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India's reluctance to play greater role in Afghanistan shows Modi govt unwilling to shed Nehruvian foreign policy just yet

According to the US' Congressional Research Service (CRS), which prepares periodic reports for American lawmakers to make informed decisions, "India has been the largest regional contributor to Afghan reconstruction but New Delhi has not shown an inclination to pursue a deeper defence relationship with Kabul." This assertion is not without reason.

As both the Narendra Modi-led BJP government and the Ashraf Ghani-led NUG government in Afghanistan have almost completed their five-year terms in office, it is pertinent to argue that India has continued with a low-key or developmental approach to crisis management in Afghanistan. As a result, New Delhi has failed to contribute meaningfully to conflict resolution in Afghanistan, and has chosen to pursue hesitant policies in the defence sector. Despite lofty claims, the Modi government has largely continued with India's conventional non-interventionist policy in Afghanistan, as pursued by the previous regime.

The situation on the ground has deteriorated further since 2014 when the responsibility for Afghanistan's security was handed to Afghan security forces. The Afghan Taliban has maintained momentum on the battlefield, gradually expanding its territorial presence at the expense of the Kabul regime even as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has also gained a foothold in the war-torn country. Under these circumstances, the geostrategic repercussions for India of American withdrawal from Afghanistan, currently under discussion, are enormous.

In so far as the eventual political settlement in Afghanistan is concerned, there are three very plausible scenarios: (1) The emergence of an interim government of national reconciliation, which will oversee a multi-party electoral contest, (2) A political free-for-all in Kabul, resulting in the overthrow of constitutional authority and resumption of civil war, (3) The military triumph of the Taliban, leading to the installation of a fundamentalist Islamist regime.

India would welcome a broadly democratic regime in Kabul; such a government would be cool toward Islamabad, and this suits Indian aims. But this is the most ideal situation, which may not happen at all. This explains the need for India to save its huge investments in Afghanistan if the Pakistan-supported Taliban takes over Kabul.

 Indias reluctance to play greater role in Afghanistan shows Modi govt unwilling to shed Nehruvian foreign policy just yet

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. PTI

Under the previous United Progressive Alliance regime from 2004 to 2014, New Delhi became Afghanistan's fifth-largest donor with a total commitment of assistance reaching around $2 billion. India has enjoyed immense goodwill among the majority of the Afghan population through a combination of infrastructure projects and enhanced civil society engagement. With the Modi government expanding the scope of assistance, India has so far pledged and invested more than $3 billion in reconstruction and aid to Afghanistan. But in the security domain, India has continued to show inexplicable reluctance and pursued a hesitant approach on the provision of military equipment frequently requested by the Kabul regime.

The 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries — signed during the tenures of Hamid Karzai and Manmohan Singh — has not been operationalised to even half its potential. India was the first country with which Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement, despite the US and Pakistan being very eager to do so.

According to the CRS report, "Indian interest in Afghanistan stems largely from India's broader regional rivalry with Pakistan, which impedes Indian efforts to establish stronger and more direct commercial and political relations with Central Asia." Without any doubt, India has an undeniable interest in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. New Delhi desperately wants to ensure that the country does not become a terrorist safe haven from where terrorists are able to carry out attacks against India. Moreover, India has an abiding interest in viewing Afghanistan emerge as India’s bridge to Central Asia as reflected in New Delhi’s extraordinary efforts to open an India-Afghanistan air corridor. However, the Modi government has largely failed to bring about a decisive shift towards a more vigorous defence cooperation policy towards Afghanistan.

India's approach is often identified as cautious, as seen in its reluctance to take measures to militarily contribute to stabilising Afghanistan. It must be noted that India did give hints of a significant policy shift when the Modi government donated lethal military equipment to Afghanistan — four Mi-25 attack helicopters and three Cheetah utility helicopters — in 2016. However, it was also reported in early 2018 that many of Afghanistan's military helicopters were grounded due to a lack of spares. The primary reason being the prohibition faced by the NATO countries from buying Russian-made military hardware required to repair the helicopters due to sanctions on Russia following the intervention in Crimea and Ukraine. That is why the US wanted Indian to help the Afghans.

Many Afghan diplomats have expressed their country's frustration at repeated requests being either delayed or turned down by the Modi government. Items that are required by Kabul on a priority basis include utility and attack helicopters, tanks, artillery, ammunition and spares. However, in March 2018, the Modi government signed a pact with Belarus to supply the refurbished Mi-24 helicopters to Afghanistan. New Delhi is also a major training partner with Kabul that regularly sends military cadets for various training programs in Indian academies including the prestigious Indian Military Academy and the Officers Training Academy. This training cooperation has been a bright spot in Indian-Afghanistan relations. But much to the dismay of Afghan government, its requests for the delivery of other lethal military equipment have not been fully accepted by the Indian government.

When Ghani realised the futility of directly engaging Pakistan's all-powerful military establishment — he visited the GHQ in Rawalpindi and invited the Army and intelligence chiefs to Kabul, and even signed an abortive MoU between intelligence agencies NDS and ISI — within a few months of taking power, his regime decided to cosy up to India again. Since then, he has been pressing for a greater security engagement with India, and these demands were increasingly supported by Washington.

Unlike former US president Barack Obama, his successor Donald Trump has been vocal in inviting India to have a more robust economic and military role in Afghanistan. Trump's attitude is at complete variance with those of Pakistan's security establishment, which views any Indian engagement in Afghanistan as inimical to Pakistan’s strategic interests. This explains why Pakistan and its violent non-State proxies have responded aggressively to India's engagement in Afghanistan with occasional terror attacks on Indian personnel working in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long sought what military strategists call ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan if India declares war. India's military presence in Afghanistan would be sufficient to make Pakistan feel threatened and cause retaliatory attacks in Kashmir. Therefore there is a broad consensus in India's strategic circles that any kind of 'boots on the ground' option is not viable; Indian 'boots on the ground' would also mean New Delhi becoming an active player in the New Great Game in Central Asia. The Modi government has therefore largely preferred to continue with the UPA's developmental approach in Afghanistan, and has travelled a little further in terms of strong defence cooperation with the beleaguered Kabul regime.

However, this seems to be a self-contradictory policy: New Delhi is keen to increase its own influence and limit Pakistan's influence on Afghanistan. But this cannot be achieved by limiting engagement to a solely development-focused approach. Unsurprisingly, India finds itself marginalised in crucial peace negotiations between the Taliban and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The supply of military helicopters to Afghanistan gave the first clear signal that Modi wanted to pursue an interventionist policy to counter Pakistan's machinations in Afghanistan. But his reluctance to walk the extra mile seemed to be dictated by the need to avoid an open conflict with recalcitrant Pakistan.

Like the UPA government, the Modi government was also not oblivious to the fact that a more robust security engagement with Kabul would certainly provoke megalomaniacal generals in Rawalpindi. In Pakistan's security calculations, Indian intentions towards Pakistan are always malevolent. In Pakistan's security calculations, Indian intentions towards Pakistan are always malevolent. But the logic of Pakistani provocation seems unsatisfactory now in view of the public announcement of "surgical strikes" in 2016 and "aerial strikes" in 2019 against Pakistan after terrorist attacks on Indian territory were found to be planned and engineered by Pakistan-based terrorists: if New Delhi believed that it could manage Pakistan’s retaliation following these strikes, then it could have easily managed assumed Pakistani retaliation against India's robust military support to the Afghan government.

India's continued reluctance to participate in the stabilisation of Afghanistan by scaling up bilateral military cooperation can also be explained by the sustained influence of the Nehruvian strategic culture in Indian foreign policy bureaucracy that privileges non-alignment and non-intervention, unless vital security stakes are at stake. This is somewhat peculiar because the Modi government left nobody in doubt that it wanted to eliminate Nehruvian influences completely and replace them with the masculine Hindutva ideology fixated on a strong sense of national identity and national security. It remains to be seen whether the new government, irrespective of its ideological leanings, crosses the Rubicon in Afghanistan.

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Updated Date: May 06, 2019 15:59:04 IST