By Irsa Shafique –
India’s Afghan gambit is fraught with repercussions beyond its calculus
India’s regional policy underwent a sea change soon after Nine Eleven. It revolved around an unstable Afghanistan that would emerge as a consequence of U.S. invasion and Taliban ouster from Kabul.
Its offer of air bases and Indian troops for ISAF reflected the extent to which India was prepared to go under this policy to win a place in Afghanistan. India also preyed on U.S. sensitivities viz-a-viz China secure in the knowledge that U.S. may not have an ally other than India to serve American national security paradigm against China since Pakistan remains its ‘all-weather’ ally.
India, therefore, decided to trade off U.S. sensitivities on China and Afghanistan with the latter’s commitment to safeguard Indian interests in Afghanistan.
Washington was pleased to see this major tilt in New Delhi and tagged it along by offering an exclusive nuclear deal that would entitle U.S. companies to sell nuclear reactors and technology to India.
By doing so, the U.S. benefited on two counts; one, enabling India to confront China to help U.S. achieve its national security interests and; two, pitch forking India in Afghanistan to have an ally to safeguard American interests well beyond 2014.
“By acting as a U.S. proxy against China in the longer run, India potentially, risks regional peace and in Afghanistan, it risks the wrath of the Taliban for being an American pawn in Afghanistan”
Hence, the U.S.-backed Indian call for a donors’ conference on Afghanistan next month in New Delhi and the launching of a trilateral platform on Afghanistan partnered by the U.S., India and Afghanistan.
However, by acting as an American proxy against China in the longer run, India potentially, risks regional peace and in Afghanistan, it risks the wrath of the Taliban for being an American pawn in Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban have recently warned India politely, to avoid indulging in Afghan affairs at American behest.
Looking back at the last eleven years, India has solidified its strategic presence in Afghanistan. It all started with the advent of U.S. military onslaught in Afghanistan. India availed the opportunity and with Afghan Northern Alliance’s allegiance planted its intelligence operatives in the garb of advisors in sensitive organs of the state machinery.
Whereas Americans focused on the war-on-terror in Afghanistan, India concentrated on ingress in Afghan civil and political infrastructure and as time went by, it virtually dominated the government’s ministries.
It created an Afghan intelligence set-up with likeminded officialdom that predominantly favoured Indians in all their adventures in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai thanked India on putting in place its intelligence organization that would later, in effect, support Indian and U.S. interests in Afghanistan rather than its own.
It will certainly add to violence in Afghanistan and destabilize the country further, leading to a civil war with devastating effects on Pakistan and Iran. India, too, would not be entirely immune to the fallout after the final departure of U.S./Nato troops from Afghanistan.
U.S. Senator John McCain while criticizing President Obama for a visible Indian tilt said that “Obama administration is unnecessarily, damaging U.S. relations with Pakistan”. In an interview to an American television TV channel on June 13, the senator went on to say that the Obama administration’s encouragement of active Indian role in Afghanistan and criticizing Pakistan could be disastrous.
General Stanley Chrystal while commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan had also analyzed that Indian involvement in Afghanistan from where it continues to covertly help Taliban to carry out terror activities inside Pakistan needs to be diagnosed carefully, for, otherwise, it will add to instability. He was removed from command by Obama for criticizing his U.S. Afghan policies.
Over time, Indian intelligence has developed strong links with Taliban. Al Awenire, an Italian newspaper, confirmed such links on August 29, 2009 when Italian forces deployed along Kabul’s Ring Road intercepted a jeep laden with Rocket Launchers, Rifles and ammunition along with four foreigners.
An Afghan national, who acted as shift supervisor in a Kabul-based Indian company, admitted to transporting foreigners and ammunition to Pakistan’s tribal areas to target Pakistani armed forces and sensitive military installations.
Within hours of the interception, Indian intelligence officials and Afghan representatives of Interior Ministry reached the check post and took the five men along with their weapons.
“Given India’s longstanding animosity toward Pakistan, many Afghans fear their country could be become a proxy battleground for the two nations as they vie for influence”
Indian embassy in Kabul also continues to be a prime hub for anti-Pakistan activities. Christine Fair, a respected international journalist, is on record having revealed in one of her articles that U.N. officials had confided in her in August 2009 that the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence organization, is supplying weapons to Baloch insurgents in Pakistan on behalf of India.
British analysts had also conceded to Fair that they, too, had inferential evidence that India’s involvement in Afghanistan is not entirely benign.
Pakistan is certain that Afghanistan acts as an assured partner in India’s anti-Pakistan activities wherein both harbour Baloch rebels to create mayhem in Balochistan. Karzai himself had admitted in January 2007 to sheltering more than 200 Baloch nationalists and their families, who had fled Pakistan then.
India has long desired to make Afghanistan its veritable arm for an outreach to Central Asian markets and squeeze Pakistan on various fronts. Its interference in Afghanistan on a mega scale boosts its abilities to do both.
India has an eye on huge deposits of gold, coal and other minerals in Afghanistan, too. China has acquired a major chunk in extraction of Afghan minerals besides strategically, placing itself in the Afghan equation.
With India’s ill-will against Chinese expansion in the region, especially Afghanistan, it is likely the Indian influenced Afghan intelligence agency may create hurdles for China with Americans on their back.
However, by destabilizing the region, India would do well to realize it risks smooth sailing in its bid to expand cross border trade links to Central Asia and beyond — through Pakistan.
The U.S. is also not doing a favour to Afghanistan by pushing India into the Afghan rigmarole. If lessons are to be learnt from Afghan history, they have always been cynical towards foreign countries that tried to play an active role in their country.
The U.S. push for active Indian role to protect its interests beyond 2014 may also see the deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan at some point of time.
In practical terms, there is a limit to India’s ability to protect its interests despite the fact that Afghans are generally very well disposed towards Indians.
Indian public opinion is deeply divided on the relative pros and cons of investing in Afghanistan and may grow wary of maintaining its current presence with increasing risks, much less expanding its activities in Afghanistan.
There is a fierce ongoing debate in India over the risks involved when the U.S. and Nato quit Afghanistan, leaving India behind. Given India’s longstanding animosity toward Pakistan, many Afghans fear their country could become a proxy battleground for the two nations as they vie for influence.
The writer is Islamabad-based research scholar.