Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership
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Issue Vol. 27.1 -Mar 2012 | Date : 10 Jul , 2012

The Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Jaipal Reddy and the Minister of Mines of Afghanistan, Mr. Wahidullah Shahrani singing an MoU on Co-operation in the field of Development of Hydrocarbons between the Ministry of Mines of Afghanistan and the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas of India, in the presence of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the President of Afghanistan, Mr. Hamid Karzai

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.

China may have to choose between a proxy war and peace in Afghanistan to secure her economic interests.

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.

The greatest uncertainty that could impinge on the agreement is the collapse of the Karzai government.

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.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the President of Afghanistan, Mr. Hamid Karzai exchanging the singed documents of an agreement on Strategic Partnership between the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

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.

The real test of India’s foreign policy will be the survival of the strategic partnership.

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.

India’s Approach

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.

The strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan can be regarded as a game changer in the region and truly a landmark event.

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.

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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal BK Pandey

Former AOC-in-C Training Command, IAF.

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