India’s Role in Afghanistan
TOPIC: General studies 2
- Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests
- Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests
In News: US President Donald Trump had taken a jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi over funding of a “library” in the war-ravaged country, saying it is of no use in the war-torn country. Trump criticised India and others for not doing enough for the nation’s security, and asked India, Russia, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries to take responsibility for Afghanistan’s security as he defended his push for the US to invest less overseas.
Indian Army boots in Afghanistan
The foremost driver of India’s Afghanistan policy is its desire to strike a strategic balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is an ambitious desire given the continuing, likely irreversible, and enormous power differential between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In practical terms, it means that India wants to ensure that Pakistan does not manipulate the terms of reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul.
India could easily spare tens of thousands of soldiers for Afghanistan from its 1.4 million-strong military. But the United States has discouraged India from sending troops or weaponry to Afghanistan. It is because Pakistan insists that if the Taliban are to be persuaded to join peace talks over Afghanistan and the supply lines through Pakistan to the United States forces are not disrupted or stopped, the United States must not allow an Indian security presence in Afghanistan.
In the early years after the fall of the Taliban, Indian policy makers were miffed at being prevented from putting a security presence on the ground. In 2011, India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, which enabled India to provide direct military support — initially trainers but potentially combat troops if the need arose.
Indian presence in Afghanistan
Since the Taliban was evicted in 2001, India has confined itself to managing a $2 billion humanitarian aid program that is only Afghanistan’s fifth largest but reputedly the most focused and effective dollar for dollar. But the Indian presence in Afghanistan rests on deeper cultural foundations than United States support.
Afghans avidly consume Hindi language soap operas and Bollywood films. Paradoxically, the physical distance between India and Afghanistan brings their people even closer in their common dislike of Pakistan, which separates them geographically.
Sustaining this priceless Afghan affection for India is the fact that Indian troops have never spilled Afghan blood — not in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, nor the civil war in the 1990s, nor through the insurgency after 2002. The combat-weary Afghans associate India’s presence with Kabul’s biggest children’s hospital and medical missions in their major cities that treated hundreds of thousands until some Indian doctors who manned them were killed in Kabul in 2010.
India may be building small libraries as part of the community development initiative, but most of its investments in Afghanistan were on mega infrastructure projects including the 218 km road from Zaranj to Delaram, the Salma Dam and the new Afghan Parliament building. India has also been supplying military equipment to Afghanistan besides providing training to hundreds of Afghan security personnel.
India has financed and built Afghanistan’s Parliament, Kabul’s most prestigious high school, the transmission lines that light up Kabul and the buses that ferry commuters in the capital. India funded and helped rebuild the hydroelectric Salma Dam in western Herat province. India also built a 133-mile highway linking Afghanistan to Iran. Hundreds of Afghan diplomats, administrators and soldiers are sent to India for professional training.
While public impact was a key consideration in selecting these aid initiatives, the most striking examples of good-will creation are the approximately 300 “small development projects” (S.D.P.s) that India has financed, dovetailing them closely with Kabul’s own development priorities. Those projects benefit remote border villages that large aid donors seldom target because of the prevailing insecurity.
Each project allocates up to a million dollars for a health, education or rural development project — such as building an irrigation channel for a village to bring water from a mountain stream to its fields. India merely selects and finances the project and provides technical oversight; the local community takes ownership of the project and executes the work on the ground. The wave of good will for India generated by the S.D.P.s has encouraged New Delhi to allocate a larger share of Indian development aid to these projects.
The Way Ahead:
- The Afghan conflict not only drains resources of Western powers directly involved in it, but also limits growth of the adjacent region. Instead of thinking of short-term gains vis-à-vis Pakistan, then, New Delhi needs to think of a long-term strategy on how to end the Afghan conflict by supporting a genuine social reconciliation process.
- For India to be able to support any form of reconciliation process and to help reduce the need for violence as a mode of communication in Afghanistan requires it to be open to the idea of the Afghan Taliban entering mainstream political life with or without Pakistan’s support — and eventually resolve its own bilateral issues with its western neighbour.
The appetite in India for military involvement is very small; there is no consensus about the military footprints New Delhi should have in Afghanistan. But there is a consensus that New Delhi’s security cooperation with Kabul should be extended and should be robust and that is what India is doing.
Connecting the Dots:
- What do you think about India’s ambitions of ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ peace process? Critically analyse.
- A stable Afghanistan is key to India’s policy towards Central Asian countries. Comment. Also examine the associated challenges.
- India has its own developmental needs and priorities, but for the world’s seventh-largest economy, there is scope for stepping up its game in Afghanistan. Comment.