The U.S.-led invasion after 9/11 marked a turning point in the Indian investment in Afghanistan, and it has been able to steadily re-establish its presence. The greatest benefit of the current situation is that New Delhi has employed the soft-power approach as it has the tacit cover of U.S. and NATO security forces. This means that New Delhi has stuck to civilian rather than military matters while getting involved in Afghanistan. In consonance with the priorities laid down by the Karzai government, Indian assistance has focused on building human capital and physical infrastructure, improving security and helping the agricultural and other important sectors of the countrys economy. The Indian government is building roads, providing medical facilities and helping with educational programs in an effort to develop and enhance long-term Afghan capabilities.
Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh used his visit to Kabul in May 2011 to send the message that, unlike the West, New Delhi has no “exit strategy” from Afghanistan.
New Delhi is the sixth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan, having pledged some US$1.3 billion on various projects. Important infrastructural projects undertaken include the construction of electricity transmission lines, the Salma Dam power project in the Herat province, and the construction of the Afghan parliament building. India will also help in the expansion of the Afghan national television network and undertake several smaller projects in agriculture, rural development, education, health, energy and vocational training. The 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway, enabling Afghanistan to have access to the sea via Iran and providing a shorter route for Indian goods to Afghanistan, was completed by Indias Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in 2008 despite stiff resistance from the Taliban. A 300-strong paramilitary force ensured the safety of the Indian workers and allowed the project to beat construction and monetary deadlines.18
Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh used his visit to Kabul in May 2011 to send the message that, unlike the West, New Delhi has no “exit strategy” from Afghanistan. His first trip to Kabul in six years came at a crucial time””with the U.S. preparing for a troop drawdown and U.S.-Pakistan relations strained by the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the killing of 24 soldiers by a NATO air strike at the end of November 2011. Apart from the usual pledges about giving Afghanistan more money for its economic reconstruction, the two new developments that underscored the importance of the visit were Indias support to Afghan president Hamid Karzais peace efforts with Taliban insurgents and the announcement of a “strategic partnership.”
India and Afghanistan share a mutual suspicion of Pakistan’s role in fomenting recent violence in Afghanistan.
Delhi has made civil reconstruction central in its efforts to prevent the return of Taliban rule and of the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven for anti-India terror groups, and the latest promise of aid will bring the total since 2001 to $2 billion. What was really new during Singhs visit was his public support of the Afghan peace plan for reconciliation with the Taliban. At the official banquet on the evening of his arrival on 12 May 2011, prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said: “We strongly support the Afghan peoples quest for peace and reconciliation.” Addressing parliament the next day, he acknowledged that “Afghanistan has embarked upon a process of “˜national reconciliation and wished the members well in the enterprise.”19
In October 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kabul and signed a strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai. It paves the way for India to train and equip Afghan security forces to fill what the Afghanistan government fears will be critical gaps as NATO troops leave in the years ahead. India and Afghanistan share a mutual suspicion of Pakistans role in fomenting recent violence in Afghanistan. The new partnership comes just two weeks after the assassination of former Afghan president and peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.
“¦despite being the largest regional donor, India has had its share of challenges while operating in Afghanistan. There have been two suicide bombings of its embassy in Kabul, the first of which killed two senior Indian diplomats, two security personnel and 50 Afghans.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the significant remark that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”
When the strategic partnership agreement was signed in October 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the significant remark that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”20
The strategic partnership agreement has three notable provisions that probably set the tone for Prime Minister Singhs statement. First, India will help train Afghan National Security Forces. India will train and mentor Afghan army and police personnel in Afghanistan, and Afghans will attend training academies in India. India will also assist in equipping the Afghan forces. This is very much in line with Indias regional foreign policy objectives and creates the ground for intensification of bilateral relations.
Second, India will furnish Afghanistan with economic aid and assistance. The agreement provides an additional $500 million on top of the $1 billion India has already spent since 2002. In addition, India and Afghanistan will cooperate in the development of mining and energy production. At the end of November came the announcement that President Karzais government had awarded India mining rights for the countrys biggest iron deposit. Three of four blocks at the Hajigak ore deposit were awarded to seven companies that bid with support from the government of India. Afghanistan expects to attract $14.6 billion in foreign investment over 30 years, including $10.7 billion from India. Further, Kabul is soon going to start negotiations with an Indian consortium for investment that includes the building of the nations first steel mill for $7.8 billion, a power plant and facilities for ore extraction and processing,
“¦throughout Afghan history, the ethnic makeup of the society has led the Afghans to cherish their status as Afghans rather than members of the ethnic groupings. The name Ã¢€œAfghanÃ¢€ has become synonymous with a freedom-loving nation that has never accepted foreign rule
And finally, the agreement states that Afghanistan and India will establish a strategic dialogue between their respective national security advisers “to provide a framework for cooperation in the area of national security.” This opens up a new chapter in bilateral relations in that it allows both countries to discuss both strategic regional and global issues””read Pakistan.21
Yet despite being the largest regional donor, India has had its share of challenges while operating in Afghanistan. There have been two suicide bombings of its embassy in Kabul, the first of which killed two senior Indian diplomats, two security personnel and 50 Afghans. Just last month, a terror plot targeting the Indian consulate in Jalalabad was foiled. Since 2001, twenty Indian nationals have been killed. Crucially, no new major construction project has been initiated in the past two to three years. There is no doubt that the drawdown of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces in the absence of sufficiently trained and capable Afghan security forces will adversely impact Indian projects and personnel in Afghanistan. And there are fears that Indias influence could be eroded as President Karzai seeks a peace deal with Taliban insurgents aided by Pakistan.22
The Future of Afghanistan
Key to success in Afghanistan lies in understanding the Afghan mind-set, and that means understanding their culture and engaging the Afghans with respect to the system of governance that has worked for them in the past. A successful outcome in Afghanistan requires balancing tribal, religious and government structures. There are also models that believe that the future of Afghanistan lies in smaller units/countries. This model views the breakup of Afghanistan along ethnic lines and takes the task of divide and rule to its logical conclusion. Proponents of federalism for Afghanistan would like to see the country divided on ethnic, linguistic or economic basis. This would give ethnic groupings the freedom to shape their own social and cultural affairs, without the need for national coordination of the same. It would also mean dividing the country geographically into perhaps north and south or east, south and the west, along with the northern division.23
Ten years after its initial intervention, the international communitys involvement in Afghanistan is now being heavily influenced by an ISAF-agreed 2014 deadline, when plans to transfer security and civilian control back to Afghans are due to come into force.
A federal system for Afghanistan would make it closer to becoming a Yugoslavia. Although the religious divide in Afghanistan is not between faiths but within the one faith of Islam, ethnic groupings are diverse. However, throughout Afghan history, the ethnic makeup of the society has led the Afghans to cherish their status as Afghans rather than members of the ethnic groupings. The name “Afghan” has become synonymous with a freedom-loving nation that has never accepted foreign rule.24 Afghanistan has been a nation state since 1761, and even though Afghanistan has suffered severe internal wars and coups, the country and its people have shown remarkable resilience.
Today, there are more Pashtuns and Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Pakistan and Tajikistan, respectively. This situation has given rise to a political fear in Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Robert Blackwill, a former official in the Bush administration and a former U.S. ambassador to India, is one of the advocates of the partition of Afghanistan. Blackwill recently wrote that since the U.S. cannot win the current war in Afghanistan, it should consider a de facto partition of the country, handing over the Pashtun south to the Taliban and propping up the north and the west, where Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras live. Such a partition, he writes, “is now the best that can realistically and responsibly be achieved.”25
Today, there are more Pashtuns and Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Pakistan and Tajikistan, respectively. This situation has given rise to a political fear in Afghanistans neighbours. On the other hand, the mostly Shiite Iran eyes a strong influence over the minority Shiites of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Baluchis live in the three neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid argues that a federal system in Afghanistan may make it easier for Afghanistans neighbours to further intervene in the affairs of the country in favour of the ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities that they support and want to befriend. That in itself would create the danger of disintegration. It is best that the international community works together for a centralised strong but just system of government that would guarantee unity of the nation and maintenance of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Talking to the Taliban
One of the most recent initiatives towards a political solution to the Afghan issue has been attempts to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The idea of talking to what the British euphemistically called “moderate” Taliban arose two years ago, and since then efforts have been made to get the Taliban to shed the gun. Most recently, the Americans have got into the act as honest brokers, aiming to get the Taliban to talk to the government of Hamid Karzai and lay down arms.26
Despite India’s recent statements supporting the moves by the Karzai government about the dialogue with the Taliban, history tells us otherwise. Both the U.S. and India know who created the Taliban and to what purpose.
At the end of 2011 came news that the talks had reached a critical juncture and it will soon become clear if the Taliban is serious about talks. The Taliban has indicated that talks are of no use till such time that foreign troops withdraw from Afghan soil.27 The U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. It has been reported that in mid-2010, Karzai had a face-to-face meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of a prominent Pakistan-propped terror network, in the presence of Pakistans army chief of staff and the ISI chief.28
At the close of the year came reports that Afghanistans High Peace Council, in a note to foreign missions, had set out ground rules for engaging the Taliban. This happened after the United States and Qatar, helped by Germany, secretly agreed with the Taliban to open an office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
With a view to setting the ground rules for any engagement, the High Peace Council said that negotiations with the Taliban could only begin after they abjured violence against civilians, cut ties with al-Qaeda, and accepted the Afghan constitution, which guarantees civil rights and liberties, including rights for women. The council also said any peace process with the Taliban would have to have the support of Pakistan since members of the insurgent group were based there. Reuters reported this month that the United States was considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay into Afghan government custody as part of accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy.29
“¦for India, the worry is what happens to its policy when the U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from Afghan soil. This is precisely where the recent statement by Dr. Manmohan Singh about supporting the Afghan people even after 2014 comes into play.
Whatever the future governance structure in Afghanistan, it is obvious that factoring the ethnic and tribal system of the country into a working democratic system will be the best bet. Towards this end, does it make sense to talk to the Taliban? Despite Indias recent statements supporting the moves by the Karzai government (read with U.S. backing) about the dialogue with the Taliban, history tells us otherwise. Both the U.S. and India know who created the Taliban and to what purpose.
One U.S. scholar has this to say about Pakistani support for the Taliban. “Although the Taliban has a strong endogenous impetus, according to Taliban commanders the ISI orchestrates, sustains and strongly influences the movement. They say it gives sanctuary to both Taliban and Haqqani groups, and provides huge support in terms of training, funding, munitions and supplies. In their words, this is “˜as clear as the sun in the sky.” If that is not evidence enough of the backing by the ISI, one is not sure what is. For India to have first taken the stand, quite correctly in 2009, that there is no such thing as “moderate” Taliban and now to propose that Afghanistan should be talking to the Taliban appears to be a move to fall in line with U.S. moves.
There are two aspects to the present situation. For the U.S., it has little policy choices in terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan. But at the same time for the U.S. is the Pakistan factor. Therefore, it is trying to find peace in Kabul through Islamabad. Second, for India, the worry is what happens to its policy when the U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from Afghan soil. This is precisely where the recent statement by Dr. Manmohan Singh about supporting the Afghan people even after 2014 comes into play. Careful analysis shows that India is playing it very carefully.
The experience of such incidents suggests however that India will have to be prepared to play a much more proactive role in supporting any government in Kabul, both physically and ensuring the safety and security of its assets.
What India envisages is strengthening of the political democracy in Kabul to the extent that the withdrawal of international troops will not have a destabilising effect. Given the fact that New Delhi is backing Karzai at the moment and hopes to do so beyond 2014 is a sign that sudden changes are foreseen. Islamabad may not exactly think along the same lines! This also means that in the next three years, India will have to invest very heavily in Kabul so that institutions and structures are strong enough to withstand the postwithdrawal scenario in 2014.
The experience of such incidents suggests however that India will have to be prepared to play a much more proactive role in supporting any government in Kabul, both physically and ensuring the safety and security of its assets. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, there was turmoil. A brief period of stability was again disturbed by the Taliban in 1996, which lasted till 2001. At the core of the matter lies the tribal and feudal structure of Afghan polity. Basically, history shows that the tribes have played an important dual role in establishing order in terms of who rules the nation and maintaining control in those areas where the reach of the government in terms of security and governance is low or nonexistent. This has to be interwoven with the concepts of qawm and manteqa, both of which form the basis of society. The former can be seen as societal networks while the latter signifies the place or region from where people come. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Qawm (or people belonging to one tribe and region) has prevented the inroads of modernity into society, at the same time giving shape to a form of resilience to face any external or internal shock.30
The decentralisation of power using the Indian model may be a good starting point, and alongside, the devolution of financial power will have to take place.
The place from which a person originates or in which a person resides is known as manteqa, and it is composed of several villages or cluster settlements/hamlets where solidarity is shaped amongst the local population. The manteqa shapes the identity of a person in Afghanistan. In order to take the best advantage of this societal situation, it is necessary for both the West and India to analyse development and peace initiatives from this perspective. In terms of development, the focus has to be really on the villages of Afghanistan. The decentralisation of power using the Indian model may be a good starting point, and alongside, the devolution of financial power will have to take place. This of course is dependent on the strength of the central government at any given point in time.
Given the complexity of the tribal situation, it is but natural that challenges will arise in the distribution of power. Ahmed Rashid aptly stated in 2001, “Over the centuries, trying to understand the Afghans and their country was turned into a fine art and a game of power politics by the Persians, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets and most recently the Pakistanis. But no outsider has ever conquered them or claimed their soul.” This is an indication of the difficulties involved in acquiring a sense of purpose and direction in Afghanistan.31
From the U.S. perspective, Afghanistan has to be rid of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That is why operation Enduring Freedom was launched. But domestic compulsions in the U.S. are creating grounds for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. This also means that political support to President Hamid Karzai or any other candidate is going to be a problem. The only possibility is that the U.S. continues its operations in Afghanistan using the CIA, as it did prior to 2001. For Pakistan, the stakes are higher. For Pakistan, its creation, the Taliban, and by default its control over Afghanistan, cannot be allowed to wither. For India, the stakes are high in terms of a stable Afghanistan constituting a counter-poise to Pakistan; that is why the soft-power approach has provided some gains for New Delhi.
If history shows that political stability is a mirage in Afghanistan, it also shows that if one works the system through the traditional systems of power sharing, like the shura and the jirga, the chances of finding a political solution are greater””that is, if at the national level, there is consensus that stability is a factor in the continuance of Afghanistan as a nation state. Otherwise, it will be argued that it is better to split Afghanistan along ethnic and tribal lines and give everyone his share of the cake.
India will continue to be in Afghanistan whether or not the 2014 withdrawal happens. It is more likely though that planning for a military presence in Kabul is envisaged and thought out without being announced. After all, who knows what tomorrow might bring!
Notes and References
- Prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh quoted in the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "India"™s Role in Afghanistan." IISS Strategic Comments 17 June 2011. <http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-comments/past-issues/volume-17-2011/june/indias-role-in-afghanistan/mobile-edition/>.
- Statement to the media by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the visit of President Hamid Karzai, New Delhi, 4 October 2011. <http://mea.gov.in/myprint.php?id=530118346&d=05&sz=c&m=&y=&pg=&flg=&searchdata1=>.
- C. J. Radin. "Afghan-Indian Agreement Heralds a Strategic Shift in the Region." 31 October 2011. <http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2011/10/afghan-indian_agreem.php#ixzz1gcIerw2B>.
- Op cit, n. 17.
- G. Rauf Roashan. "Pros and Cons of Federalism in Afghanistan." <http://users.tns.net/~mroashan/politics/countrycorner/CCorner2/ProsAndConsOfFederalismInAfghanistan.pdf>.
- Ahmed Rashid. "Divide Afghanistan at Your Peril." 4 August 2010. <http://pkonweb.com/2010/08/divide-afghanistan-at-your-peril-by-ahmed-rashid/>.
- BBC News. "Talk to Taliban, Miliband Urges." 27 July 2009. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8169789.stm>.Also see, Reuters. "Exclusive: Secret U.S., Taliban Talks Reach Turning Point." 19 December 2011. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/19/us-usa-afghanistan-idUSTRE7BI03I20111219>.
- Mail Online. "US Talks with Taliban Reach Critical Juncture." 20 December 2011. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2076376/Secret-U-S-talks-Taliban-reach-critical-juncture-U-S-considers-transfer-Gitmo-prisoners-Afghan-custody.html#ixzz1hGffXsd4>.
- Op cit no-16.
- Reuters. "Afghanistan Sets Ground Rules for Taliban Talks." Dawn, 30 December 2011. <http://www.dawn.com/2011/12/26/afghanistan-sets-ground-rules-for-taliban-talks.html>.
- Raphy Favre. "Interface Between State and Society in Afghanistan, Discussion on Key Social Features Affecting Governance, Reconciliation and Reconstruction." February 2005. <http://aizon.org/Administration%20and%20society%20in%20Afghanistan.pdf>.
- Ahmed Rashid quoted in Shahmahmood Miakhel. "The Importance of Tribal Structures and Pakhtunwali in Afghanistan; Their Role in Security and Governance." http://pashtoonkhwa.com/files/articles/Miakhel%20-%20Importance%20of%20Tribal%20Structures%20in%20Afghanistan.pdf.