Policy makers in the Indian government ought to factor in the deep ethnic divides in Afghanistan and ensure that our policy formulation does not reflect any ethnic bias or preference.
The political, strategic and economic interests of Pakistan vis-a-vis Afghanistan are so overpowering that it would be imprudent for India to jump into an open rivalry with her in Afghanistan. Pakistan will try and frustrate India’s effort to be a part of any international forum for Afghanistan. India’s approach ought to be to forge a new relationship directly with the regime in Afghanistan that is based not on any type of territorial control but one should have a humanitarian and economic dimensions. India has so far invested $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects such as highways, power plants and medical facilities and has pledged another $500 million. While the projects related to powerplants and medical facilities address genuine and pressing humanitarian concerns and more of these are required all over Afghanistan, it needs to be borne in mind that better roads and highways also serve to boost illegal trade in drugs and weapons which is still rampant in the region. India therefore needs to be more circumspect in the selection of infrastructure projects.
The Taliban are not inherently anti-India and we should scrupulously avoid giving them a reason to be. Specifically, we need to be careful not to be overtly pro Northern Alliance. Policy makers in the Indian government ought to factor in the deep ethnic divides in Afghanistan and ensure that our policy formulation does not reflect any ethnic bias or preference. India’s demeanour towards the Afghan people must appear balanced, just and fair to all ethnic groups. We need to do business with the government in power without any reservation about its ethnic identity or its equation with Pakistan. We need to provide in India, fully funded facilities for basic and higher education as also for vocational training in a variety of disciples for Afghan children in sizeable numbers to build a pro-India human capital over a period of time. On the professional front, institutions in India should provide free of charge, in-service training in all disciplines of civilian and military regimes. In the regime of healthcare, apart from creating institutions in Afghanistan, assistance by way of super specialist medical treatment ought to be made available in India preferably free of charge. In the long run, investment in human resource development and healthcare would lead to an equitable relationship and open avenues for economic engagement by way of investment in Afghanistan to exploit the multi-trillion dollar mineral wealth hitherto untapped. Rushing into Afghanistan chasing natural resources without building a foundation for the relationship, may prove counterproductive.
What India needs to focus on immediately is not competition with Pakistan for physical strategic depth but should aim to nurture the historical and traditional relationship with Afghanistan to forge what could aptly be described as “emotional strategic depth”. The rest will follow.