus.  Firstly,  Pakistan feels threatened by the presence of a larger adversary at its eastern border. The main thorn in Indo-Pak relations is Kashmir. Therefore, solve Kashmir and receive a grateful Pakistan’s full commitment on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Second, Pakistan feels “strategically encircled” by India’s presence in Afghanistan.  An increase in Indian involvement would inflame Pakistan’s apprehensions vis-a-vis India. Therefore, in the interest of Pakistan’s sensitivities, an expansion of Indian involvement in Afghanistan must not be encouraged (or must at least be brushed aside).

Both these themes do an excellent job in confusing symptom (the “Kashmir” issue, and “strategic depth”) with root cause (Pakistan’s pathological neuralgia with India).  It is another issue of course that those advocating the “resolve Kashmir” approach haven’t ever come close to articulating how this feat is to be accomplished by Washington.

It is no secret that there is disconnect between the UPA and the Obama administration on the way forward in Afghanistan.  There are two aspects to this disconnect — one, th UPA administration has been blind to US’s plans in the region (and consequences to India’s interests), and two, the Obama Administration has been unable to present a coherent, consistent vision for Afghanistan, mired as it is with internal squabbling.

But Obama, who ran on a canvas promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is under pressure to act, if only to placate his fellow Democrats and voters.  The Obama administration sees greater regional involvement as a solution that would allow for a phased US withdrawal.   Hence Richard Holbrooke’s  recent diplomatic sojourns to China and Russia.

The role that India will play in this “regional approach” will perhaps become more apparent after the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington. Rightly, as the preeminent power in the region, India’s involvement is not only “beneficial”, but imperative.

But the status of “regional power” is not achieved through birth-right.  It must be  earned, and if India believes itself to be the preeminent regional power, it must start acting like one. Unquestionably, this involves taking tough decisions not only on what India would “prefer to do” in Afghanistan, but what it must do to safeguard its interests.

Thus far, India has stayed away from overt involvement in shaping the politics in Afghanistan, choosing instead engage in the (noble) pursuits of building schools and roads and training the Afghan police force.  “Soft power”, Shashi Tharoor calls it.  But soft power is credible only as long as someone else is willing and able to do the dirty yard work.

What if that “someone else” leaves? Who will step in?

A power vacuum in Afghanistan with a weak, de-legitimized government in Kabul constantly being undermined by a reinforced and invigorated Taliban and affiliated networks presents a scenario for India where its overall influence in the country will diminish, relative to that of China and Pakistan.

Economic investments in Afghanistan (totaling over $1 billion), development of ties with the country’s civilian polity and strategic importance of Afghanistan to an energy-starved nation, make such a scenario unacceptable to India.

There is simply too much at stake for India not to be meaningfully involved in a regional approach to the Afghanistan problem.  Indeed, India’s contribution to such a regional solution must span across all realms, including security/law enforcement, political reconciliation and delivery of social services.  In this regard, offering a larger Indian contingent to train Afghanistan’s security forces, can be a small, but important first step.

US administrations will always have India doubters, just as they will their  share of Indophiles.  India’s goal within the construct of the “regional approach”  must be to aggressively defend its interests in the country, while playing a meaningful role in addressing the current crisis and defining the future of Afghanistan.

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6 Responses to Manmohan's US trip

  1. TanmayKN November 20, 2009 at 6:04 am #

    India has done a remarkable job in Afg.We’ve contributed a lot to the economic development of Afg,trained bureaucrats,professionals in various fields & above all supported the democratic govt.But realistically speaking,India can’t do much w.r.t security.

    There’s lack of determination & motivation on the US side.If,as you say,the US leaves or prepares for a pullout,the result will be an ascendant Taliban & a weakened govt. in Kabul.Then the situation will quickly unravel regardless of India’s proactive role in military matters.

    What we have to watch-out for is how the Northern Alliance warlords(Dostum,Fahim) who support Karzai react to any moves by the US to strike a deal with the Taliban.There are rumours that Dostum is already arming his forces.In a worse case scenario,it’ll be back to the old days when India,Russia,Iran funded the Alliance.

    This article on the internal debate on India’s future role in Afg. might interest you.Btw it quotes Sushant Singh.


  2. thefiltercoffee November 20, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    @TanmayKN – Thanks for the link, hadn’t read that one before. It does a good job in summarizing the internal debate.

    When you look at how far deep we are in this Afghanistan quagmire, the choices are not between good vs bad, but between bad vs worse.

    My contention is that putting our eggs in the Northern Alliance faction basket backed by us, Russia and Iran would be incongruous to the capital and resources we have dedicated to Afghanistan, post 2001.

    It is another thing that the Northern Alliance today doesn’t exist as a coherent unit and I don’t think that a charismatic leader exists today that can bring traditionally warring factions like the Tajiks and Uzbeks together to fight the common enemy.

    If there is a second large scale civil war, India cannot rest easy with two pockets of influence – in the northeast and Kabul, in a country as decentralized as Afghanistan.

    Also, if there is a large scale civil war, and India persists with the “soft power” mantra, any and all investment that India has made, and any strategic depth that India earned in Afghanistan will go to naught. The ISI and affiliated allies will see to it that this happens.

    Personally, the “wait and watch”, “do nothing”, “let them deal with it” approaches constitute the “worse” option.

  3. TanmayKN November 21, 2009 at 7:08 am #

    Thanks for the reply.

    I agree that India has invested a lot in Afghanistan for the Taliban to come to power & let it go to waste.

    I’m trying to understand India’s options at this juncture.If we offer to train the Afghan army & police would it in any way stop the inevitable slide into anarchy in the event of an American pullout?

    A Tajik-dominated ANA will be fighting against huge odds given the lack of political will in Kabul & D.C. to take on the Taliban.

    If there is a large scale civil war,does India have any ally(perhaps ally is not the right word)other than the Northern Alliance warlords?

    Essentially,does India have the clout/ability to steer events in Afghanistan towards a desired or preferred outcome?

  4. thefiltercoffee November 21, 2009 at 7:38 pm #


    IMO, the short answer is probably “no”. We’re simply not at place where we can wield that type of influence and power in Afghanistan.

    India’s overall options have always generally been the same wrt Afghanistan. Either adopt a “hands-off” (or exclusive “soft power”) approach, or be engaged.

    Both approaches have their pros and cons. The hands-off approach is beneficial in the short term, but will hurt you long term. The opposite holds true for the be-engaged approach.

    But we are a risk-averse nation. Having weighed the options, this UPA administration (and NDA before it) concluded that it was politically “safer” for India to merely be an “interested party” and not a “stakeholder” in Afghanistan.

    We’ve actually been training ANA and police for a while – I think CRM’s take on the issue (and I concur) is to provide a larger contingent.

    I’ll grant you that this is a small step. But I think it is a necessary one in making us more involved in the region.

    For me that’s the big takeaway – India’s voice must be heard afa South Asia is concerned. The only way for India to be able to wield that type influence is to be involved and be an active stakeholder – along with the US/NATO, Russia and China – in Afghanistan.


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