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Afghan Conundrum: INDIA MUST REORIENT POLICY?, By Amrita Banerjee, 5 May, 2015 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 5 May 2015

Afghan Conundrum


By Amrita Banerjee

Research Scholar, JNU


Seven months into his presidency, Ashraf Ghani finally visited New Delhi. His perceived tilt towards Islamabad and Beijing in an effort to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict with the Afghan Taliban, including some unilateral confidence building measures to fundamentally transform Afghanistan’s traditionally strained ties with Pakistan, has probably been blown out of proportion.


That it has taken long for the new Afghan president to put India on his travel itinerary - a country which was the first to commit itself to a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, immediately following the US/NATO decision to drawdown troops, and one which has been the largest bilateral donor from the region – has led many to speculate about the possible outcome of Ghani’s three-day visit to New Delhi in the last week of April this year. Does this delay send out a message about a reprioritisation in Afghanistan’s foreign policy calculus about relations with India? And what steps does India need to take to secure its interests, are some questions raised?


To start with, Ghani’s visit to India after seven months into office has raised some profound questions. The dominant perception in the Indian strategic affairs community is that Ghani has not only under-appreciated but has also ignored India and instead has given priority to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Iran. While his reasons for visiting all these countries may have been tactical, the symbolic snub to India cannot be discounted. It marks a sharp contrast to the kind of warmth his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, displayed towards India and the comfort level that he enjoyed with the Indian leadership, cutting across party lines.


However, the reality is that the contemporary security environment in Kabul is also different. Ghani’s regional diplomacy, thus, has to be seen within the following context. Firstly, his is a post-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) government, which no longer has the assured support of 100,000 plus Western troops. Secondly, the US-led ‘war on terror’ may have receded but not the ‘terror of war’ from Afghanistan as the Taliban have opened up several fronts including in relatively stable and remote areas in the north and have just announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive. Also, the growing appeal of the ISIS among possibly marginalised elements within various Islamist militant groups active in the region could further complicate the security environment.


Thus Ghani’s shift of positions is seen as being guided by one, the calculation of a Pakistan-sponsored breakthrough with the Taliban, and two, the need to convey the message that Afghanistan no longer wishes to be a battleground for an India-Pakistan proxy war. Ghani’s shift also comes amidst disappointment among many Afghans about India’s failure to grab the opportunity.


Ghani has already rescinded a request for weapon supplies from New Delhi, suggesting that he can get arms from anywhere. Now that Washington has promised to support 352,000 Afghan personnel until 2017, the Indian help gets even less relevant. But, to cover it up, India has handed over three multi-role Cheetah helicopters to the president during his recent visit.


Many in India suspect that even India’s economic role in Afghanistan may become diminished and that Ghani might review the gamut of Indian projects including the Chabahar Port linking project, iron-ore blocks, and steel plant in Hajigak. Even New Delhi seems to have gone slow with Kabul. This was evident as there was no major take-away from the Afghan President in his first State visit to India. No bilateral agreements were signed nor was there any movement on the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement on cooperation on a wide variety of areas.


Apparently, the Narendra Modi government was well aware that Ghani needed the space to work out a peace deal with the Taliban. So New Delhi did not rush into any fresh defence deals since Delhi knows the perils of close military engagement in that volatile nation.


So, is India’s Afghan policy in trouble? Firstly, it appears that India’s somewhat impulsive efforts have not cut much ice. Secondly, India’s $2 billion commitment for Afghanistan seems to have been driven more by woolly ideas of ‘gaining goodwill’ rather than being based on a sound strategic assessment. Thirdly, has India gained anything by its go-it-alone approach in Kabul? India’s concerns on terrorism today seem to linger on and so does its obsession with the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s networks in Kunar and Nooristan.


In view of these problems and the situation in hand, its high time India reorients its policy towards its Northwest neighbour. The focus now has to be on Afghanistan’s ethnic politics. Kabul too should come clear on its expectations from New Delhi as it struggles to enter a ‘decade of transformation’.


The option of joining hands with Iran is still on the table and so is the suggestion to change India’s Pakistan policy. This is ideal but not an easily reachable option.Thus, it is unlikely that the Afghan game will end anytime soon. India should continue to play the game but no longer by showering financial largesse but by deploying its skills of political manoeuvring. India should expand cooperation in Kabul provided security is managed. It is important to ensure that there is a political settlement in Afghanistan, and if Pakistan or China can help, so be it.


Keeping all this in mind, India should wait patiently. At the end of the day, as sovereign nation Afghanistan’s leaders have every right to befriend whichever country they want. The main driver of Indian policy today should be a desire for constancy in Afghanistan for regional stability of South Asia. And as Modi rightly puts it, “India would walk shoulder to shoulder with the people of Afghanistan in a mission of global importance.”


Of course, there are likely to be many bewildering twists to the Afghan situation. For now, most countries are adopting a wait and see attitude because none is willing to be played by the Afghans. It would be premature, however, to say that India has lost in Afghanistan, for Delhi’s deepest asset in Kabul is the goodwill it has earned over the years. India should continue with its commitment to Afghan reconstruction and express support for Kabul’s ongoing diplomatic initiatives, while emphasizing the need to preserve the democratic spirit of the Afghan Constitution.--- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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