Trump’s New Afghan Policy: Too Early for India to Celebrate
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Chayanika Saxena

Trump’s New Afghan Policy: Too Early for India to Celebrate

Sep. 12, 2017  |     |  0 comments

The Indian foreign policy establishment is acutely aware of the implications that instability in Afghanistan can create for India’s security and for the stability of the larger South Asian region. Having been at the receiving end of terrorism whose bases, ostensibly, were installed in volatile spaces in Afghanistan, India is utterly sympathetic to the cause of establishing a democratic regime in this war-torn nation in the hope of finding a credible ideological partner in it.


As a result, ever since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, India has supported international and regional efforts geared at bringing political stability and economic prosperity to Afghanistan. Indian bilateral efforts have taken many shapes, ranging from capacity-building programs to infrastructure-related projects. These efforts have further displayed its genuine intent to make Afghanistan a sound post-conflict country.


However, even as India’s instructive democratic and economic success has many lessons to offer for the reinvention of the Afghan polity and economy, its international partners have paid little heed to it. In fact, for the longest time since the post-Bonn negotiations in 2001, India has been given a marginal role to play relative to the position it has enjoyed in the changing regional and global dynamics. Part of the reason for this deliberate neglect stems from the geo-political tensions germane to South Asia.


Making a Pakistan a “frontline state” in the US’ War on Terror, the latter was sensitive to the suspicion, and possible retaliation, that India’s greater involvement in Afghanistan would create within the Pakistani establishment. The other part of the reason for India’s limited role as a security guarantor in Afghanistan emerged from its own reluctance to put boots on ground in the apprehension that doing so might expose it to closer and immediate tactical retaliation from the non-state actors harbored across the Line of Control.


Some of the results of this part-forced and part-self-enforced distance from the Afghan peace process have been: neglect of India’s opposition to the distinction between the good and bad Taliban; India’s absence from major regional initiatives; and even the downgrading of India’s significance in the now-renounced five-circle policy of Afghanistan’s current President Ashraf Ghani.


Consequently, Indian assistance to Afghanistan has centered around four domains — humanitarian assistance, mega infrastructure projects, small and community-based development project and education and capacity development — all of which are meant to bolster the rule of law and effective governance in Afghanistan. In total, India has spent USD 2 billion in Afghanistan so far and committed USD 1 billion at the Brussels summit last year. Frequent educational and human resource exchanges; dedicated air freight corridor; influx for medical purposes; and not to forget, people-to-people interaction through cultural mediums like film and television, have further deepened cooperation between India and Afghanistan.


Following the drawdown of international forces in 2014, Afghanistan was almost left to fend for itself even as political stability and cohesion remained far away and the economy experienced withdrawal symptoms. The absence of definitive international support meant that Afghanistan had to look for ways to establish a semblance of order on its own, and which it attempted to do so through what proved to be a misguided attempt called the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group.


Visibly upset with the neglect under the new Afghan regime, India, nevertheless, on its part enabled the government to meet its two basic responsibilities — governance and service delivery — by delivering two major infrastructure projects, Parliament (Kabul) and Salma Dam (Herat). India’s cooperation with Afghanistan continued to take shape along the lines of what was envisaged under the “Strategic Partnership Agreement” of 2011.


As efforts unraveled, the dithering Pakistani support to Afghan peace initiatives once again made Afghanistan look to India for greater moral (and even military) support. Reciprocal high-level visits in 2016 became a regular feature, and economic, cultural, and political assistance to Afghanistan continued without halt, including the very recently completed Qasr-e-Story that is to serve as the new address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan.

Having been marginalized on Afghanistan in the past and with a self-proclaimed “economic nationalist” in power, India could be asked to cough up more, which is bound to generate reactions across the border.

Where the change of guard in Afghanistan created its own set of repercussions; that which happened in the US became a cause of global shock. The largely unpredicted rise of Donald Trump left many wondering about the shape American foreign policy would assume. Afghanistan too was left wondering about its fate especially as Trump, during his election campaign, argued for the complete and final withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.


However, Miles’ law — where one stands depends on where one sitsprevailed and today we have US staying put in Afghanistan with more troops (private or officially not known) on their way there. Saying no to deadlines and maintaining an element of suspense on the operational template of his Afghan strategy, the revised mandate of Trump’s Afghan policy is to “kill terrorists” and not “nation-building again.” There is hardly anything new in the strategy; some of its contours match those put in place by Obama.


The lack of a defined “win” and the temporal imagination of the “end” in his claim “in the end, we will win” has unnerved many, including people in Afghanistan who are anticipating more (possibly unending) war in the days to come. But let us not forget that the businessman in Trump would not let losses accrue forever. In fact, in calling upon the Afghan government to perform or see America leave could be read as American intent to look for an eventual “politically honorable exit” whose responsibility can then be placed on the ill-performing political class of Afghanistan.


Trump’s aversion to free-riding or drawing “blank checks” brings us to his opinion of another actor — India. Seeking more “economic assistance” from India in Afghanistan, Trump did appear to signal who the “good guy” is in the South Asian region. This, obviously, became more apparent as he proceeded to enlist India’s help after tightening the (rhetorical) screws on Pakistan. However, apart from the vindication of its claims about the role of Pakistan in not creating an atmosphere conducive for peace, India was effectively brought into an unsavory quid pro quo equation.


By asking India to contribute more to Afghanistan not for the sake of contribution, but because it trades in billions with the US (and makes money out of it), proved to be a major dampener. After all, India’s contribution to Afghanistan is the largest in South Asia and fifth largest in the whole world. As I have said elsewhere, to ask India to contribute more because it makes more could be seen as the levelling of the free-riding allegation against it.


Welcoming Trump’s strategy on Afghanistan, largely because of his shrill attack on Pakistan, India is, however, cautious about what to expect in the days to come. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Having been marginalized on Afghanistan in the past and with a self-proclaimed “economic nationalist” in power, India could be asked to cough up more, which is bound to generate reactions across the border. Also, given the supportive statements that have come from China and Russia for Pakistan, India’s apparent tilt towards the US will become more evident if it answers the American call for greater assistance.


To top that, the US’ careful choice of spheres for seeking India’s greater cooperation, skirting the military and security domains, is demonstrative of American awareness of Pakistani sensitivities which it still gives an upper hand to.


Overall, in the absence of a well spelled-out policy, there is indeed much to look forward to in the days to come. For India, which has shown cautious pragmatism on matters concerning Afghanistan so far, it would make more sense to not get carried away by the American rhetorical posturing against Pakistan and jump into what might become difficult to manage.


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