India is right in its cautious pragmatism on Afghanistan
US President Donald Trump unveiled his much-touted Afghan policy on 21 August 2017. Trump announced to adopt a condition-based policy instead of a calendar-driven agenda, a moderate troop surge (4,000 soldiers), putting Pakistan on the spot for hosting the Taliban and urging India to play a larger economic role in conflict stabilization. New Delhi has welcomed Trump’s Afghan policy with cautious optimism as it does not address all of India’s concerns.
Trump’s prognosis of the situation in Afghanistan to eliminate Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries and his plan of “killing terrorists” is accurate; however, a symbolic surge of 4,000 troops is not enough to achieve the stated outcomes. With this half-hearted commitment, the US can achieve tactical gains short of any strategic outcomes that may tilt the balance of power in favour of Washington and its allies.
Trump’s announcement of staying in Afghanistan until the situation improves will definitely provide the much-needed breathing space to Ashraf Ghani’s embattled National Unity Government (NUG). The continued stay of American and NATO troops will also provide India with the US security umbrella to strengthen its economic and political cooperation with Kabul.
However, New Delhi will neither step up nor lower down the nature and level of its engagement in Afghanistan on Washington’s behest. India will recalibrate its policy responses in Afghanistan on its own terms and conditions, keeping in view its long-term regional and strategic interests. Unlike Pakistan, which capitulated to the US dictates following the 9/11 attacks, the dynamics of Indian cooperation with US is qualitatively different. Thus, while New Delhi has welcomed Trump’s Afghan policy – and has categorically rejected the idea of putting Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan – it is not very hopeful of any concrete outcomes. His policy clearly lacks a well thought out implementation framework to achieve desirable outcomes.
Since the ouster of Taliban in 2001, India has supported international and regional efforts geared at bringing political stability and economic prosperity to Afghanistan. Indian bilateral efforts that have taken many shapes, ranging from capacity-building programs to infrastructure-related projects, have further displayed its genuine intent and efforts to make Afghanistan a sound post.
Moreover, there is hardly anything new in the strategy; some of its contours match those put in place by President Barack Obama. The lack of a clear definition of what constitutes “victory” and the temporal imagination of the “end” in his claim “in the end, we will win” is concerning, especially for the hapless Afghan people who could more war in the days to come.
Having been marginalized on Afghanistan in the past and with a self-proclaimed ‘economic nationalist’ in power, India could be asked to increase its economic assistance to share the burden of American war in Afghanistan. This is bound to generate reactions across the border. Also, given the supportive statements that have come from China and Russia for Pakistan, India’s apparent tilt towards the US in case would become more evident if it answers the American call for greater assistance. To top that, US’ careful choice of spheres for seeking India’s greater cooperation skirting the military and security domains is demonstrative of American awareness of Pakistani sensitivities.
Seeking more ‘economic assistance’ from India in Afghanistan, Trump made no secrets of who is America’s strategic partner in the South Asian region. During his policy speech at Fort Myer it became more apparent as Trump proceeded to enlist India’s help after tightening the (rhetorical) screws on Pakistan. However, apart from the vindication of its claims about the role of Pakistan in not creating an atmosphere conducive for peace, India was effectively brought into an unsavoury quid pro quo equation. By asking India to contribute more to Afghanistan, not for the sake of contribution but because it trades in billions with the US, was a typical Trumpesque mercantilism. After all, India’s contribution to Afghanistan is the largest in South Asia and fifth largest in the whole world.
Since the Bonn negotiations 2001, the US has always accorded India a marginal role unworthy of its position and standing. Part of the reason for this marginalising stemmed from the geo-political tensions germane to South Asia. Making a Pakistan a ‘frontline state’ in the US’ War on Terror, the latter was sensitive to the suspicion, and possibly retaliation, that India’s greater involvement in Afghanistan would create within the Pakistani establishment.
A reason for India’s reluctance to put boots on the ground was that it could unnecessarily become a target of tactical retaliation from non-state actors from the AfPak terror nursery. Some of this part-forced, part-self-enforced distance from the Afghan peace process have been because of India’s opposition to the distinction between good and bad Taliban; India’s absence from major regional initiatives; and downgrading of India’s importance to the now-renounced five-circle policy of Afghanistan’s current President Ashraf Ghani.
Indian assistance to Afghanistan centred around four domains – humanitarian assistance, mega infrastructure projects, small and community-based development project as well as education and capacity development –to strengthen the rule of law and effective governance in Afghanistan. In total, India has spent $ 2 billion in Afghanistan so far and committed another $ 1 billion at the Brussels’ summit last year (2016).
For India, which has shown cautious pragmatism on matters concerning Afghanistan so far, it makes much sense to not get carried away by the American rhetorical posturing against Pakistan and jump into a situation which might become difficult to manage.