As America prepares to leave Afghanistan, it should help India find a greater and more measured role in the country. The US-India relationship, today, is arguably stronger than ever before. The two countries’ collaboration has deepened over the past decade, in traditional areas such as trade, but also in more sensitive areas such as counter-terrorism and defense. With such a favorable bilateral climate, the US could work with India to shape a clear and prudent Afghanistan strategy. The two countries have a shared vision for Afghanistan’s future: a stable, developing and self-sustaining country contributing to the region’s progress. More significantly, India has stronger ties with the Afghan government and people than perhaps any other country.
With the ongoing drawdown, ending in December 2014, of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan, the United States’ direct leverage over events in the country is reducing. The US can hardly hope to retain leverage through influence over Afghanistan’s direct neighbors. Iran, to Afghanistan’s west, shares a difficult relationship with the US over the issue of its nuclear program. To Afghanistan’s east and south is Pakistan. Pakistan and the US have had an increasingly bitter relationship following the Osama Bin Laden raid on May 2, 2011, in Pakistani territory. To Afghanistan’s north are various Central Asian countries. These, while rich in resources, have little influence over the region’s geopolitics compared to other regional powers. Washington fears a power vacuum in Afghanistan following the complete withdrawal of NATO and ISAF troops, given the country’s weak government and fragile civil society. Such a vacuum might diminish Afghanistan to its state during the 1990s, as a site for proxy wars among its neighbors.
India offers Afghanistan the prospect of a strong economy. At the November 2, 2011 Istanbul Conference, India was among the countries that embraced the New Silk Road strategy—a vision for a dynamic Afghanistan at the heart of South and Central Asian trade. For the strategy to succeed, India will have to play a crucial role. Afghanistan is rich in resources and India has the largest and most diverse market in South and Central Asia. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who attended college in India, recognizes the country’s rising regional influence. On October 4, 2011, he initiated and signed with New Delhi a strategic agreement, the first such pact Afghanistan has extended to any country. The India-Afghanistan strategic partnership more closely ties the two countries’ economies and intelligence-gathering, in addition to other areas.
Even though India may be crucial to Afghanistan’s success, Indian assistance to Afghanistan has raised a stubborn suspicion within Pakistan. The Pakistani military-intelligence establishment supports the Taliban primarily to resist a potential Indian threat emanating from Afghanistan. It fears encirclement by India on two sides, and seeks an Afghanistan sympathetic to Pakistan. In such a scenario, India must play its cards cautiously. It should play the role in Afghanistan as envisioned in the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, while at the same time allaying Pakistan’s suspicion. It is in the US’ interest to assist India with this delicate task.
The US could encourage India to assist Afghanistan primarily in areas such as education, technology, and infrastructural development. These aspects of Indian engagement, as opposed to, say, military presence, would seem less invidious and threatening to Pakistan. The Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram road link, for instance, is an example of an important and relatively uncontroversial Indian contribution to Afghanistan. The link connects Afghanistan to Central Asia.
Furthermore, to allay Pakistan’s concerns, the US could encourage India to engage with Afghanistan in partnership with other regional powers. At a time when governments in India and the Middle East are facing opposition at home, these countries can be brought together by a shared desire to work towards a more stable neighborhood. Such common interest can drive cooperation between, say, Iran and India, as well as Turkey and India, with all countries recognizing the benefit that a stable Afghanistan can provide to all. Despite a problematic relationship with Iran, the US recognizes the positive role it has played in Afghanistan. Wary of drug-trafficking and refugee-influx from its neighbor, Iran also seeks a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. Projects such as the Indian-made nine hundred kilometer rail link between the Chabahar port in Iran and the iron-ore reserves in the Hajigak region of Afghanistan benefit Tehran, New Delhi, Washington, and, especially, Kabul. Turkey, similarly, can play a critical role in partnership with India for assisting Afghanistan. As an influential regional power and as host to the most recent conference on Afghanistan, it has expressed its interest in working towards a stable Afghanistan. It has offered to collaborate with the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines, and has extended assistance to Kabul Medical University. If Indian assistance comes alongside that of other regional powers, Pakistan may come to recognize Afghanistan as not simply a battlefield for Indo-Pakistan conflict, but a vital nation that the entire region has invested in. Given the US’ shaky ties with Middle Eastern countries, India by itself would have to reach out to countries such as Turkey and Iran to frame collaborative projects in Afghanistan. Even so, the US could help shape India’s strategic thinking in this direction.
In addition to the withdrawal of NATO and ISAF forces, another event in 2014 will likely reduce the US’ leverage in Afghanistan: Afghan elections. President Karzai has declared that he will not be seeking a third term as President. The US, as a result, faces uncertainty regarding who and how amenable the leader of Afghanistan’s civilian government will be two years from now. In such a scenario, an India involved in a positive and measured capacity in Afghanistan would be in the US’ interest. With the flurry of conferences coming up over Afghanistan, most notably the Bonn Conference this December, a clear role for India would allay Pakistan’s suspicion. An India actively and cautiously assisting Afghanistan would offer US the hope that the dollars spent and lives lost in Afghanistan will, after all, bring about a stable and self-sustaining Afghanistan, after American troops return home.