The South Asia Channel

What Indians Really Think About the Foreign Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan

  This article is part of a monthly series by the author that highlights possible post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan. India, so goes the conventional wisdom, is deeply concerned about the international troop drawdown in Afghanistan. According to this view — one often propounded by the government in New Delhi — Indians across the board fear ...

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

 

This article is part of a monthly series by the author that highlights possible post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan.

India, so goes the conventional wisdom, is deeply concerned about the international troop drawdown in Afghanistan.

According to this view — one often propounded by the government in New Delhi — Indians across the board fear that the withdrawal will strengthen the Taliban and other entities that pose threats to India and its interests.

But, as I learned in conversations with analysts, politicians, academics, journalists, and university students during a recent two-week, six-city trip across India, popular sentiment about the withdrawal is much more complex than what the conventional wisdom might suggest.

To be sure, many Indian analysts are quite worried. They articulated concerns to me that can generally be described as follows: First, militant groups in Afghanistan will exploit security vacuums and could plunge the country into a new era of unrest. Second, Pakistan’s military might encourage some of its strategic assets (such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network) to target Indians in Afghanistan while encouraging others (such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed) to wreak havoc in India. Third, India could be increasingly susceptible to terrorist attacks from an array of militant groups. The Indian media gave prominent coverage to the boast of an official of Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group — issued after the Nov. 2 suicide attack in the Pakistani border town of Wagah, for which Jamat ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility — that a hit on India is very much a possibility.

If Indian intelligence and media reports are to be believed, plans have already been hatched to attack India. When I was in the eastern metropolis of Kolkata, a terror alert was issued for the city’s port, alleging plans "by a Pakistan-based terror outfit" to blow up two Indian warships.

The fact that the terror alert was issued for Kolkata– and not New Delhi, Mumbai, or other western Indian cities-is significant. Indians are increasingly concerned that their eastern flank-far from the volatile western border with Pakistan-is becoming a new magnet for militants, with security officials contending that Bangladeshi and Pakistani jihadists have established a presence in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. Indian investigators have traced a bomb that accidentally detonated last month in a house in West Bengal to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a jihadist organization that has its origins in Bangladesh, which borders West Bengal to the east. Indian officials believe the group wants to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister.

Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser, has gone so far as to say that West Bengal "is sitting on a ticking time bomb." Some Indians told me that New Delhi may be exaggerating the militant threat in West Bengal as part of a power game with Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister and a political rival of the central government (some of her opponents, in fact, have accused her of tolerating the presence of extremists in her state). Nonetheless, because of developments in West Bengal, there was considerable concern from some of my Indian interlocutors that after the drawdown in Afghanistan, India could face militant threats that extend far beyond those on its western border. 

Additionally, many Indians with whom I spoke, particularly in northern India, worry about the direct and damaging consequences their country could suffer if the foreign troop drawdown in Afghanistan strengthens the Afghan drug trade. Heroin epidemics in Pakistan, Russia, and Iran –and the Afghanistan-based poppy that fuels them — are well known. Less publicized is the drug crisis ravaging the northern Indian state of Punjab — an agricultural breadbasket and once-prosperous region that has fallen on hard times, thanks to rapid urbanization. A senior politician in Patiala, a city in Punjab, told me that drugs are by far the state’s biggest challenge (according to one estimate, a staggering 75 percent of children in Punjab are addicts). There is much anxiety that the troop withdrawal will enable the Taliban drug trade to thrive even more, thereby worsening Punjab’s drug crisis and complicating India’s broader economic recovery efforts.

All this said, I came across numerous Indians who are delighted that the U.S. military is ending its combat role in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, I heard most of this sentiment in the states of Bihar and West Bengal — areas where communist and other far-left parties enjoy a strong legacy of influence. These parties have espoused deeply anti-American positions, and several of them — while serving as coalition partners in the last Indian government-nearly prevented Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from ratifying a civil nuclear accord with Washington.

After I gave a talk at a university in Patna, the rough-and-tumble capital of impoverished Bihar, a professor launched into a theatrical tirade about the United States having brought nothing but trouble to Afghanistan. Students in the audience cheered him on, repeatedly roaring: "We agree with you, sir!" I heard similar arguments made by the director of a think tank in Patna. Not surprisingly, my interlocutors with such views were not enthusiastic about the idea of close U.S.-India partnership. Furthermore, their views on U.S. policies more broadly were extremely critical; in addition to condemning Washington’s inattention to the suffering of Palestinians, they repeatedly asked me why the United States "created" the Islamic State terror group.

Still, the most incessant criticism I heard across India pertained to Washington’s insistence on pursuing good relations with Pakistan.

On November 4, the Pentagon issued a new report alleging that the Pakistani security establishment nurtures ties with proxies meant to weaken India in Afghanistan. Several Indians asked me if this would lead Washington to change its policy on Pakistan, and to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. My answer was a resounding "no." I argued that Washington, whether for better or for worse, regards Pakistan — with its young and growing population, its close relationships with key countries like China and Saudi Arabia, its important location in the Indian Ocean Region, and above all its nuclear weapons — as a nation rife with strategic importance, and as a nation that Washington wants to have on its side, warts and all, after the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, my Indian interlocutors were not supportive of this logic. They also did not believe me when I told them that despite the strategic importance Washington accords to Pakistan, the U.S. government in the coming months — particularly with the Republican Party now fully in control on Capitol Hill — likely won’t court Islamabad with as much gusto (and specifically with as much aid) as it has when American troops were fighting in Afghanistan. And they rejected my contention that America lacks leverage over Pakistan, thereby constraining Washington’s efforts to get Islamabad to more robustly crack down on militancy ("I don’t buy this argument that the U.S. is helpless," fumed an audience member at one of my talks).

The upshot here is that there are limits to the U.S.-India relationship post-2014. This is a partnership that can potentially make major progress in the coming months — mainly because the end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will create more opportunities and strategic space for Washington to engage New Delhi. And yet the takeaway from my trip was sobering: So long as the United States continues to court Pakistan, a truly strategic partnership with India (and the deep levels of trust inherent in such a partnership) may simply not be possible.

Ultimately, Indians appear more united in their unhappiness about America’s relationship with Pakistan than they do about its military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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