The South Asia Channel

India’s Strategic Calculus in Afghanistan

India’s Strategic Calculus in Afghanistan

In February 2009 the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi wrote that, "on Afghanistan, the Indians have been among President [Hamid] Karzai’s most stalwart supporters." That was only a few months after the assault on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists, and not long on from a devastating bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which the CIA deemed to have been planned by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The war was drifting, and India was getting edgy.

But the embassy’s cable also noted, in a throwaway line, that when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had requested Indian support for Afghan security forces, the Indians "demurred" because they were "mindful of Pakistani sensitivities." Several years on, however, they demur no longer.

This week, Karzai — on his second trip to Delhi this year — reached a "strategic partnership" with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. What caught the headlines was the Indian commitment to "training, equipping and capacity building programs for Afghan National Security Forces." This is expected to focus on specialist training of high-ranking Afghan police officers, to begin within months on Indian soil.  

This should be understood in context. For the past several years, India has trained around 200 Afghan military officers in India, at institutions such as the National Defense Academy. Several months ago, India agreed to train 100 Afghan cadets at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, the first batch of which have already started. The security assistance outlined in Delhi is, therefore, hardly path-breaking. 

It is true that India’s focus has been on bottom-up development and a few high-visibility infrastructure projects, such as a 250-mile power transmission line from Uzbekistan into Kabul. These kinds of efforts have won it enviable favorability ratings in the country, above those of the United States and even United Nations, in spite of its support for the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. But the prospect of greater security assistance for the struggling country has long lurked under the surface as a strategic goal of some bolder policymakers in India, the United States, and Afghanistan.

A few commentators, however, have exaggerated the shift. Simon Tisdall wrote in The Guardian of "India’s decision to underwrite and, in effect, guarantee Hamid Karzai’s feeble Afghan government." This misunderstands Indian perceptions and calculations.

Since the last Afghan elections, when India flirted with the idea of backing Karzai’s opponent Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, it’s been under no illusions as to the corruption and fragility of the government in Kabul. And no one in Delhi thinks that they can succeed where 130,000 NATO troops have failed.

So what is the agreement’s purpose?

The enhanced security assistance had been on the table since February. When Manmohan Singh visited Kabul in May, delivering a historic address to Afghanistan’s parliament, the agreement was on the cusp of being signed. But the Afghans pulled out, jittery that it might disrupt relations with Pakistan. Afghanistan’s domestic politics have since, however, been convulsed.

The assassination of the former Afghan President and High Peace Council head Burhanuddin Rabbani, blamed by Afghanistan’s interior minister on the ISI, was a key development. His killing strengthened Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan hardliners like Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghan intelligence sacked by Karzai last year. Saleh and many other northerners were already growing disillusioned with Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban.

As Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network observes, many Afghans are furious that their "government has remained far too silent for their liking on the recently restarted shelling of Afghan territory by Pakistani border forces." The killing of Rabbani — a Tajik warlord who had been an integral part of the former Northern Alliance — seemed to vindicate their uncompromising stance toward Pakistan.

Karzai reacted by appearing to give up on talks with the Afghan Taliban, arguing that he may as well talk to their backers in Pakistan. And, as a corollary to this, his officials told India that Karzai was ready to put pen to paper on the earlier agreement. During the Afghan civil war of the 1990s India had funded and armed many of the Northern Alliance forces — including Rabbani and legendary anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud — whose former aides and colleagues are now putting pressure on Karzai. Therefore, reaching out to India was about more than balancing against a relentlessly hostile Pakistan — it was also a safety valve for domestic pressure.

The heightened tensions between Islamabad and Washington have also been important to India’s calculations. One might assume that India would be wallowing in schadenfreude after the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, followed by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen’s dramatic lashing out at the ISI’s support for the Haqqani network.

Perhaps, but the growing U.S. disillusionment with Pakistan has also reinforced Indian fears of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the possible consequences for Afghan stability and, by extension, Indian security. These concerns are well grounded. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the Mumbai attacks of 2008, is present in multiple Afghan provinces and cooperates with the Haqqanis. Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), both potent anti-Indian groups, have trained on Afghan soil. If the Afghan government cedes southern and eastern territory in the years to come, India’s major concern is that terrorists will once more exploit these sanctuaries to train, plot, and evade counterterrorism efforts.

And so, India has been quietly reviving its field hospital at Farkhor in Tajkistan, only a mile or so from the Afghan border. It was there that wounded Northern Alliance members were treated during the 1990s, including the dying Tajik commander Massoud. India has also reportedly spent $70 million on developing the Tajik airbase at Ayni. In a similar vein, the strategic partnership with Afghanistan cleverly opens up new opportunities for India to build up links with influential Afghan line ministries, bypassing the increasingly isolated presidential palace. India must handle these relationships with care. It would be counterproductive if, in reaching out to disaffected northern Afghan factions, India simply encouraged them to reject all compromise. That would accelerate a movement towards civil war.

Is all this a cynical power grab by New Delhi? The lazy cliché of a perpetual Great Game actually belies the ways in which India’s stance has evolved over the years. India undoubtedly has major strategic and commercial aspirations in Afghanistan, and its presence obviously improves its intelligence collection capabilities against Pakistan. So it’s naïve to pretend that India is interested in nothing more than projecting soft power. But a crucial development has been its softening on the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban.  India went from fiercely opposing a deal to reluctantly backing an Afghan-led process — while still holding back from high-profile military assistance.

But events in recent weeks and months have once more called into question whether Pakistan’s military establishment has realistic and reasonable expectations for Afghanistan. The concessions to Pakistan proposed by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute — such as Afghanistan seeking Pakistani approval before appointing governors in eastern provinces, and asking India to shut down its consulates there — would reduce Kabul to being a vassal of its neighbor. In Delhi, as in Moscow and Tehran, that is deeply objectionable. India may well think: If Pakistani belligerence is a constant, why should Indian security policy be paralyzed by fear of contrived provocations, at a time when Afghanistan looks more precarious than ever?

Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

NEXT: C. Christine Fair, Mapping U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Past, Present, and Future