Musings from afar

How India will pay a heavy cost for the inaction in Afghanistan

If Afghanistan becomes a haven for extremists and Pakistan-backed proxies become the ultimate arbiters there, India would have the most to lose.

 |  Musings from afar  |  5-minute read |   06-02-2020
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In January, Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, was in New Delhi to address the Raisina Dialogue. There he hailed India as a “key partner” of his country, sharing the vision “for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.” Underscoring that “violence and terrorism have no constituencies in Afghanistan,” Mohib asserted that “a ceasefire is necessary to create a conducive environment for talks.”

Reliance on the US

Later, in private, Mohib reportedly asked New Delhi to consider deploying Indian troops in Afghanistan in a peacekeeping role as the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the US gain momentum once again. This is one of those discussions in New Delhi that no one wants to have. There is a seeming consensus in the Indian strategic community that this is a no-go area. It doesn’t matter if the costs of inaction are mounting by the day.

main_hamdullah-mohib_020620102955.jpgAfghanistan’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib asked India to consider deploying Indian troops in Afghanistan in a peacekeeping role as the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the US gain momentum once again. (Photo: Reuters)

India’s reluctance to proactively shape the ground realities in Afghanistan has made it so marginal that the only recourse it has is of asking other actors to keep its interests in mind. Officially, India has repeatedly ruled out sending troops to Afghanistan, asserting that it would like to help the country through economic and humanitarian aid. In the past, when such requests came from the US, it was easy to dismiss them. So long as US policy supports Indian economic and cultural presence in Afghanistan, it is welcome. But when the US demands that India should go for hard power commitment in the wartorn nation, New Delhi can look the other way. India’s default position on Afghanistan has been to rely on the US military to further its interests. The fact that India could emerge as a significant economic player in Afghanistan, much liked by ordinary Afghans, has much more to do with US forces shaping the battlefield than with any strategic foresight on India’s part. As a result, every time there was a likelihood that the US may withdraw its troops, India would hector Washington on how shortsighted the move is and the costs it would impose on the region.

It is indeed ironic that a nation which doesn’t want to put any troops on the ground in what is its strategic neighbourhood has not been loath to criticise a nation from where Afghanistan is thousands of miles away. Now, the request has come directly from the Afghan government. It is warily looking at the prospect of the peace deal between the US and Taliban.

It is under no illusion that after US forces depart, Taliban would challenge other actors to regain its past supremacy, leading to widespread turmoil and the frittering away of all the gains made over the last two decades. In this context, allies of India would need its military’s protection and support. It would also be important to protect India’s significant investment in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. But in India, there is actually no policy beyond saying that “there shall not be boots from India on the ground [in Afghanistan].”

Losing to Pak proxies

There are multiple reasons for why an Indian military involvement in Afghanistan will be problematic, ranging from the lack of success of foreign powers in Afghanistan to India’s inability to achieve anything militarily on its own, to Indian forces getting sucked into a confrontation with Pakistan-based proxies. All of these points have some validity.

But for a nation whose foreign policy has rapidly evolved in the last two decades, can these reasons be cast in stone? There needs to be a stocktaking now that ground realities are changing rapidly in Afghanistan. For all of India’s claims of being a major partner, it is nowhere in the picture when it comes to the final outcome. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, India has emerged as Afghanistan’s biggest regional donor, proving more than $3 billion in official assistance.

Breaking shibboleths

India has undertaken some key infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and has been involved in building the country’s capacity in various spheres. In the military realm, however, apart from some limited training to the Afghan Army and the police, and four Mi-25 helicopters, India has been reluctant to move forward with any degree of seriousness. As far back as 2013, the then Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, had given India a “wish-list” of military equipment which included 105mm artillery and medium-lift aircraft among others. That wish has now morphed into Mohib’s request for Indian troops. But India’s approach of ‘no military involvement’ remains consistent. It is something that many in the Indian foreign policy establishment hold dear.

For a government that believes in shedding the shibboleths of the past, perhaps there is still time to reinvigorate the idea of India as regional security provider. If Afghanistan becomes a haven for extremists and Pakistan-backed proxies become the ultimate arbiters there, India would have the most to lose. And its credibility as a power of any worth would be in tatters. It is time for Indian policymakers to start weighing the costs of inaction in Afghanistan.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: 18 years after 9/11: Why US troops are still stuck in Afghanistan

Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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