The recent visit of US National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster to South Asia has been hailed by Indians. This first visit to Delhi on April 17, 2017 by a senior official of US President Donald Trump’s administration came after the visits by McMaster to Pakistan and Afghanistan. This visit also came soon after the US bombed Afghanistan with the “MOAB,” which seemed to signal renewed American engagement with Afghanistan by the new Trump administration.
McMaster is familiar with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, where he served from 2010-12, and he had earlier stated his beliefs that Afghanistan has to be strengthened and hardened against the regenerative capacity of the Taliban which is based across the border in Pakistan. Moreover, during his visit to Afghanistan he had, according to a New York Times report, stated that “the best way to pursue their [Pakistan’s] interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through the use of diplomacy, and not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”
This was music to Indian strategic circles which had for years been arguing that the greatest impediment to peace and stability in Afghanistan was the support and sanctuaries provided by the Pakistani state to the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network. This has been admitted to by some of the most senior officials in the Pakistani government.
India has invested heavily in Afghanistan. Its development aid to the war-ravaged country is to the tune of two billion US dollars, making India the largest regional and the fifth largest international donor to Afghanistan. India is also the first country that Afghanistan signed a strategic agreement with, in 2011 under the Hamid Karzai administration, which had been friendly towards India. Ranging from the construction of roads, bridges, and power transmission lines, to monument restoration and grassroots projects, India has managed to win the hearts of many without engaging militarily. Most notably, India’s support has helped construct the Zaranj Delaram road which now connects Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar.
Afghanistan is important to India primarily for connectivity to Central Asia. India also wants a stable and peaceful Afghanistan which does not harbor terrorist sanctuaries. India has always had good friendly relations with that country. The only exception was when the Taliban regime, nurtured by Pakistan, was installed there to give the latter “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, which according to the late Pakistani author Eqbal Ahmed, has been the prime objective of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy since the rule of General Zia ul Haq, as this would neutralize any threat to Pakistani territorial sovereignty emanating from Pushtun nationalism.
But this has also meant that Indian engagement in Afghanistan has been countered by Pakistan through its proxies, particularly the Taliban, which has launched attacks on Indian interests there. India wants to prevent another situation like the one that arose when an Indian Airlines aircraft with passengers aboard was hijacked to Kandahar in 2000, leaving India without any lines of communication with the government there.
Towards the end of his tenure, the Karzai government which had blamed Islamabad for interference in Afghan affairs, and amidst its fraying relations with the US, had lobbied India for military aid, something that was endorsed only when the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge in Delhi in 2014.
The US Obama administration too had tended to view security and stability in Afghanistan through the prism of India-Pakistan rivalry. In late September 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, the US Commander in Afghanistan, reported to the Pentagon that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions.” Viewing Pakistan as a key ally in its war against terror, the Obama administration poured billions of dollars of military aid into Pakistan even as it sought to tone down Indian engagement with that country.
It was only with the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011 that the Obama administration began reviewing its Pakistan policy and began cutting its massive military aid to it. On May 27, 2014, President Obama announced that “America’s combat mission” would be over by the end of that year, and that “by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul.” However, a resurgent Taliban and the rumored presence of the Islamic State (IS) in the Af-Pak region meant that in October 2015, Obama had to slow the planned reductions of US troops and then, in June 2016, to increase the authority of the US commander in Afghanistan to order offensive military action.
India, which supports an Afghan-led and -owned, broad-based and inclusive process of peace and reconciliation, has been advocating the need for a sustained and long-term commitment to Afghanistan by the international community. While it has been comfortable with the NATO and US presence in Afghanistan, and with closer US-India ties paving the way for US appreciation of India’s role in Afghanistan, the US troops drawdown has heralded uncertainty. There is worry about the safety of Indian interests and assets in Afghanistan amid fears these could come under attack from Taliban elements with support from the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The White House has also advised slashing aid to Pakistan for its role in supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, other regional powers, namely Russia, China, and Iran, have also stepped up their activities in the Afghan theatre. The fractious national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah has not been able to provide strong leadership nor has it been able to strengthen institutions, and together with a weak Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), has instead provided an enabling situation for the IS to establish a foothold there, which the IS famously calls its “Khorasan province.”
According to Vladimir Sotnikov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia views the IS as a far greater security threat than the Taliban, as it threatens to spill over into the Central Asian republics, Russia’s “near abroad” and its traditional sphere of influence. Hundreds of jihadis from Russia’s Chechnya region are already fighting with the IS in Syria. Russia also wants to put an end to the Afghan drug trade which undermines Russian security. Finally, as its friction with the US and the West increases over Ukraine and Syria, Russia would like to see the end of US and NATO troop presence in its regional backyard, and backs the Taliban demand for the removal of all foreign troops from Afghan soil. Although Pakistan had been its enemy during the Cold War and the Afghan jihad, Russia has begun reaching out to that country for its Taliban outreach.
As NATO troops began to be withdrawn, Russia began increasing its presence in the region. Expecting the government of the day to collapse at any time, and sensing a lack of US strategy, which at the time was more focused on its Pivot to Asia, Russia undertook its own initiative to preempt any IS takeover and to prepare for any ensuing vacuum there. Russians have been reaching out to the Taliban and there have been numerous media reports, denied by the US and NATO, alleging its funding and equipping of the Taliban. Russia has also held three regional conferences on Afghanistan, all of which have sought to legitimize the role of the Taliban and to remove it from the UN sanctions list. This has further stoked Indian fears.
The very first Moscow Conference on Afghanistan that was held in December 2016, for instance, included China and Pakistan, but left out both Afghanistan and India. This was later rectified in the two conferences that followed this year. Even at the Heart of Asia process conference in Amritsar, India, that was held last year, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, ruffled many Indian feathers by saying that Heart of Asia was not the platform for India and Pakistan to score brownie points.
While India has repeatedly advocated that there can be no distinction between “good terrorist” and “bad terrorist,” and by extension, “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban,” it does see the group as increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with. Other regional powers like Iran and China have all reached out to it, and have tended to view it as a lesser threat than the IS. India risks being sidelined by other regional actors in Afghanistan. To that end, India has also on occasion attempted to reach out to the more amenable sections of the militant group.
Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, for instance, has visited India a number of times, and openly participated in a public event in Goa in 2013 while in the company of an Indian cabinet minister. More recently, a high profile ex-ambassador to Afghanistan said on national television that India should be ready to view all options vis-à-vis Kabul.
Earlier this month the Indian envoy to Afghanistan, Manpreet Vohra, held a meeting with the returnee militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hezb-e-Islami, who had been India’s sworn enemy and a close Pakistan ally during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Hekmatyar returned to Kabul after years of exile in Iran and Pakistan, under a peace agreement with President Ghani and after his organization’s removal from the terror list. Analysts believe this marks a clear shift in India’s policy towards Kabul, whereby it had refused to enter into any discussions with any entity apart from the ruling dispensation there.
The otherwise uncertain Trump administration has injected fresh optimism into Indian strategic circles. Not only did President Trump name India as a victim of Islamic terrorism at the recently held Riyadh summit, where Pakistan was present, but his NSA McMaster has also long held views that converge with India’s. This is primarily the view that security in Afghanistan has everything to do with Pakistan, and that Islamabad needs to be convinced that its interests can be advanced through diplomacy rather than through its support for terrorist groups, that stabilizing Afghanistan requires sustained international support, and that “situations in which a weak government is under siege by powers that are destabilizing require a strategy to address both the internal and external political dynamics.”
The White House has also advised slashing aid to Pakistan for its role in supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, which has enabled the latter to control almost 40 percent of Afghan territory as of February 2017, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. While NATO’s General Nicholson is continuing to advocate for more troops in Afghanistan, by all parameters it is evident that the new US administration is renewing its engagement with Afghanistan. India will have to carefully calibrate its Afghanistan policy and be prepared in all eventualities to go it alone there.