Why India’s Afghan Strategy Proved Fledgling

Image source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra     9 August 2018

Afghanistan was a neighbor of undivided India and shared long historical, cultural and political contacts. While the emergence of Pakistan with its anti-Indian identity to the west of India complicated the bilateral relationship, India’s efforts at improving ties with Afghanistan fell short of Afghan expectations. India’s role very often ran contrary to the interests and expectations of the Pashtuns who constituted the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan.

Despite historical and cultural bonding, India never rendered clear and open support to Afghanistan over the demand of self-determination for Pashtun population spreading across the Af-Pak border area (Durand Line) to form Pashtunistan. Pashtunistan issue carried enormous strategic importance for the Pashtun population in Afghanistan. New Delhi failed to grasp the fact that the geopolitical interest underlying the Pashtunistan movement was to gain territory which had access to the sea. As all the trade routes to Afghanistan’s south lie through Pakistan’s territory thus access to the sea was considered important to find an alternative route to become less dependent on Pakistan. Independent Pashtunistan would have deprived Pakistan of its geographic advantage that placed it in a favorable position vis-a-vis India to enhance trade with and influence in Afghanistan. India maintained silence over the Pashtunistan issue in the international forums where the non-aligned Afghanistan needed its support on such a crucial issue. However, scholars point to some reasons driving India’s silence on the subject. It is s argued that once Gandhi breathed his last – the staunch supporter of Pashtunistan cause – other leaders of Indian national movement were not much enthusiastic about it. The issue was confused with the legality of the Durand Line which India had herself recognized till that time. Secondly, the newly born Indian government was too preoccupied with developments at home as also defining her role in international affairs. Thirdly, even though relations between India and Pakistan were strained, both had many common problems to solve which required a better relationship between the two. The Nehru-Liaqat pact was a step in that direction. Thus, India did not want to estrange Pakistan by supporting Afghanistan on the Pashtunistan issue. Fourthly, supporting Pashtunistan had an implication for Kashmir problem as both were issues on the question of self-determination. Fifthly, a part of Kashmir was included in the proposed Pashtunistan, which Indian leaders did not accept. For example, in the Lok Sabha, when a member drew the attention of the government towards the fact that Chitral had been included in the zone of Pashtunistan, India’s first Prime Minister Nehru declared that “the suzerainty of Kashmir continued over Chitral.”

Following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, while India made its displeasure clear over the Moscow’s muscular foreign policy threatening Afghan independence in the bilateral discussions, it either abstained or maintained silence in the multilateral body like the UN. This distanced it from the dominant international anti-Soviet front that was more interested in pushing the Soviets out rather than being inclined to provide an alternative to ensure a stable and independent Afghanistan. Pakistan, the principal member of the anti-Soviet front, was observed being extremely active in keeping India out of an important process of negotiations involving Afghanistan. New Delhi’s ambiguous stance following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan only helped drive a wedge between India and the Pashtun population. Pakistan, on the other hand, being a Cold War ally of the US took advantage of the Soviet intervention and received enormous arms and aid which in turn enabled Islamabad to establish a cadre of radical Islamists undergoing similar kind of training in Deobandi tradition with solid infrastructure and influence to promote and serve its interests from the Central Asian part of the former Soviet Union via Afghanistan to Kashmir. This went a long way in helping Pakistani interests during the Afghan civil war and America-led War on Terror.

During the Afghan civil war, India was denied a major role in Afghanistan because of its perceived pro-Soviet role during the Soviet occupation. India was increasingly seen as the pro-Najibullah regime. Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, a leader of the Islamic Interim Council, warned India against any intervening role when they were battling the government forces in Jalalabad, near Pakistan’s border in March 1989. Najibullah’s visit to New Delhi in August 1990 and the signing of an agreement on the Prevention of Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs corroborated such perception.
After the emergence of the Taliban, India took an anti-Taliban stance primarily because of the group’s alleged links with Pakistan through many scholars maintained that the Afghan Taliban imbibed Afghan nationalism and concentrated more on driving foreign forces out of Afghanistan than fostering insurgency in Kashmir. New Delhi perhaps believed that the group would be a significant threat to India’s influence in Afghanistan and thereby in Central Asia rather than its stakes in Kashmir. However, it was also believed that the rise of radical Islamism in Afghanistan would have negative repercussions on the insurgency in Kashmir given the nexus between radical Islamic groups. It is noteworthy that the Taliban government like all other previous governments had not taken any anti-India stance on the Kashmir issue. India ignored the fact that despite Pakistan’s role in propping up the Afghan Taliban, the group was believed to have indigenous roots and elicited support from many Pashtuns. New Delhi continued to render humanitarian and military support to the Northern Alliance even while the Taliban’s influence was rising exponentially. Indian government’s anti-Taliban position prohibited India from playing a meaningful role in Afghanistan in line with its energy-driven foreign policy.

For a fast developing country like India, energy is considered one of the most critical non-traditional security imperatives. According to an estimate by BP Energy Outlook, India’s energy consumption would outgrow that of all major economies of the world by 2035 with a growth rate of 4.2% every year. The Central Asian region is landlocked without direct access to sea routes propped up the importance of Afghanistan as a bridge to the region except for the countries which did not share a border with any of these states. However, the unfolding geopolitical dynamics following 9/11 pushed Afghanistan’s importance as a site for geopolitical jostle for influence for all regional and external powers alike. To India’s disadvantage, the disintegration of the USSR led to the emergence of six Islamic Central Asia states replacing a single friendly superpower. The fact that the Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim populated required an urgent response from India’s strategic and defence community to stem Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and Central Asia. India’s desire for a stable and democratic Afghanistan is also driven by the imperative to prevent Pakistan from taking advantage of common religion and spreading its sway through the promotion of radical Islamism. It is noteworthy that instead of adopting peaceful Sufi tradition and promoting South Asian continental ethos, Pakistan was seen promoting radical teachings in madrasas in the Saudi Arabic Deobandi tradition and stressing on its cultural links with the Central Asian region.

Capitalizing on the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965, while Pakistan allowed Afghanistan to transport some of its exports through Indo-Pakistan border, it flamboyantly declined to permit Indian goods to move into Afghanistan let alone Central Asia. The Pakistani drive to deny India overland route to Afghanistan and beyond points to its ambitions in developing its ties with Afghanistan and the Central Asian region at India’s expense.

India and Pakistan were interlocked in containing each other’s influence in Afghanistan. In this evolving circumstances, India sought a stable and democratic Afghanistan with an objective to reduce Pakistani influence and galvanized its efforts in an attempt to arrest the problems of the rise of radical Islamism and illegal trade of drugs which in India’s perception would also dampen insurgency in Kashmir.

The War on Terror created hope for India that the US-led effort would give a dent to terrorist infrastructures and radical Islamic ideology and would undercut Pakistan’s strategies in Afghanistan. However, the geopolitical realities that India lacked physical proximity to Afghanistan and lack of acquaintance between the US military and its Indian counterparts put India in a disadvantaged position during the War on Terror.

To India’s disadvantage, the US relied more on Pakistan to ensure military and non-military supplies for its Afghan operations given the poor communication facilities between Central Asia and Afghanistan and Russian strictures that Northern Distribution Network could only be used for supplies of non-lethal goods and its containment policy against Iran also prevented promotion of any alternative routes bypassing Pakistan which contributed to America’s greater dependence on Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan was considered vital to US reconciliation efforts under the Obama Administration not only due to its allegedly well-established links with the Afghan Taliban, the US was also apprehensive of Pakistan’s collusion in multiplying support to the radical group and Pakistan as a nuclear weapon state with military wing exercising sway over the civilian administration also added to the suspicion that nuclear weapons and other government arsenals might fall into the insurgent groups’ grip.

Even while Indo-US relations improved over the years, the US entered into a discourse of good Taliban versus bad Taliban palpably pandering to Pakistani interests. The differences in the US and Indian position on terrorism became apparent in their divergent perceptions while India considered War on Terror as a comprehensive and all-out effort to eliminate terrorism, the US sought to address those threats that undermined American efforts in Afghanistan rather than mitigate the cross-border terrorism concerns that bothered India. India’s proclivity towards the US also led the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who now serves as Prime Minister of Russia to redefine Russian relations with Pakistan by insisting on looking at Islamabad from a fresh perspective instead of earlier perception of Pakistan as part of the region’s problems. Russia sought Pakistani cooperation in dealing with the rising menace of Islamic extremism and drug-trafficking in Central Asia considered as its strategic backyard.

India, in a bid to get over its handicap to reach out to Afghanistan and Central Asia, collaborated with Iran in developing Chabahar port and constructing a 218 Km long Zaranj-Delaram road that would connect India with Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is noteworthy that port would reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on the port of Karachi which provides a single entry point into the world market.

Growing Indo-US bonhomie led New Delhi to oppose Iran’s nuclear programme and support sanctions against it, and India’s lack of interest in the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline issue was also driven by India’s cautious foreign policy not to affect Indo-US strategic relations. It is noteworthy that India backed three US – supported resolutions against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency and supported enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran.

India’s policy vacuum in engaging regional powers with stakes in Afghanistan led to New Delhi’s diplomatic marginalization. For instance, apart from India’s exclusion from two significant summits – first, the trilateral summit held in Islamabad for discussing future roles of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, and second, the security conference on Afghanistan hosted by Turkey, India was also not invited by Russia to discuss Afghan issue. It is pertinent that any Indian strategy to expand influence beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia has to depend on Russia.
While India has been over-dependent on America-led war efforts, it has also been excluded from the peace process in Afghanistan being kept out of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. As the recent developments indicate, the Trump Administration might be poised to end the 17-year long Afghan war to shelve it as a foreign policy victory and enhance its popularity to win future elections. India would witness the peace talks in askance and would be forced to invigorate regional diplomacy to win Russian and Iranian support to defend its stakes in Afghanistan. India has failed to take forward its partnership with Iran and develop Chabahar port as the Trump Administration rolled back the nuclear deal with Tehran and put up new sanctions. India’s strategic partnership with the US has tacitly forced New Delhi to drag its feet from forging an independent policy towards Iran which led to sluggish efforts at carving out an alternative route to Afghanistan even while India has been denied overland route to Afghanistan through Pakistan for long. While India took up a significant role in the reconstruction activities to project its soft power and earn goodwill of Afghans and is now the most significant regional donor committing more than $3 billion in critical areas of development like health, education, communications and building of political institutions, its low-profile security role which is limited to the area of training the Afghan army, supplying military equipments, for instance, Indian government supplied four Russian-made MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan and its willingness to train Afghan police force is unlikely to be effective not only to protect New Delhi’s stakes in Afghanistan; rise of Islamic fundamentalism would be a threat to India’s sovereignty in the long-run as well. Rising popularity should not be mistaken for enhanced security.

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