The strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan can be regarded as a game changer in the region and truly a landmark event. However, there are uncertainties and impediments that the signatories ought not to overlook or ignore. While the agreement will impact each stakeholder differently, the real challenge for both India and Afghanistan will be to restore the currently derailed negotiations amongst the stakeholders and convert the slogan of peace in Afghanistan into reality. Undoubtedly, this is likely to be a task more easily said than done.
On October 04, 2011, through an agreement that was the first of its kind in Asia, India and Afghanistan forged a strategic partnership. This happens to be the first such agreement that Afghanistan has ever formally entered into with any country. What makes it particularly significant is the timing of the agreement which is evidently linked with the drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan. While the historic document signed in Delhi between Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan and Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India during the visit of the former to this country is symbolic of the mutual trust and confidence between the two nations, it has also served to introduce a new twist to the already complex geo-political situation in the region. More specifically, it has added a new dimension to the ongoing turmoil in the somewhat unpredictable relationship between India and Pakistan as also has aggravated tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Afghan Perspective
Given the diverse and conflicting interplay of interests in the region, it is only natural that the perspectives amongst the multiple stakeholders and their responses on the move by India and Afghanistan should differ substantially. The problem is further compounded when the stakeholders concurrently pursue different agendas and objectives often leading to serious conflict of interest. However, both the Government and the common people in Afghanistan view the agreement on strategic partnership with India as an iteration of the strong traditional bonds between the two nations that have existed for centuries. However, at the pragmatic level, there is awareness in Afghanistan today that the country desperately needs assistance in its reconstruction to rise from the ashes and that with its large, prosperous and rapidly growing economy, India has much more to offer than Pakistan. India is undoubtedly in a better position to play a more constructive role in rebuilding the shattered economy of Afghanistan, a nation devastated by the prolonged and seemingly interminable conflict. In the past decade, India has already donated nearly $2 billion by way of economic assistance.
But beyond the lure of funds for reconstruction, the Government of Afghanistan also views the strong ties with India as a means to assuage the sense of insecurity that would definitely plague the hapless nation on account of the debilitating power struggle anticipated in the power vacuum following the withdrawal in 2014 of the US and NATO forces. Of particular concern to Afghanistan is the potential of trouble from Pakistan.
While Afghanistan is aware that India is unlikely to rush in with large military forces to replace the powers withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Karzai government perceives India to be a reliable partner without any devious intent, evil design or hidden agenda, capable of assisting the war-torn nation to stabilise. In the Afghan assessment, India has the political stature and economic clout to influence nations not only in the region but also in the world to support efforts to safeguard the legitimate national interests of Afghanistan. As against Pakistan’s long history and somewhat dubious track record of perpetual interference in the affairs of Afghanistan, its subversive activities there and covert support to militancy, India has accumulated a fund of goodwill amongst the common people through her strong focus on programmes related to the development of infrastructure such as roads, telecommunication facilities and power generation. India has also invested in education, human resource development as investment in the future leadership and healthcare. In the Afghan perception, Pakistan is clearly not in a position to compete with India be it in respect of economic cooperation or in the realm of foreign policy where India is being seen as a mature, seasoned and proactive player on the global scene. Afghanistan has clearly opted to go along with a partner that can effectively contribute to stability and prosperity.
For years, Afghanistan has been a beneficiary of aid through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. This is a bilateral programme of assistance of the Government of India that was launched in September 1964 and covers a large number of nations in need of assistance spread across the globe. To that extent, the strategic partnership agreement now signed may appear to some as mere reaffirmation of common interest in reinvigorating the past ties, India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s economic growth and the intent to develop a new partnership. In fact, the strategic partnership agreement is more than just that as it aims to propel the relationship beyond a mere aid-donor equation to a much higher plane with training of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Police included as an important and integral part of the agreement. India sees a strong, independent, stable, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan as being critical to her security interests and for overall stability of the region in the evolving geo-political and geo-strategic scenarios. Building up and sustaining the capability of the Government of Afghanistan through external assistance to provide for her own security is therefore the first and indispensable step in the pursuit of this objective.
The Pakistan Angle
Withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will provide Pakistan a strategic opportunity to once again play a leading role in the region. With the help of the Taliban which it created in the period 1993-1994 to dislodge the non-Pashtun Rabbani-Masud government from Kabul, Pakistan will seek to once again re-establish its influence over Afghanistan not only to gain strategic depth against India but also for reasons of history, ethnic commonality of the population on both sides of the border, control of the flourishing cross-border trade and access to the energy resources of the Central Asian Republics. Pakistan regards Afghanistan as its “backyard” and considers domination of its neighbour in the West as a legitimate right. Other than with Pakistan, politically, Afghanistan enjoys good relations with all its neighbours. However, Afghanistan is unlikely to go to war or create any military situation along its border with Pakistan that will adversely affect cross-border trade, legitimate or otherwise, and hurt her own interests in the long run. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have generally existed in a state of precarious equilibrium.
Pakistan is highly sensitive to India’s presence in Afghanistan or any move by it in the region that will militate against the former’s political and strategic interests. Regarding any initiative by India as undue interference, Pakistan has always blamed India for creating trouble in Baluchistan through Afghanistan as well as for supporting terrorism inside other parts of Pakistan. In fact, so acute is Pakistani sensitivity that given the option, she would have India close down diplomatic establishments and move out of Kabul altogether. Pakistan is also averse to Indian participation in any regional or global conference over the future of Afghanistan.
Despite assurances from President Hamid Karzai that, “the new partnership with India was not meant as a form of aggression towards Pakistan” and readiness on the part of both the signatories to the agreement to accommodate Pakistani interests and address her apprehensions, the overt expression of strategic partnership is bound to cause serious discomfort to Pakistan especially on account of the “strategic” connotation of the agreement. Indian involvement in the training of Afghan National Security and Police Forces, in all likelihood, will be unpalatable to Pakistan. In her perception , the agreement will facilitate direct access to Afghanistan for Indian forces with the possibility of the country being “sandwiched” between two not-so-friendly neighbours. Pakistan sees the move by India as a new “great game” directed against herself and her mentor, China. She also views the agreement as a major impediment to her vision of the establishment of a bloc consisting of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey duly patronised by China to counterbalance India’s rise as a regional power and contain US hegemony. It would not be surprising therefore that in the new situation, Pakistan brands Afghanistan as an enemy equated with India and undertakes a complete review her foreign policy.
In the wake of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, the Taliban fully supported by Pakistan, is likely to progressively scale up the offensive in an effort to re-establish control over the seat of power from where they were violently dislodged by the US a decade ago. All efforts by the US at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in search of a peaceful solution to the conflict in Afghanistan have turned out to be futile. The underlying fact is that Pakistan is not serious about any reconciliation between the government forces and the Taliban and will, in fact, do everything behind the scenes to thwart any progress towards a peaceful settlement. The recent conference in Bonn is ample evidence.
Pakistan regards the Taliban as a strategic asset in achieving her political objectives in Afghanistan. India’s efforts to support the Government of Afghanistan through a strategic partnership will, in all likelihood, push India into an indirect conflict with Pakistan with attendant implications for Afghanistan, India and the strategic partnership agreement itself. Under directions from Pakistan, while battling the government forces, sponsored by Pakistan or otherwise, the Taliban might target Indian personnel engaged in reconstruction activities and those deployed for their security thus jeopardising projects initiated under the new strategic partnership agreement. While Indian workers in civilian projects will, without doubt, be vulnerable, of particular interest to the Taliban would be Indian personnel engaged in the training of the Afghan Security and Police forces even though they would not be employed in combat role.
Apart from the adverse effects on Indo-Pak relations, the strategic partnership agreement may have an equally deleterious effect on Afghan-Pak relations. Firstly, the fact that the agreement was concluded soon after assassination of the former President Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani believed to have been engineered by Pakistan, could have been perceived by Pakistan as an opportunistic move by Afghanistan to isolate Pakistan in the region.
President Hamid Karzai’s olive branch to Pakistan and his reference to the Eastern neighbour as a “twin brother” have not allayed the deep seated apprehensions of the motive behind the Indo-Afghan partnership. It has only served to accentuate the deep distrust and suspicion between Kabul and Islamabad. Signing of the agreement with India at this juncture when major geo-strategic changes in the region are underway will be seen by Pakistan as an expression by the Hamid Karzai government of its deep-seated hostility to Pakistan and the intent to ally with India. The partnership agreement has therefore successfully eliminated the possibility of resumption of the peace talks with the Taliban that were abandoned following the high profile assassination in Kabul in the recent past.
Position of the United States
It is clear beyond any doubt that US policy in Afghanistan followed over the last decade has been a complete disaster. Under the Bush administration, the US Afghan policy aimed to keep India out of any security arrangement in Afghanistan and place total reliance on Pakistan to defeat the Taliban. The US has finally acknowledged the Pakistani double game, something that she must have known all along but chose to ignore. The incredible naivety in the last decade has seriously damaged US security interests.
However, with the impending withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan and the relationship with Pakistan in complete disarray, the US has perhaps no option but to turn to India to salvage the situation. There has, therefore, been a paradigm shift in US policy regarding India’s involvement in Afghanistan. The US now sees a congruence in the perceptions and objectives broad commonality with India not only in Afghanistan but also as an emerging regional power, to be a bulwark against the developing China-Pakistan nexus. In her recent visit to India, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, exhorted Delhi to play a greater role in the region and take over certain responsibilities not only in the transition phase but in any long term security arrangement in Afghanistan. As a stakeholder, the US would not only welcome the agreement but hopefully work towards its durability and success. It is understood that the US itself is contemplating a long term strategic partnership with Afghanistan post withdrawal over the ashes of its relationship with Pakistan.
Despite reservations within the government, the US plans to maintain a few permanent military bases in Afghanistan with residual military presence of around 30,000 troops for specialised counter-terrorism operations jointly with the Afghan National Security Forces. The proposal would certainly not be welcome by Pakistan, the Taliban, Iran and even Russia. However, if at all the US eventually succeeds in this somewhat impractical and questionable proposition of their permanent presence, with the Indian security personnel present in the country even if only to train the Afghan national security forces, there would be thus an inevitable linkage between the Indian and the US special forces that would be facing a common threat and possibly sharing a common objective. The strategic partnership with Afghanistan would thus draw India into an undeclared military alliance with the US and perhaps, in direct conflict with Pakistan in the future dynamics of the Afghan quagmire and descend jointly into a bigger mess. It will be difficult for Pakistan to accept her position in Afghanistan being usurped by its traditional enemy number one in its own backyard.
The China Factor
In the context of the strategic partnership in question, China would have two major conflicting interests in Afghanistan. On the one hand, China could see in the new situation in Afghanistan an opportunity to wage a proxy war simultaneously on India and the US through her staunch and now somewhat helpless ally, Pakistan. On the other hand, there are irresistible economic opportunities in Afghanistan by way of the huge unexploited mineral wealth and conduit to energy resources of the Central Asian Republics for which China would need a stable, conflict-free, independent, democratic and pro-Pakistan Afghanistan to exploit opportunities without use of military might.
However, on account of the sudden proximity of Afghanistan to India, its growing hostility to Pakistan and the American intent to maintain military presence there in possible collaboration with the Indian forces, Beijing will find itself sitting on the horns of a strategic dilemma. At this juncture, China has therefore to choose between a proxy war against her enemies and peace in Afghanistan to secure her economic interests. In any case, China is unlikely to remain a mute spectator. More likely that China will craft a role for herself to counter the impact of the strategic partnership agreement. However, this will undoubtedly be a major challenge to China’s diplomatic acumen and statesmanship. Both Afghanistan and India need to factor this into the plans in the execution of the agreement.
With deference to Pakistan’s sensitivities regarding Afghanistan and to obviate any adverse reactions, India displayed considerable restraint and maintained a low profile in its involvement in Afghanistan only providing discreet support for the Karzai government. The situation today with the present government is somewhat similar to that of the Najibullah government in February 1989, when withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan led to an internecine conflict and eventually culminated in the collapse of the government in April 1992. A similar fate may be in store for the Karzai government.
At this point in time, there are clearly two schools of thought that are completely divergent regarding India’s approach to Afghanistan. One holds that if India is aspiring to be a regional player and subsequently, a superpower, it must shed its timid “soft power” approach and exploit the opportunity that Afghanistan has provided to begin flexing muscles in the region. The opposing view is that as India does not have direct access via land route to Afghanistan, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to sustain any level of military engagement there. Besides, it would be somewhat imprudent to venture into a land where three global powers, Britain, USSR and the US have miserably failed in the last nearly two centuries.
Critics opine that India would do well to first manage internal strife and secure her own borders against unfriendly neighbours before seeking engagement outside national boundaries. However, the ingredients of the strategic partnership agreement reflect India’s approach to cautiously tread the middle path which is a combination of the traditional “soft power” approach and an incipient military involvement, scrupulously avoiding a large scale intervention to replace the US and NATO forces. Though apparently a calibrated approach that took nearly six months to craft, there could still be some pitfalls in the implementation of the strategic partnership agreement. The Indian government ought to be watchful and resilient to respond speedily to recalibrate plans should a changed situation so warrant. Perhaps the greatest uncertainty that could impinge on the agreement is the collapse of the Karzai government.
There is also a hidden possibility of radical change in American policy with altered paradigms that could well leave India literally holding the baby. It remains to be seen whether India has ventured into a deal she may find difficult to sustain.
The strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan can be regarded as a game changer in the region and truly a landmark event. However, there are uncertainties and impediments that the signatories ought not to overlook or ignore. While the agreement will impact each stakeholder differently, the real challenge for both India and Afghanistan will be to restore the process of currently derailed negotiations amongst the stakeholders and convert the slogan of peace in Afghanistan into reality. Undoubtedly, this is likely to be a task more easily said than done.
However, the real test of India’s foreign policy will be the survival of the strategic partnership in the labile and volatile political and security environment that could prevail in Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014. India is acutely conscious of the fact that radical changes in the political situation or the leadership in Afghanistan could impinge on the relationship with India and despite the safeguards built in, would have the potential to dilute, if not nullify, the strategic partnership agreement. As India’s approach to Afghanistan aims to transcend local ethnic, tribal, sectarian and political divides, there is a reasonable chance that the strategic partnership agreement would be able to weather the storm and survive the severest internal turmoil aggravated by external forces. That is certainly the need of the hour.