In his State of the Union address in January, US President Barack Obama announced that American troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan by July. This followed an earlier announcement by NATO in November 2010 that it intended to hand over responsibility for security for the whole of Afghanistan to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
Yet the reality is that many parts of Afghanistan are seeing a resurgence of the Taliban, which is eyeing an early exit of Western troops while doing everything it can to lower the morale of the fledgling Afghan security forces.
India has one of the biggest stakes in how all this plays out over the coming years. As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to travel to Kabul, it’s worth reminding ourselves of why.
First and foremost, Afghanistan is critical for India’s national security interests. India’s primary goal in Afghanistan is to ensure that the country doesn’t emerge as a hotbed for the anti-India Taliban and other extremist groups. India is particularly wary of anti-India elements offering support to militants in Jammu and Kashmir, while the memory of the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999 is also still fresh in many people’s minds.
Second, Afghanistan serves as a gateway to the oil and natural gas-rich Central Asian region. India’s post-liberalisation economy has boomed, and as a consequence the country is thirsty for oil and natural gas. The Central Asian countries are a good option for India because of their geographical proximity. Just last month, Singh concluded a successful trip to Kazakhstan, and India has also invested in the development of the Chabahar port in Iran, which will allow India to bypass Pakistan while reaching out to Central Asia. (Interestingly Chabahar is only around 70 kilometres west of Pakistan’s port of Gwadar, which has been built with Chinese assistance).
Another reason India feels bound to Afghanistan is the significant level of reconstruction assistance Delhi has offered. India has already pledged assistance worth $1.3 billion, and is the sixth-largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan. It has constructed a more than 200-kilometre road from Zaranj to Delaram in Afghanistan, which will eventually connect with the Iranian port city of Chabahar. Two other major projects in Afghanistan—the construction of the Afghan parliament building in Kabul and the Salma Dam power project in Herat Province—are also being undertaken by India.
With such intense engagement, the planned exit of Western forces from Afghanistan has left Indian policymakers in a quandary. So, what are its options?
For a start, India must reach out to moderate elements in the Taliban and begin back channel talks with them before it is too late. India has consistently refused to distinguish between ‘good’ Taliban and ‘bad’ Taliban, but this mindset will get India nowhere (a point underscored at the London conference on Afghanistan in January 2010).
Second, India must collaborate with countries including Iran and Russia, which along with India have previously propped up the Northern Alliance. If India is to tackle a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, the now-defunct Northern Alliance will have to be revived. Even the Central Asian countries could be a part of such an initiative because of their opposition to the Taliban.
Another thing Indian policymakers should consider, is making use of the Afghan Diaspora in India. Many Afghans have been in India since prior to the Taliban’s period of rule, and India could take advantage of this strategic asset—there’s already a great deal of goodwill toward India and Indians in Afghanistan.
And, if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates to the point where it seems possible the entire country could again be taken over by the Taliban, India will have to be prepared to get involved militarily, in collaboration with Western countries. Until now, India has steadfastly refused to contribute militarily to Afghanistan, but it’s not unthinkable that the time may come when it has to rethink these objections.
The fact is that the withdrawal of Western forces is unlikely to bring an end to the spiral of violence in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it could well see a fresh struggle for supremacy among Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional powers. If it is to respond to any shifts, India will need to keep its options open and be prepared to engage in some unconventional thinking.
Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge in 2009. The views expressed are his own.