India’s Afghan Policy: Not Rebuff, But A Refrain from Reflexive Response
Sushant Sareen

In recent weeks, there has been some puzzlement over India’s somewhat less than enthusiastic response to Afghan overtures for re-engaging and revitalizing the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed between the two countries in 2011. At a time when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s misplaced faith, or if you will Great Gamble, on Pakistan’s bonafides has started to unravel, many analysts imagined that India would be more than willing to step into the breach. But it appears that New Delhi is going to refrain from a reflexive response that everyone expected of it and will tread with extreme caution into what is clearly a very fluid, even treacherous, situation. In other words, anyone who calculated, as it seems Ashraf Ghani did, that he could afford to ignore India to flirt with Pakistan because India would in any case be ready to jump in the moment things between Afghanistan and Pakistan went awry, or that India would be not be averse to being used as a bargaining chip with Pakistan, had just not read the Indian policy correctly.

Pakistan has always been a secondary factor in India’s Afghanistan policy. India’s primary interest is that Afghanistan doesn’t descend into chaos because whenever that has happened, its reverberations, and worse, have been felt in India. A stable, secure and friendly Afghanistan has been one of the abiding objectives of Indian foreign policy. That a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan won’t become an epicenter or even a staging ground for anti-Indian activity is a natural by-product of this policy. In order to attain this objective, India has been ever ready to assist Afghanistan in whatever has been in its capacity and capability. As long as the ISAF and US forces were helping to secure the post-Taliban fledgling Afghan state, India didn’t need to get very involved in the security domain and concentrated on assisting Afghanistan through capacity-building, infrastructure development and other such projects. To be sure, there was a security relationship between Afghanistan and India, but it was nowhere close to anything resembling an alliance.

Although President Hamid Karzai was very keen on India’s assistance in ‘training, equipping and capacity building programmes for the Afghan National Security Forces”, the Manmohan Singh government was lukewarm to the idea of getting too deeply involved in a security relationship beyond the normal training, intelligence sharing and such like activities. The then government’s reluctance to provide weapons to Afghanistan was partly on account of Pakistani sensitivities (despite the fact that the Pakistanis never appreciated the gesture, much less reciprocate) and partly for reasons of lethargy (no one ever wanted to take any decision in that government) and partly for reasons of logistical difficulties (not just the transportation of surplus equipment but even more sourcing other equipment from suppliers who would jack up the prices because instead of the Afghan government, India was picking the tab). After the Modi government came to power, there was greater receptiveness to fulfilling the requirements of the Afghan government. India’s National Security Advisor visited Kabul and offered to fulfil the Afghan military equipment wish-list. But by then a new government led by Ashraf Ghani had taken over in Kabul and it had completely altered its foreign, security and even strategic priorities.

Although India was convinced that Ashraf Ghani was shooting himself in the foot by going out of the way to appease Pakistan in the hope that Pakistan will play ball and help in the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, there was really no purchase for India in trying to convince him of his monumental folly. Ashraf Ghani was so eager to get on the right side of Pakistan that he did not even pretend to keep any sort of a balance between India and Pakistan. While India was a little taken aback by Ashraf Ghani’s policy, it wasn’t overly disturbed. The way India rationalized the situation, it would serve India’s interests if instead of being a source of instability Pakistan became a force of stability in the region. Even though India had serious doubts about Pakistan turning a new page, it was ready to wait and watch if Ashraf Ghani fared any better than his predecessor in his outreach to Pakistan. As far as India was concerned, at the strategic level, the danger in Afghanistan was the ascendancy of the forces of darkness epitomized by the Taliban. If the Taliban started to call the shots in Kabul, whether as part of a power sharing arrangement or even as the new rulers of Afghanistan, the virus of Islamic radicalism and Islamist triumphalism would wreak havoc in the entire region. Of course, if Pakistan was going to actually play a role in preventing this from happening – this was the lemon that Pakistan had sold to the International Community by creating a perception that it was no longer interested in seeing the Taliban hold sway in Afghanistan – India would get achieve its strategic objective without having invested too much.

The mistake that Ashraf Ghani made was that he risked everything in his outreach to Pakistan. Ideally he should have calibrated his wooing of Pakistan by reaching out to them but at the same time keeping his domestic detractors on board and not alienating some of his external partners. But the way Ashraf Ghani saw it, he didn’t have the luxury of time and space to have a graded approach to Pakistan. He therefore decided to go all in to get the Pakistanis on board. The result was that it caused tremendous disquiet inside Afghanistan, and created a sense of discomfiture outside Afghanistan. Even as opposition to Ashraf Ghani was mounting internally and Afghanistan’s external partners like India had started to keep a distance from him, he got a rude awakening with the massive spike in terror attacks by Taliban elements closely allied with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. And when he tried to look back for support, there was really no one keeping his back.

Under these circumstances, for anyone to expect India to blindly and unthinkingly re-engage Ashraf Ghani led Afghan government on the Strategic Partnership Agreement is to really expect the moon. Until the Murree meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Ashraf Ghani had really very little use for India. The collapse of the Murree process, following the announcement of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar’s death and the subsequent escalation in Taliban terror attacks, caught Ashraf Ghani in a bind – he couldn’t continue with the Pakistan track without the Pakistani’s giving in to his demands to sever ties with the Taliban, the opposition to him within Afghanistan has started to crystallize and people have started to hedge their bets and form new alliances to face the growing Taliban threat, and countries like India are not quite ready to jump in just yet to provide any succor to him because they aren’t sure he won’t leave them in a lurch once again if things take a turn in a different direction. Simply put, India had predicted this trajectory of events and India isn’t going to go in just because Ashraf Ghani, in his desperation, has now started looking at India once again.

This doesn’t mean that India has abandoned Afghanistan. Far from it, India continues to have vital stakes in the stability and security of Afghanistan and is willing to play whatever role it can keeping in view its geographical, financial and military limitations. But before India takes any sort of initiative, it would like to weigh its option. Doubtful as it remains of Pakistan’s intentions, India would certainly not be averse to Pakistan playing some sort of a constructive role in Afghanistan. Of course, it would be unacceptable, not just to India but also to the Afghans and much of the international community, if Pakistan blithely turns a blind eye to wanton massacre of Afghan citizens and considers it necessary collateral damage only so that their favorite Mullah Mansour (the wannabe Taliban chief) and terrorists like Sirajuddin Haqqani (the newly appointed military chief of the Taliban) can consolidate themselves in the post-Mullah Omar Taliban setup. This playing favorites and getting them into pivotal positions has for decades been the biggest bane of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. In fact, Pakistan’s perfidious proclivity to play one Afghan against the other until they all turn against Pakistan has been the biggest spoiler of every peace and reconciliation move in Afghanistan. If it were sensible, Pakistan should have learnt that this is a strategy that doesn’t pay, especially not in Afghanistan. But it doesn’t seem as though Pakistan has learnt anything.

Therefore, the odds are heavily loaded against Pakistan cleaning up its act in Afghanistan. It will probably once again try to beguile Ashraf Ghani with palpable insincerity, but even Ashraf Ghani is unlikely to go all in again like he did in the past one year. This means he will need both economic and military assistance from friendly countries and unless this is forthcoming it will be curtains for the post-9/11 Afghan state. While India is in no position to pick up the entire tab for keeping the Afghan state functional, it should be ready to contribute its share. Perhaps India can unveil a generous five year program of assistance which has both a civilian development component as well as a military assistance component. The latter can include all the obligations India took upon itself in the SPA. Alongside, India can use its diplomatic outreach to get other Western countries to also commit themselves to assisting the Afghan state to both survive and fight. But before any of this can happen, Ashraf Ghani must start taking a clearer stand on where he stands and how he intends to forge national unity to face the monumental challenges and threats that confront his nation.

Published Date: 9th September 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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