India’s sway in Afghanistan has, over the last four decades, been an alternating saga of triumph and despair, driven largely by tumultuous events beyond our control. But now, for no reason other than negligence, New Delhi’s star is fading over Kabul and the rising sun is Pakistan’s.
Nine years ago, on November 13, alongside a swarm of Tajik soldiers of the Northern Alliance, I entered a Kabul from where defeated Taliban stragglers were fleeing for their lives. From a no-go zone during the five nightmarish Taliban years, the Afghan capital was suddenly strongly pro-India. Having openly backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, New Delhi enjoyed close relations with Afghanistan’s new power centres, even with Hamid Karzai, a token Pashtun leader, who was grafted in to head a new government.
Over succeeding years, New Delhi burnished its image through the well-directed injection of some $1.3 billion of humanitarian aid. India’s soft power contrasted pleasingly with the heavily armed soldiers that emblemised the presence of many countries, and with Pakistan’s brazen support for radical anti-Karzai groups, especially the Taliban, the Haqqani network and old-favourite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. India looked good in the eyes of the Afghans and the world; and the lower price that we paid in lives gave us sustainability in Afghanistan, something that was denied many other countries by their concerned publics.
Ironically, the very success of this strategy may have engendered the complacency that prevented New Delhi from trimming its sails along with the changing strategic winds in Afghanistan. Washington’s decision to pull out troops from that country — whether in 2011 or 2014 will be a mere historical detail — has knocked the bottom out of India’s aid-led strategy, which rested on the foundation of security provided by the US-Nato combine. In the bedlam of a post-US Afghanistan, political presence and muscle will count for more than hearts and minds won.
From the presidential palace in Kabul, a beleaguered Hamid Karzai contemplates this reality: while Pakistan flaunts its proxies, India remains inexplicably unwilling to provide the overt political support that would reassure Karzai in confronting the looming threats. Unsurprisingly, the beleaguered Afghan president is dealing himself a playable hand by negotiating with the ISI-backed jehadi groups and cosying up with Islamabad.
Both these transgress the thickest of Indian red lines but India’s political leadership remains unconcerned, focusing apparently on domestic political survival rather than the impending death-by-neglect of a crucial foreign policy initiative. The prime minister has not visited Afghanistan in five years, even as Kabul fervently seeks an unambiguous gesture of Indian support. Meanwhile, numerous visits to India by senior Afghan ministers and officials remain unreciprocated by their Indian counterparts. And Indian industry, risk-averse and content with picking low-hanging fruit in sheltered areas, has proved unwilling to invest in that country.
If New Delhi is not to be marginalised once again in Kabul, it needs to address a key Afghan complaint that I heard repeatedly from senior Afghan officials during my return to that country this month: “India’s development aid, while deeply appreciated by the people of Afghanistan, cannot substitute for a political policy. As the pre-eminent power in South Asia, is India prepared to just build tube wells in Afghan villages while the country falls into Pakistan’s lap?”
Adds Fahim Dashty, the vocally anti-Pakistan editor of Kabul Weekly: “Every Afghan, whether Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara, regards India as a very good friend. But what is this friend prepared to do to prevent Afghanistan’s neighbours (meaning Pakistan and Iran!) from playing their games in our country? While those countries make their intentions clear, Kabul has no idea what New Delhi is prepared to do in Afghanistan.”
New Delhi must respond with clarity to these important questions from Kabul. India’s riposte to the setback in Afghanistan needs to begin with an overdue state visit by Manmohan Singh to Afghanistan, something that would be recognised in Kabul as an unambiguous gesture of continuing support. That country’s newly elected Parliament (the Wolesi Jirga) will soon hold its inaugural session; India’s prime minister should offer to visit at that time, which would almost certainly elicit an invitation to address the Jirga, given India’s democratic credentials and the fact that it is constructing Afghanistan’s new Parliament Building. That inauguration, a year or so from now, would provide the opportunity for another high-profile visit, perhaps by a ten-member team of India’s youngest Lok Sabha members.
Such political initiatives must go hand-in-hand with confidence-building with Pakistan, working towards allaying Islamabad’s suspicion about our motives. It is worth recalling that, in Colombo, in July 2008, before 26/11 blew away the India-Pak dialogue, the two foreign secretaries — Shiv Shankar Menon and Salman Bashir — sensibly discussed their respective roles in Afghanistan. Two months later, India’s National Security Advisor M K Narayanan briefed his visiting Pakistani counterpart Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, with a presentation on India’s developmental activities in Afghanistan. Durrani’s response: Pakistan would be prepared to join hands with India in developing Afghanistan’s schools and hospitals.
It will be, as the saying goes, a cold day in hell before India and Pakistan take such statements at face value. But if India is to remain a political player in Afghanistan, it must quickly move beyond humanitarian aid and seize the political initiative.