NEW DELHI – US President Barack Obama’s announcement of the start of American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and his administration’s increasing emphasis on reconciliation with the Taliban, have been studied attentively in one capital that has a large stake in the outcome – New Delhi.
India has no troops in Afghanistan, but it has invested roughly $1.5 billion to help reconstruct the country, with projects ranging from maternity hospitals to Kabul’s electricity grid. During his visit to Afghanistan in May, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced additional assistance of $500 million, over and above India’s existing commitments. This is by far India’s largest foreign-aid program, because Afghanistan – separated from India only by its hostile neighbor Pakistan – remains a country of vital strategic significance for India.
So, what does the looming US withdrawal mean for India’s role in Afghanistan? India has largely focused its aid efforts on building institutional capacity and developing human resources, so that Afghans can stand on their own feet before long. One ongoing project is the construction of a new parliament building in Kabul, a symbol of India’s desire to see representative institutions flourish. But it is no secret that India does not believe that Afghanistan is ready to dispense with the foreign forces that have been shoring up domestic peace.
India is not a member of the United States-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a largely NATO operation to which it was not invited to contribute, given Pakistani sensitivities about a possible Indian military presence in Afghanistan. But India regards the foreign military presence as indispensable to promoting political stability and economic reconstruction. Without the security provided by a serious troop presence, the kind of development projects in which India is engaged would become impossible.
No one in India’s government really expects US forces to disappear overnight from Afghanistan, despite the elimination of Osama bin Laden. The plan is to withdraw only 10,000 US troops by year’s end. Later, when winter sets in (traditionally the season when military activity declines), America will withdraw another 5,000. But Obama says that he intends to bring the 30,000 “surge” troops back home by next summer, after the Afghan snows melt and the US election season starts heating up. Even if he does (a decision that surely will have to take into account realities on the ground), 68,000 US troops would remain – twice the number deployed in Afghanistan when he became President.
By 2014, the US intends to reduce its operational presence to a role largely confined to supporting Afghan forces. Even that does not imply full withdrawal. Bases are being fortified to house US forces beyond that date. Several NATO allies hope to be home by then, but a residual ISAF seems very likely. After all, the rationale for the original US intervention was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for the next Bin Laden. Indications are that the US will maintain about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, even in the most modest scenario.
Indians have every reason to be relieved. An Afghanistan without ISAF will be prey to the machinations of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which created, trained, financed, and directed the Afghan Taliban in the 1990’s. This would be a proven security threat to India: the Taliban regime of the day, functioning as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ISI, was complicit in the hijacking of an Indian airliner in 1999. That incident resulted in the release (in Kandahar) of three diehard Pakistani terrorists from Indian custody, one of whom then kidnapped and killed the American reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
As a result, America’s interest in reconciliation with the Taliban is viewed with concern in India. After long rejecting this approach (on the reasonable grounds that there can be no such thing as a good terrorist), India has come around to accepting dialogue with those Taliban elements that are prepared to renounce violence.
Obama speaks of dealing with Taliban members who agree to break with Al Qaeda and abide by the Afghan Constitution. But India is wary of those who, under Pakistani tutelage, might pretend to be reborn constitutionalists, but seize the first opportunity after a US withdrawal to devour the regime that compromises with them.
This is why India stresses the importance of improving the Afghan government’s capacity to fight and overcome terrorism. Without this capacity, the government will again be vulnerable to an extremist takeover. The role of Pakistan – whose over-ambitious military has made no secret of its desire to control the government in Kabul in order to gain “strategic depth” – remains of serious concern, particularly given China’s recent progress in making Pakistan its own zone of “strategic depth,” with access from the Karakoram Mountains to the Arabian Sea.
India shares America’s commitment to what Obama described last December as the “long-term security and development of the Afghan people.” But, for India, any process of reconciliation should be Afghan-led, inclusive, and transparent. India fully supports the “red lines” affirming Afghan leadership and ownership of the negotiating process laid down by President Hamid Karzai’s government in its London and Kabul communiqués, and believes that his government should not be forced to cross them.
The bottom line for India remains the Afghan people’s right to decide their own destiny. It views the international community’s role as being to help Afghans accomplish that. And it doesn’t believe that Afghanistan is ready for the world to give up on it yet.