India’s Afghan Challenge

On Aug. 3, a Toyota Corolla carrying three suicide bombers and a carload of explosives attempted to ram the Indian Consulate in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, killing nine bystanders, seven of them children. It was the third time jihadis had tried to blow up Indian government structures. In 2008, a car bomb attack on the Indian embassy killed more than 60 people – the second attack on the facility– and in 2010 suicide attacks on two guesthouses killed at least 16 people, including seven Indians.

Those attacks are emblematic of the concerns of the Taliban and probably Pakistani interests over India’s deepening engagement in Afghanistan as NATO troops begin their expected draw down in 2014.Of the countries involved directly or peripherally in the long-running contest for primacy in Afghanistan, it is India – antipathetic to Pakistan, an ally of Iran and a rival to China, leaning towards the west – that has some of the most important concerns.

Projecting influence in Afghanistan is a major challenge for New Delhi since it could, if successful, accomplish a cluster of politico-strategic objectives. That is a challenge because in projecting its influence, India has to counterbalance the traditional influence of Pakistan and the expanding Chinese ingress as well.

India is apprehensive of the Taliban’s coming into power after Delhi, than a Soviet ally, backed the Russians through Russia’s 1980s occupation of Afghanistan. However, the events of September 11, 2001, presented opportunities for India with NATO’s ouster of the Pakistan-backed fundamentalist movement. Since the Taliban’s ouster,the Indian government has been working to become Afghanistan’s most important partner for reconstruction.

Not only is India now being construed in terms of potentially replacing the US, but also as a state very much capable of serving other purposes, both for the US and itself, containing the influence of both Pakistan and China and establishing an economic stranglehold for long-term geostrategic and geo-economic purposes.

Since Afghanistan and India did not have good relations before 2001, the first imperative for India was and still is to build a positive image. Therefore, the Indian government has spent at least US$2 billion making use of ‘soft power’ by helping re-build decapitated infrastructures as well as building new ones.

For instance, India has been building the “House of the People”, the Afghan Parliament, since 2008, and which is expected to be ready by next year, presented as a physical manifestation of India’s efforts to help the people of Afghanistan fulfill parliamentary democracy.

Besides its symbolic significance, India’s investment in this project can be called one of Delhi’s most creative foreign-policy moves of the last decade. It can’t be looked at in isolation from the rest of India’s Afghan policy. It is obvious that India is acting in its own long-term interests. With the NATO forces expected to leave Afghanistan in the coming year, Afghanistan is expected to be freer than it has been in the past to deal with its neighboring countries. Since India and Afghanistan do not share a physical border, the only option for India to outmaneuver Pakistan is through large-scale economic investment. Needless to say, India has much more to offer to Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction than Pakistan.

But it would be an exaggeration and an oversimplification to state that Indian objectives are only Pakistan-centric. India’s moves must be understood in terms of her strategy of emerging as a major power with reach beyond the South Asian region. For example, India’s Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid, speaking at a press conference in Kabul last year, said Afghanistan is on its way to regaining its historical role of “a land bridge between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Eurasia." Needless to say, India’s presence would allow the war-torn country to expand its trade and influence into the region.

And, as a part of its policy to expand beyond South Asia, India has also acquired the ChaaBhar (Chahbahar) Port on Iran’s southeastern coast, allowing it to further enable it to bypass Pakistan and establish an alternative geography.

Notably, Iran and India share several concerns in Afghanistan. Both despise the Taliban regime and are again joined in their drive to counter Pakistan in “helping” the Taliban re-capture power. Both India and Iran were constrained in their ability to project influence during the Taliban period, but following 9/11, both moved fast, stepping up their coordination. India has undertaken several projects within Iran itself to facilitate operating in and beyond Afghanistan.

For example, in addition to the port facility, India and Iran have also been constructing a North-South Corridor that will allow movement of Indian goods from its own ports to Chahbahar, and from there to Central Asia and the Caspian region via rail and road links. Iran and Afghanistan both are therefore very critical in India’s calculations to seek access into Central Asia and beyond.

Besides this strategic maneuvering, India has been making huge investments, far outstripping Pakistan in Afghanistan since 2001, relying on development projects and other forms of humanitarian assistance. According to a report of The Century Foundation, almost immediately after the US attack, then-Prime Minister Vajpayee announced a line of credit of US$100 million to Afghanistan, pledged 1 million tonnes of wheat for displaced Afghans and dispatched a team of doctors and technicians in December 2001 to establish a camp for fixing artificial limbs for amputees.

Since those early measures in 2001, India has committed $750 million and pledged another $450 million. In addition, Delhi is increasingly involved in strate­gic infrastructure projects such as building transmission lines to provide power to Kabul, a hydro-electric project in Herat, as well as the Zaranj-Delaram road that connects the Ring Road in Afghanistan to Chahbahar. In 2008, the Indian government finished work on this 218-km road and opened up landlocked Afghanistan to the sea via Iran.

To facilitate these projects and to collect intelligence, India also now has established consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif, in addition to its embassy in Kabul. Thus its activities are not merely restricted to the North, where it has had traditional ties, but also to the South and the Northeast, adjacent to the Pak-Afghan porous border.

India has also engaged in training Afghan civilian and military person­nel as well as providing Afghan students with scholarships to study in India. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has offered as many as 500 scholarships a year for Afghans. India is keen to have a much larger role in training Afghan National Security Forces.

But while Indian development assistance and efforts to train Afghan civilians is welcomed by the interna­tional community, India’s attempts to expand its contributions to building Afghanistan’s security institutions have received a lukewarm reception—if not rebuke.

However,the effort to train security personnel has a logic of its own, which is providing security, albeit indirectly, to the projects Delhi has been investing in. With the withdrawal of the NATO forces imminent, there is every reason for India to expect attacks on its projects. India is also concerned about the security of the Indians working on these projects.

According to a report in the Kolkata-based Telegraph English-language daily, India has been facing difficulties in completing projects rapidly because of the difficulty in finding local labor and because of the difficulty in cajoling Indian laborers into working in a hostile environment. As such, in order to thwart these threats, India deployed the Indo-Tibetan Police Force (ITPF) as well as a small number of army commandos to protect personnel.

Some think tanks in India have been advocating the option of placing military troops in Afghanistan. Politically, this is a hard sell on any level. India is loath to operate outside of a UN mandate and it is not clear whether the institutional and political requirement can be fulfilled. Moreover, India’s faces domestic constraints, particularly, its coalition-based political system in which Muslims comprise a low but significant vote bank, which is too crucial to be antagonized. Congress Party, the current ruling coalition leader, has traditionally been at pains not to infuriate the Muslim constituency. It would also infuriate Pakistan and their Taliban clients.

However,notwithstanding this constraint, there is a vocal set of commenta­tors and analysts who believe that India’s preeminent security interests reside in Afghanistan and thus demand serious attention.

Indian policy makers are also not unmindful of the fact that the Taliban’s coming into power, either through negotiations or attack, increasingly appears inevitable. It is perhaps for this reason that India, like the US and other countries, is keeping its options open for negotiations with the Taliban, although it has viewed with particular alarm the trend toward negotiating with “moderate Taliban,” a term it officially refuses to entertain.

It has to be taken into account that there is no guarantee that a future Afghan government would be as open to cooperation with India as the current one. Nor is there any ‘guarantee’ of providing security to India’s projects following the withdrawal of the forces. As such, there are people in India – much like those in the US – who do not believe the potential benefits in Afghanistan are worth the risk. This opinion is again based upon the probability of the Taliban’s coming into power and dominating the Afghan political scene because of their reliance on the Pashtun majority.

To be fair, it seems too early to suggest what would follow the withdrawal. We are yet to witness what shape this withdrawal after all takes and what precedes it. As such, it would be too early to judge whether India's recent investments in Afghanistan's reconstruction will be seen as pragmatic or unrealistic in the long and short term. But till today, India has shown its determination to keep its presence in Afghanistan even after withdrawal and formation of ‘national’ government.

(Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic.)