It is to be seen if India will play this game with ‘boots and guns’ or with a sustained development agenda.

 

NEW DELHI: Has the recent turn of events in the subcontinent opened up a possible new theatre of diplomacy for India to act on—Afghanistan?

At least a few happenings suggest this strongly and are endorsed by South Asia experts at top US think tanks in Washington DC.

Interestingly, the Ministry of External Affairs downplays any such immediate role for New Delhi in the war-torn, terror-devastated Afghanistan. But it also leaves the window open on not missing out on the “big picture signals” from US President Donald Trump seeking “bigger Indian role in Afghanistan” and the chords possibly compelling him to ask for India’s hand. After all, the “failed US-Taliban talks” have cast doubts on the future role of Pakistan in the Afghan peace process and US has started hinting at more cuts in aid to Pakistan for the latter’s failure in curbing terrorism and its alleged terror-funding links in the region.

The terror watch dog, Financial Action Task Force (FATF) warned Pakistan on Friday to “curb terror financing by 2020 or face black-listing”.

But there is more to these immediate signs and in that, Afghanistan’s own government offices in Kabul reverberate with possibilities of India’s bigger presence and strategic role in that country. The common Afghan citizen too is distancing himself from Pakistan, more because of the “terror tag” that they get in the subcontinent, which is “impeding Kabul’s development in the eyes of top global economies and big investors”.

“A normal Afghan national hates Pakistan,” a senior Indian official told The Sunday Guardian requesting anonymity, and added, “India’s continued presence in Afghanistan for support in its reconstruction and development works will continue anyway and we will wait for a clearer picture to emerge.”

However, top diplomacy and strategic experts on Afghanistan-Pakistan and India-US relations in Washington DC think tanks put it straight: “Pakistan may not like India’s growing role and the genuine goodwill it has earned in Afghanistan as that would mean cutting on its influence further in the Afghan peace process, putting further strain on its relations with the US, but India can’t be ignored as Afghanistan’s future is at stake and it might be soon asked by the Trump administration to assist the US in a more constructive role.”

That constructive role will be a non-militarised assistance from India for sure, say experts unanimously, adding quickly, “but that presence itself will rub salt on Pakistan’s wounds which have opened up more with the recent US snubbing before and after the 74th UN General Assembly session in New York last month.”

Says Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan Studies at The Middle East Institute in Washington DC: “India could take up some greater advisory role with the Afghan security forces and, of course, increase its non-military assistance. But that will further strain US relations with Pakistan. Pakistan was greatly upset when President Trump called on India to assume a larger role.”

Professor Weinbaum, who is also a former analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the US State Department, told The Sunday Guardian: “The visible strategic gain for India will be to help ensure that Afghan security forces will not collapse with a reduced American military presence. Strategically, it will work toward preventing the emergence of a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan that could impact the subcontinent.”

A developed and robust Afghanistan is in greater interest for India as it pursues its “Great Game” in the subcontinent. India has old historical and cultural ties with Afghanistan as well as more recent diplomatic, economic and strategic ties with the Afghan state.

Aparna Pande, a South Asia expert at the Hudson Institute says: “Afghanistan was, is, and will remain critical for India. India has a strong interest in a politically and economically stable and peaceful Afghanistan. India has invested around $3 billion over the last 18 years and will continue to assist Afghanistan on the economic and strategic fronts as well as maintain the people to people ties. India has no exit strategy in Afghanistan, Afghanistan remains an important partner.”

Pande, who specialises in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well, added: “Washington understands the role India has played in Afghan stability and would like India to continue to do what it has done on the economic and strategic fronts.”

But she added, “India does not send troops to another sovereign country’s territory and also because Afghanistan too would never want India to send troops.”

Michael Kugelman, another noted South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, agrees but also offers the “limitations for India in taking over such a responsibility”.

Kugelman told The Sunday Guardian: “While Trump has hinted on several occasions that India should step up its security role in Afghanistan, the biggest ask of this administration with India is that New Delhi do more of what it’s already doing, which largely revolves around providing development and diplomatic assistance to Kabul. That said, asking India at this juncture to do more of anything in Afghanistan is a tall order. And that’s because the US is trying to engineer a peace process that involves Pakistan and excludes India. New Delhi’s hands are tied so long as this Pakistan-facilitated peace process is in place. And I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it after Trump called off talks with the Taliban.”

Others argue that Trump may not have moved beyond what he said—just as France asked India, which is to get “closer to Afghanistan to join in the anti-terror efforts in the sub-continent”, but it has also shut the doors on Pakistan.

Can India offer more assistance, both economic and security related? The answer would be yes, says Pande adding, “the most recent example is the military equipment India provided to Afghanistan.”

On political governance too, Afghan political parties look to India as a stable partner for regional development and insiders hint that whichever party comes to power in Kabul, it will look to New Delhi to safeguard the country’s sovereignty.

US has strongly acknowledged India’s role in Afghanistan, Speaking of India as a main partner, the US President called out for a more proactive role for India in Afghanistan. Strategic experts see this shift in US policy as “offering more room for convergence of interests with India when it comes to Pakistan and its links with terrorism”. Eventually, it will draft a bigger role for New Delhi in Afghan affairs just as White House pulled India into a major role in the Indo-Pacific region.

But there is a flip side to India’s growing role in Afghan affairs, says Weinbaum, who adds, “Undoubtedly, any increased Indian role in Afghanistan will generate suspicion in Pakistan. But so long as its contribution does not include the introduction of Indian combat forces, there will be no crisis created.”

It is to be seen if India will play the Great Game in Afghanistan with “boots and guns” or with a sustained development agenda. Time will tell that sooner or later!