U.S. President Donald J. Trump will embark on his maiden visit to India in coming weeks. Beyond mending the economic partnership through a possible signing of a trade deal which has been in pipeline for some months, the visit has larger geopolitical ramifications for both countries.
The most significant of them all is Afghanistan. Under Trump, we have witnessed a renewed attempt to bring the Taliban to the table for talks. His envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban with a hope to end the 18 year deadlock in Afghanistan and reportedly Trump was even ready to host a Taliban delegation in Diego Garcia last year.
Right from his campaigning days, Trump has been a strong critic of the American military presence in Afghanistan and has questioned the dividends of pursuing such a policy. Surprisingly America’s desire to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan is not new. It was an important agenda item of the Obama administration as well. The problem however with Obama’s policy was that he had not thought of an alternative that would guarantee peace and security on ground once American troops leave.
For Trump, though he does not care much what happens to Afghanistan once the Americans leave, he still insists that India might assume a more central role in Afghan affairs even to the extent of replacing the United States as a net security provider in the war-torn country.
In 2017, while announcing his new South Asia strategy, he said that “India makes billions of dollars in trade in the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan.” This was a major shift from the policies of Trump’s predecessors who hesitated to include India in Afghan affairs for the fear of antagonizing Pakistan. Theoretically, this demand of boots on ground should sit well with Modi’s vision for India becoming a ‘leading power.’ This would also be in line with India’s traditional stance where it resists outside interference in Indian neighborhood and sees the region as India’s backyard.
Yet the response from New Delhi has been lukewarm.
Largely, India has limited its role to providing economic assistance to Afghanistan (amount to approximately $3 billion over the years) even as there have been growing voices both in India and outside that India assumes a more primary role in Afghanistan.
Last month, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib was in India where he reportedly asked New Delhi to consider deploying Indian troops in Afghanistan in a peacekeeping role. Still, India chooses to sit on the fence when it comes to influencing politics in Afghanistan.
But New Delhi felt the prick in 2018 when the United States announced talks with Taliban, which apparently prioritized an American troop withdrawal over political stability in Kabul. The negotiations have been assisted by Islamabad and do not include the current Kabul government, which represents India’s best bet in Afghanistan. In this way, the talks relegated Indian priorities to the margins.
In such a scenario, if the United States decides to withdraw as of today, the Indians would have no option but to pack their bags simultaneously. It would then be a déjà vu from 1996 when Taliban took over the reins in Kabul and India had to lock down its embassy. Can India afford that considering how much it has invested in Kabul diplomatically over the years? The answer is: certainly not.
However, there still exists a fair amount of hesitancy in India when it comes to directly intervening in Afghanistan. This hesitation can be traced back to India’s failed military intervention in Sri Lanka when the Indian Peacekeeping Force had ultimately to pull back in 1990. Ever since, India has shied away from sending its forces outside its borders, fearing a debacle.
This hesitation might suffice for a ‘middle power,’ which India was in the past. But the great power ascendency that India aspires today requires it to defend its interests both at home and abroad. Should India remain aloof from the developments in Afghanistan or its neighborhood, its image as a net security provider would erode.
After all, why would the Kabul government or other supporters of India in the region trust New Delhi if it fails to defend them at the moment of reckoning?
Secondly, pursuing a policy of quiescence will eventually lead to scrambling for options in time of crises. So when the Afghan peace process took off in 2018 without India on board, the Modi government panicked and chose to send a “non-official” Indian delegation to talks in Moscow, which were attended by the Taliban. This was a radical departure from the stated Indian policy on Afghanistan that does not approve courting the Taliban per se.
While doing no good for India, the sending of delegation instead sent mixed signals to India sympathizers in Kabul. Obviously, it doesn’t imply that New Delhi cannot or should not talk with the Taliban, but that such a decision should not be a reaction to the circumstances, but a well-devised strategy that may be developed in concurrence with the Kabul government beforehand. Confusion and incoherence will not only inhibit policy making at home, but will keep others guessing as well.
As Trump and Modi sit together, future of Afghanistan should be India’s top priority in discussions. Considering Trump’s love for cutting out deals and that one such in Afghanistan will benefit him in the presidential election, it is likely that he will approve of any plan presented to him by Khalilzad even if it sidelines Indian interests.
For Modi to dissuade the United States from doing so, he will need to present Trump with an alternate plan—a plan that not necessarily commits Indian boots on the ground, but guarantees a more robust Indian involvement in Afghanistan that would be assuring enough to Trump that he could sell it to his electorate later this year.
In the end, if India is unable or unwilling to depart from its policy of hanging back while aspiring to become a leading power, Afghanistan may come to symbolize India’s incapacity to leave its own past behind.
Minaam Shah is a writer based in Kashmir and editor of the Asian Peace Review. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets at @minaamshah.