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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

Morphing India’s Afghanistan Policy

Saturday 3 November 2007, by Swapna Kona


Why does India need a renewed policy towards Afghanistan? October 2007 marks six years since Afghanistan has been occupied by outside forces. Hitherto, there’s been a rising cynicism with the Indian policy, or the lack of it, towards Afghanistan. India’s interests in Afghanistan are clear—containment of conflict in its extended neighbourhood and a stake in the energy resources and trade opportunities in the region. But, the relationship with Afghanistan has the undertone of a chronic restlessness, blamed largely on Indian disorientation in the region. If India doesn’t potentialise her leverage, the failure to deliver will not remain a defensible position and could mar future bilateral relations. Henceforth, there are three factors that should shape India’s policy in Afghanistan.

The first is India’s broader interest in Afghanistan, as the threshold to Central Asia. With a burgeoning demand for energy, India must tap into these resources. Energy-rich Central Asia’s regional dynamics should be dictating the Indian policy towards the region, as against a conceptually myopic American strategy in the now-defunct War on Terror. The two pipeline projects—the TAPI, taking the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India route, and the IPI, that is, the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline—are both initiatives at locking India into the energy grid lock which is surfacing in Central Asia. Afghanistan has a lot to gain from both in terms of energy supply and transit fees. By becoming a part of this regional distribution network, India will tie itself into broader Central Asian interests and acquire a foothold in the region. Thus, viewing Afghanistan as part of a larger framework will spell out a vision for India’s policy in the region, making it a part of the solution.

The second is India’s understanding of the Taliban. The Taliban is resurgent, President Karzai’s government enjoys waning popular support and there is the realisation that no sustainable political progress can be accomplished sans dialogue with the Taliban. The Taliban’s quarrel is with foreign presence on Afghan territory. By aligning ourselves with the US War on Terror and championing Karzai as the face of modern Afghanistan, India is systematically dismissing the Taliban from the Afghan political scene. The Indian narrative is not different from the US’ in presuming that the Taliban must be defeated and that shall be the triumph of democracy in Kabul. This assumption is myopic at best. The US’ reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are part of its larger strategy to acquire legitimacy for Karzai’s government and hence further its objectives of democratising Afghanistan and wiping out the Taliban. Instead, Indian aid and reconstruction should be aimed at stabilising and supporting the fledgling administration and providing assistance to the people as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in 2005. Afghan democracy is a work in progress and India must acknowledge the Taliban’s widespread presence in Afghanistan and encourage its more moderate factions to participate in a truly representative democracy.

The third is the Indian understanding of the Pakistani position on Afghanistan. It has to be understood that Pakistani influence in Afghanistan will always exceed that of India’s. As an immediate neighbour, Pakistan and Afghanistan will remain tied together strategically forever. They will also continue to have schisms—the Durand Line, Afghan refugees, border porosity and a rising Pashtunistan movement are all problems that will sap energies on both sides of the border. To those problems, they will find solutions only if they work together. That comprises their bilateral relations. Kabul despises Pakistan’s interference in its internal matters. If India barges into its bilateral relations with Pakistan, it will face the same fate. On the contrary, Kabul will always turn to India for aid and support. This is where India’s leverage lies. By keeping the Indo-Pak issues separate from the Pak-Afghan issues can India formulate an Afghan policy that is not Pakistan-centric, relieving fears in Islamabad of Delhi’s growing influence in Kabul and quelling Afghan suspicions of being used by India as a foothold against Pakistan. On matters that affect all three, such as militancy, engagement is necessary on an equal footing without any sort of diplomatic witch-hunting.

Instead of an interest-driven policy, Indian presence in Afghanistan is presented as a counterweight to Pakistani influence in the region. Indian support for democratisation in Afghanistan has a strong Atlanticist flavour. The scramble to replace Pakistan as the US’ strategic ally in the region has led to the rhetoric that links India to the US in its War on Terror and leads to its behaviour as a “natural ally”. This is unfortunate as India is intimately acquainted with the hurdles of representative democracy in an ethnically disparate society. Our true contribution could have been in establishing sustained public diplomacy and a system of government much like ours that could accommodate estranged political factions. During his visit to Kabul in August 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Representation is the very essence of democracy.” Indian efforts have been absent in facilitating any reconciliation in that regard.

If India had chosen not to busy itself with the politics of Afghanistan and had stuck to reconstruction, then our policy would have been shaped by our leverage as a donor nation. But that was not entirely possible, and rightly so, as Indian interests in Afghanistan border on the strategic. To that end, the time is nigh for Delhi to formulate a substantiated Afghan policy. n

Swapna Kona is with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She can be contacted at

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