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Is Afghanistan Ready?

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.