India's Great Game in Afghanistan
India's growing influence in Afghanistan, an apparent gambit to outflank its traditional adversary, Pakistan, is increasingly irritating Islamabad. There is reason for caution. Indian diplomatic facilities twice in the past four years have been attacked, taking scores of lives in attacks many Indians believed to have emanated from Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious ISI.
India, in the words of C. Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University, "has been able to steadily re-establish its presence in Afghanistan while free-riding under the US and NATO security umbrella" since it re-established the embassy it had closed with the Taliban takeover of the country.
The Indian presence is growing in Afghanistan, among other reasons, because "virtually every Islamist militant group operating in and against India (e.g., HUJI, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen/Harkat-ul-Ansar, among others) trained in Afghanistan with varying connections to the Taliban and by extension al Qaeda," Fair wrote in a paper titled Under the Shrinking U.S. Security Umbrella: India's End Game in Afghanistan.
As the US grows steadily more disenchanted with a 10-year war that has produced few tactical and virtually no strategic dividends, its inevitable departure is expected to create a vacuum that would leave India facing thousands of battle-hardened Islamic militants under Pakistan's patronage who could – and Indian planners must assume would – be deployed against them in Kashmir and perhaps further Mumbai-style raids against major cities or key targets in the country.
India's efforts to embed a long-term benign presence in Afghanistan have centered on large scale aid projects. In May 2011 New Delhi pledged an additional US$500 million in aid to Afghanistan, a significant addition to the US$1.5 billion it has provided over the past decade. Indian aid funds have financed roads, hydroelectric power stations, hospitals, training for hundreds of medical students at Indian colleges and even a 5,000-tonne fruit storage facility in Kandahar.
This display of soft power bolsters New Delhi's efforts to steer a fine line in Afghanistan between promoting its image as a responsible regional power broker while threatening Pakistan on its western flank. In addition to providing or pledging aid, India has been offering limited military training support and - more recently - seeking to align New Delhi with Washington's declared priorities in stabilizing the country.
Gavin Greenwood, a political risk analyst with the Hong Kong-based Allan &Associates security and crisis management consultancy, notes that any Indian activity in Afghanistan is interpreted – often correctly – in Pakistan as an attempt to open a new front on that country's western frontier.
Indeed, given the permanent high levels of tensions in Kashmir and the role of Pakistan-based terrorist groups in attacking targets within India including the devastating attack on luxury hotels in Mumbai that killed 164 persons in November 2008, it would be remarkable if New Delhi didn't seek to apply pressure on Islamabad – both for strategic gains and to avenge such atrocities as the November 2008 Mumbai attack.
The Mumbai attack was preceded by the suicide bombing of India's embassy in Kabul in July 2008 that killed more than 40 people, include five members of the mission's staff. No group has taken responsibility for the attack, though many Indians believe the bombing was organized by elements within the ISI to warn Delhi against deeper involvement in the Afghan conflict. In October 2009 the second attack, close to the Indian embassy in Kabul, killed nearly 60 people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for this attack, but once again the view from India, Greenwood says, was that the attack was a further warning against increasing involvement in the country.
India unsurprisingly has not heeded such threats and continues to support the Karzai government. In fact, India has been at it a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan. Fair points out that there is "considerable opacity" in describing India's history with the Northern Alliance headed by the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the then-main bulwark against the Taliban. Masood was murdered by Al Qaeda suicide bombers in 2001 on the eve of the destruction of the New York trade towers on Sept. 11, 2011.
India, Fair notes, supplied the Northern Alliance with high-altitude warfare equipment and sent "advisers" to provide operational guidance to northern alliance fighters. Indian helicopter technicians kept decrepit Soviet-made helicopters flying as a part of the Northern Alliance's resistance to the Taliban.
All of this has predictably fuelled fears in Pakistan over India's strategy and intentions regarding its western border. Given how such concerns may be converted into more direct action, it has to be assumed that security around the already heavily defended Indian Embassy in Kabul has been further tightened in recent days.
India's interests in seeking influence in Afghanistan in order to apply pressure on Pakistan's western border – perhaps as leverage against Islamabad's conduct in Kashmir – merely add more layers of complexity to Washington's efforts to balance primary US concerns in the region. The US's relationship with Pakistan has steadily grown more acrimonious, markedly so since US Navy Seals ‘invaded' Pakistan's airspace in their raid to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad in early May.
As an example of widespread resentment felt in Pakistan over the US action in Abbottabad, it was reported this week that the ISI has arrested five informants alleged to have assisted US forces and intelligence services in planning the raid on bin Laden's compound. Regardless how much such actions represent political theatre on the part of the Pakistan military, whose leadership is acutely aware they are as effectively ‘owned' by the US as the Egyptian army and have as little room for manouvre against Washington's ‘stablisation' agenda, there is limit to how far this core institution can be pushed.
From Washington's often-narrow perspective, now increasingly focused on extracting its forces from Afghanistan to meet domestic political timetables, the question is how much Washington is prepared to get involved in the intractable conflict between Islamabad and Delhi by moving – or even appearing to move - closer to India.
The answer is likely to be further obfuscation of the issues in return for vague and aspirational statements intended to ease the way of US diplomats and senior military officers picking their way through ancient enmities, compromises and snares that line the path out of this otherwise endless conflict the 19th century Russians referred to as ‘the tournament of shadows.'