India’s Afghanistan challenge


The geostrategic consequences of Osama bin Laden's assassination are only slowly emerging, and Al Qaeda's suicide bombing on May 13 in Pakistan shows that terrorism remains a potent threat. However, unless an Islamic terrorist outfit is able to stage a large-scale attack on Western soil in the near future, there is some likelihood that the Obama administration will strategically use bin Laden's death to strengthen its resolve to soon disengage from Afghanistan, a region which has consumed a disproportionate amount of US resources and attention over the past decade. While some American troops may stay on after 2014, Afghanistan is likely to turn into something similar to Iraq today: a sideshow. This will allow the United States to increasingly focus on the challenge that is set to shape US foreign policy much more profoundly than terrorism: The rise of China.

Bin Laden's death is thus likely to fundamentally alter the regional dynamics of Central and South Asia. With the United States and NATO on the way out, a power vacuum will emerge in a country whose government is unable to provide its own citizens with the most basic public good, security. This power vacuum will be filled by regional actors- principally Iran, Pakistan, India and China. Contrary to the United States and its NATO allies, these countries do not have the luxury to divert their attention to other, more pressing issues.  "American can leave, but for us", an Indian diplomat notes, "Afghanistan won't go away".

India plays a particularly important role in Afghanistan, and its behavior there is likely to shape Delhi's foreign policy strategy over years to come. Afghanistan, if turned into a terrorist safe-haven yet again, poses a fundamental security threat to India. During the reign of the Taliban, New Delhi was one of the Northern Alliance staunchest allies, and radical Islamist groups have long supported Pakistan in its struggle to secure Kashmir. In December 1999, the Taliban hijacked an Air India flight, and the Indian government had to release three militants to save the passengers.

Yet India's interests in Afghanistan far exceed combating terrorism. In order to sustain India's ever more energy-hungry economy, the Indian government has signed significant deals with Kazakhstan and Iran, and a stable Afghanistan is a vital element to assure that its neighboring nations turn into reliable energy suppliers. As a consequence, Afghanistan has turned into one of the principal destinations of Indian economic assistance. Rather than deploying troops along with NATO, India has sought to make an impact and generate goodwill by spending over $1billion, mostly on infrastructure to help turn Afghanistan into a modern state. The construction of the Afghan parliament building in Kabul, the 218 km Zaranj-Delaram road and the Salma Dam in Herat Province are financed by India. In the current bidding process for the exploration rights of the Hajigak iron ore mines, the majority of the 22 firms bidding are Indian. Manmohan Singh affirmed, during his recent visit to Kabul, that "India has no exit strategy from Afghanistan", committing a further $500 million in aid to the poverty stricken nation. In addition, India is working hard to convince Pakistan to allow Indian goods to arrive in India to increase trade ties.

Since India has not sent in any soldiers, but focused on economic assistance, Indian politicians like to quote Afghanistan as a case in point of Indian soft power. Indeed, India has generated far more goodwill among Afghans than any Western power. A large Afghan diaspora in India, and the success of Indian TV shows and movies in Afghanistan helps bring the two cultures together. In a 2007 cable made public by Wikileaks, US diplomats urged the Indian government to send Indian movie celebrities to Afghanistan to turn the population's attention away from radical issues. And Shashi Tharoor, India's flamboyant former Minister of State for External Affairs, likes to recall how Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, a Hindi soap opera (pictured below), was so famous that even Afghan weddings were interrupted so that the guests could gather around a TV and watch.

Yet once Western troops withdraw, Bollywood and economic assistance alone are unlikely to protect India's economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan. While NATO is likely to accept some involvement of the Taliban in a post-NATO Afghan government, India has so far rejected to differentiate between moderate and radicalIslamist groups, seeking to convince the West not to end its military engagement prematurely. Yet as Western retreat from Afghanistan seems increasingly inevitable in the wake of President Obama's reelection campaign, India will be forced to make a tough decision on how to protect its large investments in what remains one of the world's most fragile and violent states. In July, 2008, in the first terror attack on an Indian diplomatic mission worldwide, the Taliban  killed 54 people including two senior Indian diplomats and two Indian security personnel, underlining that India could soon turn into a prime target for attacks in Afghanistan once Western powers leave.

Deploying Indian troops to stabilize the country is theoretically feasible, but risky as it may erode India's image as a benign actor in Central Asia. In addition, it would feed Pakistan's paranoia of encirclement, reducing chances to normalize ties with Islamabad. Despite India's largesse, Afghans consider themselves closer to neighboring Pakistan, which can be ascribed to ethnic kinship: Almost 50% of Afghans are Pashtuns, like many Pakistanis who live along the Durand Line that separates the two nations.

No matter what the Indian government in Delhi decides, Afghanistan is set to turn into one of India's most complex foreign policy challenges - add to that the border conflicts with Pakistan and China, and Indian foreign policy makers have their hands full in the years to come.

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Photo credit: Reuters