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India in Transition

Indian Dilemmas in Afghanistan

Harsh V. Pant
March 29, 2010

Indian policy towards Afghanistan is struggling to respond to the rapidly evolving strategic environment in the region. Amidst the approaching endgame in Afghanistan, India is finding itself increasingly vulnerable, and more damagingly, unable to preserve its vital interests in Af-Pak. Despite its best attempts to keep a low profile in Afghanistan, India and its nationals are increasingly becoming the target of the Taliban. In February of this year, terrorists, suspected to be Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operatives, targeted guest houses frequented by Indians, resulting in the death of seven Indians. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been struck twice over the last two years, alerting New Delhi to the fact that as its influence has grown in Afghanistan and as India-Afghanistan ties have gathered momentum, it has changed the regional power configuration with some long-term implications. India has viewed these strikes as an attempt to force New Delhi out of Afghanistan, something that the Indian government has explicitly ruled out despite recent setbacks.

At a time when the broader geopolitical environment in the region has deteriorated from India’s perspective, India continues to insist that there is “no quick solution” to the Af-Pak situation and has underlined the need for the presence of western forces in Afghanistan “for as long as it is necessary.” Indian diplomacy faced a major setback at the Afghanistan Conference in London earlier this year, where Indian concerns were summarily ignored. In one stroke, Pakistan rendered New Delhi irrelevant in the evolving security dynamic in Afghanistan. When Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna underscored the folly of making a distinction "between good Taliban and bad Taliban," he was completely out of sync with the larger mood at the conference. The West has made up its mind that it is not a question of if, but when and how to exit from Afghanistan, which is rapidly becoming a quagmire for the leaders in Washington and London. Days before this much-hyped conference, senior U.S. military commanders were suggesting that peace talks with the Taliban may be imminent and that Taliban members might even be invited to join the government in Kabul. It is not without significance that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband emphasized in London that the war in Afghanistan had already gone on longer than World War II.

Instead of devising plans to "win" this war, conference leaders decided that the time had come to woo the "moderate" section of the Taliban to share power in Kabul. Pakistan seems to have convinced the West that it can play the role of mediator in negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan is attempting to preserve its rapidly diminishing influence in Afghanistan and to force the West into taking its concerns vis-à-vis India more seriously. After the military success of the Marja offensive, the Obama Administration is considering when to commence talks with the disaffected Taliban from a position of strength, even as it seems to have surrendered to the Pakistani Army on Kabul. On the other hand, the Indian diplomatic debacle at the London conference is reportedly forcing a major rethink of Delhi’s Af-Pak policy. The first step has been to restart talks with Pakistan. While these talks may fail to produce anything concrete in the near future, the hope is that it will stave off pressure from the U.S. to engage Islamabad. Therefore, even though negotiations with Pakistan remain hugely unpopular at home, the Indian government has decided to proceed. India hopes that by doing so, it will be seen as a more productive player in the West’s efforts at stabilizing Afghanistan. It is unlikely though that this is going to happen as the West’s sole concern right now is to find a face-saving exit formula in Afghanistan, and Pakistan remains central to achieving that goal.

India is debating its options in Afghanistan in a strategic space that seems to have shrunk over the last few years. By failing to craft its own narrative on Af-Pak ever since the U.S. troops went into Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, New Delhi has allowed the West, and increasingly Pakistan, to dictate the contours of Indian policy towards the region. Two major strands can be discerned in the present debate on Afghanistan in India. There are those who argue that despite recent setbacks, India should continue to rely on the U.S. to secure its interests in Af-Pak. They suggest that there is a fundamental convergence between India and the Obama Administration in viewing Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan’s insecurity and the suggestion that the world must act together to cure Islamabad of its political malaise. In recognizing that the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute the single most important threat to global peace and security, arguing that Islamabad is part of the problem rather than the solution, and asking India to join an international concert in managing the Af-Pak region, the U.S. has made significant departures from its traditionally held posture towards South Asia. India, therefore, would be best served by coordinating its counter-terror strategy with the American one and should help the U.S. by acknowledging the linkage between Pakistan’s eastern and western frontiers. India should, in this view, try to address Pakistan’s fears of Indian meddling on its western frontiers, unfounded as they might be, and should not even hesitate in reaching out to the Pakistani Army.

The other side in this debate is getting impatient with India’s continued reliance on the U.S. to pull its chestnuts out of the fire. According to this argument, a fundamental disconnect has emerged between U.S. and Indian interests in Af-Pak. The Obama Administration has been systematically ignoring Indian interests in the crafting of its Af-Pak priorities. While actively discouraging India from assuming a higher profile in Afghanistan, for fear of offending Pakistan, the U.S. has failed to persuade Pakistan into taking Indian concerns more seriously. Anxious for some kind of victory, the West has decided to court “good” Taliban with Pakistan’s help. This has underlined Islamabad’s centrality in the unfolding strategic dynamic in the region, much to India’s discomfiture. By pursuing a strategy that will give Pakistan the leading role in the state structures in Afghanistan, the West, however, is only sowing the seeds for future regional turmoil. While
the U.S. may have no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan, so long as the Afghan territory is not being used to launch attacks on U.S. soil, India does. The Taliban – good or bad – are opposed to India in fundamental ways.
The consequence of abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security. To preserve its interests in such a strategic milieu, India should therefore step up the training of Afghan forces, coordinate with states like Russia and Iran, and reach out to all sections of the Afghan society. Though problematic for the West, India should also not hesitate in taking a more militarily active role in Afghanistan, if only to support its developmental activities. 

The manner of this debate’s unfolding will have a significant impact on Indian profile in the region and beyond. After all, India’s strategic capacity to deal with instability in its own backyard will, in the ultimate analysis, determine India’s rise as a global power of major import. Afghanistan is now a test case for India as a regional and global power on the ascendant.

Harsh V. Pant is a Lecturer at King's College London in the Department of Defence Studies and is an Associate with the King's Centre of Science and Security Studies. He has also been a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. He was a CASI Winter 2010 Visiting Scholar.He can be reached at


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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