The Pulse

India’s Cautious Engagement Is Costly for Afghanistan and the Region

India’s reluctance to provide military aid is endangering Afghanistan and encouraging Pakistan’s bad behavior.

India’s Cautious Engagement Is Costly for Afghanistan and the Region
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

Since 2001, India has been actively engaged and contributing to various development projects in Afghanistan. So far India has provided $2 billion in economic aid and has pledged another $1 billion over the next few years for the country. These Indian contributions and constructive engagement brought Kabul and New Delhi close enough to sign a strategic partnership agreement (SPA) in 2011 – making India the first strategic partner of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Although India had agreed in the SPA to assist “in the training, equipping, and capacity building programs for Afghan National Security Forces,” and despite official requests from the Afghan government for such support, the emerging Asian giant has been largely reluctant to provide tangible military assistance to Afghanistan.

One theory is that India is limiting its engagement to the economic realm to avoid backlash from Pakistan. If so, India’s cautious strategy of refraining from giving military support to Afghanistan has not played well: Pakistan, despite India’s caution, has been infuriated, and as a result Afghanistan is bleeding. Although not the only factor, Indian engagement – though chiefly economic – is one of the main reasons behind Pakistani support for the Taliban and other terrorist groups fighting in Afghanistan, and Islamabad is not denying it.

Pakistani former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, led the country from 1999 to 2008 – a crucial period of Pakistani history marked by U.S. military intervention in the neighboring Afghanistan, overthrow of the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime in Kabul, and the resurgence of the Taliban under the auspices of Pakistan in Afghanistan. Musharraf has since blatantly said that “India is trying to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan,” and “we would like to prevent that.”

Though Pakistan’s claims about India in Afghanistan are “overestimated,” in the words of U.S. special envoy Richard Olson, and largely unfounded, the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments use “militant proxies” to counter their delusion of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Though the use of such a policy was long disputed, it has now been publicly acknowledged by its orchestrator, Gen. Musharraf, who said, “Pakistan had its own proxies … I do admit this … It is not in favor of Afghanistan.” Even top American intelligence officials have come to the conclusion that Pakistani support for the Taliban and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan are mainly influenced by their “desire to counter India’s” influence in Afghanistan.

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Furthermore, after high profile attacks and or increased militant activities in Pakistan – such as the recent wave of attacks – the Pakistani military not only blames Afghanistan for allowing India to use Afghan soil to orchestrate such attacks against Pakistan, but also starts pounding the Afghan border with artillery and at times, shuts border crossings and transit routes between the two countries. Pakistan is determined to make the landlocked Afghanistan pay a very heavy price for its normal relationship with India.

Clearly Indian cautiousness in Afghanistan has not won over Pakistan — nor has it avoided the looming threat of Pakistani-based terrorist groups’ attacks on its homeland and interests abroad. Indian diplomatic missions, as well as its officials, engineers, and even aid workers have been repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan. Add those incidents to the 2008 deadly Mumbai attacks and recent cross border ambushes on Indian military bases and installations, and there are clear indications of the failure of India’s low-profile strategy in Afghanistan.

It is quite clear that Pakistan is obsessed with its aggressive “strategic depth” foreign policy objective in Afghanistan and, therefore, very keen to frame any kind of Indian engagement in Afghanistan, no matter how cautious, as a threat. As such, in its current range and scope, India’s restrained contributions are inadvertently hurting Afghanistan and the region.

Although India has built a monumental Afghan Parliament, funded construction of the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, and made possible the establishment of the Afghan National Agriculture Sciences & Technology University – to name just some of the highly visible development projects sponsored by India – none of these contributions would hinder the Taliban’s advances, save innocent Afghans’ lives, or prevent cross-border Pakistani shelling. Yet all of them are irritants that inflame deadly Pakistani reactions in Afghanistan and prolong the Afghan conflict.

The only viable solution to the near-daily terror onslaught is increased military cooperation and robust Indian military assistance to make the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) strong. This would not only prevent terrorists from gaining a permanent foothold in Afghanistan and help regional stability, but also convince Pakistan that it cannot accomplish its strategic objectives (i.e., preventing any India-Afghanistan cooperation) through fear-mongering terror proxies. There is no reason why India cannot deliver on the promises made in the SPA document. If not now, then when; and if not India, then who?

The free ride provided by the massive U.S.-led international security force is no longer there. That protective shield has shrunk down to less than one-tenth of its previous size, and its role has changed from combat to advising and training, leaving the highly under-equipped Afghan security forces mainly on their own in the battlefield.

Meanwhile, a lack of military support form other regional powers such as Russia and China cannot be the reason for India’s hesitance. Threats emanating from terrorist groups enjoying safe havens in Pakistan are directed toward both India and Afghanistan. In the words of Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Manpreet Vohra, the two countries “have mutual enemies… [who] seek to disrupt relations.”

Those who slightly twist the Pakistani retaliation argument and claim that Indian military support to Afghan security forces will ignite a civil war and/or entangle India in the Afghan war theater forget the facts. Afghanistan is already fighting global terrorism and the local Taliban movement; India will be the biggest looser if terror prevails in Afghanistan. Other powers in the region — Russia, China, and even the United States — “encourage” increased Indian military assistance to Afghanistan.

And lastly, providing military hardware to Afghan security forces would be provocative to Pakistan, as is everything India does with regards to Afghanistan. But such steps are nowhere close to the level of sanctioning and vehemently publicizing Indian military operations, such as the “surgical strike” last fall on Pakistani soil to eliminate terrorist elements and targets.

Realizing these facts, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government took the initial but highly important first step and provided four attack helicopters to Afghan security forces recently. However, four helicopters is not enough aid for an army that has been fighting militancy and terrorism in almost half of the country’s 34 provinces. India must do more and act swiftly on the Afghan military “wish list.” Only increased India-Afghanistan security and defense cooperation can make Pakistan think twice and guarantee peace in the region.

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Ghulam Farooq Mujaddidi writes about contemporary Afghan and regional security issues, foreign relations of Afghanistan, and socio-political developments in the country. He is a Fulbright scholar, with MA in Political Science from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and currently serves as the President of the American University of Afghanistan Alumni Association.