US President Donald Trump’s decision to stay the course in Afghanistan was welcomed by New Delhi not just because it pinpointed the role Pakistan plays in providing sanctuaries to terrorists targeting India and Afghanistan, but also because a continuation of US boots on the ground allows India to continue to ‘do its job’ on the very same Afghan ground.
India has played a significant role in building state capacity in Afghanistan since 2001 through projects big and small. It did so under the security umbrella provided by the US and the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). The somewhat precipitate US departure announced by the Obama Administration has seen the return of the Taliban and raised questions about the viability of the Afghan government led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Now, not only has the US decided that it will stay on, but it has also offered India an enhanced role, though just what it has in mind is not clear. Even so, there are five good reasons to applaud New Delhi’s refusal to commit ground troops in Afghanistan.
First, the ground situation in the country has deteriorated to the point where India’s token entry would make little difference. And New Delhi lacks the ability to make a significant military commitment.
Second, it would trigger a hostile Pakistani reaction, which could include Islamabad targeting Indian for forces using the Haqqani Network.
Third, although India and the US are on the same page on improving the situation in Afghanistan, there is no agreement between them on the Taliban’s role in any reconciliation process that the US hopes to engineer. The US is open to a deal with the Taliban that, as of now, India adamantly opposes.
Fourth, retaining an independent policy in Afghanistan gives India the flexibility to work with the US, Russia and Iran to stabilise the country.
Any move to become part of a US-led effort would alienate the Russians and Iranians, who remain important players in Afghanistan.
Fifth, notwithstanding harsh words at Islamabad, the enhanced US commitment to Afghanistan is likely to increase US reliance on Pakistan. It can also increase the pressure on Washington to re-hyphenate India-Pakistan relations, something that could adversely affect India-US relations.
Game of Thrown
There would have been some schadenfreude in New Delhi over Islamabad’s reaction were Indian boots to have landed in Afghanistan. But that is a dangerous game. It could provoke Pakistan’s worst instincts and further roil the situation in the Af-Pak region.
India also needs to consider that the US’ record has not been particularly reliable or beneficial for the former. As a superpower, the US has the luxury of taking its ball and leaving the game. Or, for that matter, changing the rules of the game.
Notwithstanding fanciful Pakistani claims, Indian policy in Afghanistan has been prudent and responsible. It has sought to develop Afghanistan State capacity for better governance, rather than participate in a Great Game of Thrones that has wracked the country since the 1980s. Indian projects have ranged from building roads, public buildings and dams, to enhancing community assets like schools to humble culverts, electric supply and minor irrigation works, providing scholarships, medical assistance and technical training to tens of thousands of Afghans.
India has also provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) equipment, like light trucks and bulldozers. More recently, it provided transport and combat helicopters.
Not having a significant arms industry, India has paid the Russians to provide equipment like small arms, light artillery and mortars to the Afghans. In addition, it has provided specialised training to the Afghan forces.
The US and Isaf had long denied the ANSF any heavy equipment and aviation assets, so as to not offend Islamabad. The result was that when the US pulled out, the Afghan forces were left bereft of the ability to even defend themselves.
But now the US has changed tack, and the Indians, too, are likely to enhance the quality of their military assistance, a process that should make Kabul happy and Islamabad apoplectic.
New Delhi has its plate full when it comes to foreign policy challenges. It is a moot question as to whether it would like to step up to the plate and take greater responsibility in Afghanistan.
The country is important, but not vital for India’s foreign and security policy in the way, say, Nepal and Sri Lanka are. There is a certain value it offers in keeping Islamabad off balance. But more important is the common interest India has with Washington in ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a training ground for terrorists.
Build for the Kill
This is what has motivated Trump’s renewal of US commitments there. It would be smart for India to continue operating under the US shadow, even while enhancing its role in key areas like intelligence coordination, military training and boosting its commitment to building Afghan state capacity.
The US remains the key geopolitical player in the region, and it is in India’s interest to hold the US close. Qualitatively enhanced India-US cooperation in Afghanistan must also be seen in a holistic perspective of closer India-US ties.
This is required to assist India’s goal of ‘normalising’ Pakistan. And dealing with the challenge of China.
This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.