India Faces Afghanistan Choice
Image Credit: Worold Economic Forum

India Faces Afghanistan Choice


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.  

August 31, 2011 at 17:12

Even Japanese look like Chinese to some extent and so does the Koreans and Vietnamese.. Will you annex them ?

India is a mix of many ethnic elements from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to North East India. Unlike Some countries like China who in the name of assimilation kill the local cultures, India does’nt do that and it is reflected to a great extent in its “Unity in Diversity” model!

Please make mature statements dear Frank !

May 15, 2011 at 14:08

Good article. But Indian should have exercised the military option by now.Waiting for situation to deteriorate in Afghanistan before sending troops to stabilize is typical of reactive Indian thinking. Indian could easily have sent non combatant troops to Afghanistan and relived the NATO burden by training large portion of Afghan military and police forces.This will also help us to counter Pakistan efforts at bringing Afghanistan closer to China. NATO is facing severe resource crunch in the region and India can provide the necessary solution and drive home a good bargain. There are no free lunches in international politics after all.Troops in Afghanistan will also lay a snare at China’s western borders and help raise India’s standing in international community as it would signal that India would not allow its policies to be dictated by terrorists and terror sponsoring states. India should not forget that lashkar E Toiba’s increasing footprint in Afghanistan is also a security threat to India and its interests.The benefits of having a military presence in Afghanistan far outweighs the risks associated with it.

May 14, 2011 at 13:57

Frank, the sentence you premised your conclusion ‘Let Jammu and Kashmir go’ on clearly states that India is wary of the anti-India elements offering support to militants in Jammu and Kashmir, which certainly does not mean India is wary of Jammu and Kashmir itself or the people living therein for that matter. Every country in the world is wary of such elements. The US and Pakistan are no exceptions, that is why they have been fighting this war on terror for so many years. Just letting things go does not help, you should learn to take them on.

May 13, 2011 at 19:28

Dear Niel:
China is not wary of Tibetans. They look like Chinese. The only difference is the language. They are learning Chinese now. Very soon, they will join the population like many other tribes did in the last 5,000 years.

If India is PARTICULARLY wary about Jammu and Kashmir, then India should let Jammu and Kashmir go.

May 12, 2011 at 19:36

pakistan needs to let go of Baluchistan, Afghanistan can also have a sea access corridor Nation of Baluchistan.

Here is a new map of Af-pak..

FYI- Bangladesh was part of Pak till 70s , now its so much better off without it.

May 11, 2011 at 11:35

Frank is a Pakistani troll.

May 10, 2011 at 18:53

Dear Frank,
Why doesn’t China let Tibet go ?

May 10, 2011 at 18:31

@Frank: “Well, simple.Let Jammu and Kashmir go”

Wow you seem real mature for your age. Don’t worry kiddo when puberty kicks in you will have even more of these wet dreams.

May 10, 2011 at 15:06

“India is particularly wary of anti-India elements offering support to militants in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Well, simple.

Let Jammu and Kashmir go.

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