Even as America’s new president-elect, Donald J. Trump, works on creating his “dream team,” which in turn will work towards making “America great again,” understanding what foreign policy changes will take place under what is very likely to be an unorthodox presidency is currently a matter of conjecture at best.
In theory, Afghanistan is perhaps too important a relationship to hastily forego, notwithstanding the few palatial statements Trump has made about America’s traditional role as the world’s police, and the costs that the country incurs, both economic and human. In July, Trump challenged the very notion of NATO’s existence, suggesting that fellow NATO members reliant on American security blanket may have to pay to retain these services in the future. This sent many American allies not just in Europe, but across the world into a tizzy, leaving an open question on the security umbrella upon which so many states rely. For New Delhi, however, any further and sudden depletion in Western military influence would mean a forced escalation over India’s policies in Afghanistan, where it is critical that the Taliban is prevented from gaining any strong foothold over national politics. In fact, it is questionable whether India has the capacity and range to play a leading role in holding fort on foreign land.
Still, India has at least made the correct overtures over the past two years, taking the Indo-Afghan relationship from strength to strength, predominantly, of course, keeping Pakistan as the main adversary in mind. Over the past few months, New Delhi has heeded to some of Afghanistan’s military requirements, which now includes the delivery of four Mi-25 (export version of the Mi-24) gunship helicopters. Besides this, India over the past few years has provided small arms, ammunition, training to Afghan police forces and other such military institutions in the country. On the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, the Afghan Ambassador to India, Shaida Abdali, sat in on India’s official press conference on the summit, not only striking a strong pose on Kabul’s backing for India’s presence in the country but also, as Afghanistan did when it boycott the SAARC summit slated to take place in Islamabad, setting the precedent of supporting India after a host of cross-border strikes on the Indian armed forces in Jammu & Kashmir over the past few months that New Delhi has doubtlessly blamed Islamabad for.
But the questions and balances are now changing, and as everyone awaits Trump’s take on America’s role in Afghanistan, plans B, C and D are being prepared in a world where the new president set to take over the White House next month ends up undermining America’s own interests in the country, and by default, the region.
For New Delhi, an increased military hand in Afghanistan, while seemingly the obvious step, is not an easy decision to make. Over the years, India has amassed a tremendous store of goodwill amongst the Afghan people, including with various tribal factions in more precarious regions of the country such as Helmand province. This, despite India’s historical support to the now defunct Northern Alliance and its chief Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated allegedly by Al Qaeda in September 2001, 48 hours before the September 11 attacks, has largely been created as most Afghans see India as a country unlike the U.S., meaning a provider developmental projects, aid and economic and societal infrastructure, as opposed to weapons. While it is critical for New Delhi to maintain this reputation in Afghanistan, it may have to tread over the line and be militarily smart to Kabul’s needs and requirements, and for this, as I wrote in 2014 in this publication, it has a ready source of goods in Russia. In fact, the fourth Mi-25 gifted to Afghanistan by India was made flightworthy only after a tag-team effort by New Delhi and Moscow, with the former providing the airframe and latter the spares to make it operational.
However, there are other ideas at play as well. A new paper by GPPi (Berlin) and Carnegie India has recognized the possibility of such an outcome, and called for a larger and more robust India-European Union collaboration in order to pursue uninterrupted development and political stability in Afghanistan. Or, to keep it more straightforward, making sure the Taliban does not come back to Kabul despite the play of “good Taliban and bad Taliban,” a thought cycle India vehemently opposes. However, even as the idea is welcoming on paper, with both parties being true to the design of a democratic Afghanistan, there are various, basic areas of worry for an Indo-EU dialogue to reach a level where military cooperation can be discussed.
Perhaps the most pertinent roadblock for the above idea to take shape is the fact that India and the EU as entities are not anywhere close to having a relationship where military alliances can seriously be discussed. For New Delhi, the EU is still an ambivalent presence, with its role not just in the global order but Europe itself still up for discussion. The India-EU dynamic is still very basic and anyway traditionally New Delhi has preferred bilateral engagements than multilateral ones, specifically on issues of foreign policy and security. However, a lot of groundwork has yet to be constructed between India and the European Union where both can reach a point of fruitful discussions on issues as challenging as Afghanistan. For the moment, and in the near future, perhaps it will be more constructive for India to try and influence the Trump administration’s views on Afghanistan than to create a base, and then construct a dialogue to narrow the significant diplomatic and communication gaps with Brussels. In Berlin, many politicians and diplomats have in fact corroborated the underlying confusion that one often hears from New Delhi when it comes to the relationship with the EU, which is to decide what issues to raise with Brussels, and what to raise bilaterally with relevant EU members. More than often, India has chosen the bilateral route rather than approaching the EU.
The India-EU dynamic is still an underperforming one, and requires long, detailed and time-consuming action to plug the many existing gaps. This includes getting away from scandals such as the AugustaWestland bribery case or what was the MT Enrica Lexie case in which Italian marines shot dead two Indian fishermen, and Rome roped in the full backing of Brussels over its insistence that the marines be tried in international courts, and not under the Indian judicial system, even as New Delhi maintained that the incident took place in Indian waters.
If the U.S. scales back its presence significantly in Afghanistan under Trump, the vacuum that will be created may require a quick fix instead of going for a time-heavy, consensus-driven activity between two distant parties. For the long run, though, it simply makes good sense in general for India and the EU to partake in dialogue over Afghanistan, specifically on increasing developmental projects and economic aid. For now, though, under current geopolitical alignments, the only avenue available for India to take in Afghanistan in the context of any Western withdrawal will be Moscow, and that may not be good news for NATO or the European Union.
Kabir Taneja is a journalist and researcher specializing in foreign affairs, energy security and defence.