India’s short term option — don’t flinch.
Today, six Indians died in suicide attacks perpetrated by the Taliban at the Park Residence and other guesthouses in Kabul, Afghanistan. This included Indian consulate staff, an ITBP constable and two Indian army officers. At least five other individuals were injured in the attack, including five Indian army officers.
This blog, along with others, has in the past articulated what India must do in Afghanistan to protect its national interests. In the August 2008 edition of Pragati, Sushant K Singh argued in favor of a larger Indian military presence in Afghanistan and warned of the long term consequences were India to rely exclusively on “soft power.” In January 2010’s Pragati, I put forth a case for India to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), thereby assisting in raising a credible unit to act as a bulwark against the Taliban and Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Commentators like Harsh Pant have opined that India must stop hedging its bets on the US and must work with other actors like Russia and Iran to engage all sections of Afghan society.
However, despite repeated attacks against Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan, Manmohan Singh’s government appears disinclined to readjust its Afghanistan strategy. Today’s attack will not likely force a rethink on how to engage with Afghanistan either. Given India’s self-imposed shackles and the likelihood of continued attacks against Indian soft targets in the war ravaged nation, India has but one option at its disposal in the short term, and that is to not flinch.
Attacks such as these may lead to calls for India’s level of engagement in Afghanistan to be reconsidered. However, downgrading Indian presence in Afghanistan is the surest way to convey to the military jihadi complex (MJC) that it can force Indian action through terror. The MJC feels that it is at an advantageous position: it has outlasted the Americans, reinserted itself (and the Taliban) into Afghanistan’s political space and the top leadership of the Quetta Shura — despite the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mohammed Younis — remains mostly intact. The MJC will enjoy a tremendous psychological boost from the notion that it forced the Americans and the Indians to withdraw from Afghanistan. It will seek to replicate the model by imposing severe costs on India in Kashmir and the mainland.
It is wrong to suppose that India’s involvement in Afghanistan is merely about power projection and easy access to energy rich Central Asia. India is facing an existential battle and denying the MJC “strategic depth” in Afghanistan is a critical component to India’s own internal security. Therefore, if India insists in not altering its ill-conceived stance vis-a-vis hard power in Afghanistan, it must at the very least maintain its investment profile in the country, while fully expecting to be targeted repeatedly and frequently by the MJC. Only the Indian government can explain how this is a better alternative to the introduction of Indian hard power in Afghanistan.
It is significant that India’s reconstruction efforts have earned it tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan. An opinion poll () conducted in Afghanistan in January 2010 by BBC/ABC/ARD indicated a 71% favorable view of India, as opposed to 15% favorable view of Pakistan. In the meduim- to long run, India must work with the US, regional actors and Afghans across the political gamut and ensure that an effective and credible counterweight to the MJC and the Taliban is sustained in Afghanistan.