The United States may soon have the option of washing its hands of Afghanistan. But with an untrustworthy Pakistani military exerting greater influence, India does not.
This week, the second U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue under the aegis of Barack Obama's administration will be held in New Delhi. While much attention will undoubtedly focus on July 13's horrific bombings in Mumbai, it's the impending drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that will likely consume most of the discussions.
India is a significant player in Afghanistan. It has the world's fifth-largest aid program there, having committed $1.5 billion in developmental assistance. It has played a key role in reconstruction and has developed training programs for Afghan civil servants and police. India has made these investments in the country because its policymakers are keen on ensuring that a radical Islamist regime does not return to the country, that Pakistan not wield a disproportionate influence on any future government, and that Afghanistan might serve as a bridgehead for India's economic ties to the Central Asian states.
But as the U.S. military drawdown has begun, there is growing apprehension in New Delhi that India's investments may be at risk. These fears are far from chimerical; India's past experiences with the Taliban regime provide much basis for serious anxieties -- and not just due to the radical movement's long-standing ties to Pakistan.
Above all, India fears that a reconstituted Taliban regime would allow a host of anti-Indian terrorist groups, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, to find sanctuaries and training grounds in Afghanistan. Some astute New Delhi-based analysts also worry that a resurgent Taliban may actually help broker a peace agreement between the Pakistani regime and Pakistani domestic terrorist groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. That, they argue, could redirect the collective wrath of various jihadi organizations from internecine conflict and focus it on India, and more specifically Indian-controlled Kashmir. Finally, they are concerned that a Taliban-dominated regime would forge links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other jihadi groups in Central Asia, thereby adversely affecting India's quest for access to energy resources and markets in the region.
Yet New Delhi also sees the writing on the wall. In mid-June this year, India dropped its previously unyielding opposition to any form of reconciliation with the Taliban when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that India would be open to any form of reconciliation that is Afghan-led. This concession was far from trivial, and reflects India's recognition that it needs to demonstrate a degree of flexibility as the U.S. withdrawal approaches to ensure that its interests are not wholly ignored.
According to an ABC poll conducted in December 2008 and January 2009, India is popular in Afghanistan, despite its past mistakes during the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country. Yet without security, it is far from clear that India will be able to maintain its current profile in the country. Thanks to Pakistani intransigence (with America's acquiescence), India has been unable to place any viable security contingent in Afghanistan and has also shied away from training the Afghan army. Even its substantial diplomatic presence within the country has been subject to routine Pakistani diplomatic barrages and, in all likelihood, at least one Pakistan-linked attack on its embassy in Kabul, in October 2009. Despite these pressures, India has stuck to its guns in the country and has continued with its developmental activities. India will not easily walk away from Afghanistan.
That said, India's policymakers have yet to devise anything resembling a viable plan for a post-ISAF Afghanistan. Neither the Afghan National Army nor the Afghan National Police are up to the task of coping with a resurgent Taliban, and most foreign troops are scheduled to leave by 2014. So far, India's plans consist largely of hand-wringing and facile hopes.
Key members of the policy establishment apparently believe that the gradual American shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism will work. From their perspective, the steady erosion of the Taliban leadership through airstrikes and Special Forces raids could weaken the movement sufficiently to enable President Hamid Karzai's government to survive the U.S. drawdown. In large measure, their analysis draws on the experience of Mohammad Najibullah's regime, which survived a full three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Compared with that brutal, Soviet-backed regime, Karzai's government, while widely perceived to be corrupt and inept, still commands some shred of legitimacy.
India's historic ties to the Northern Alliance could be helpful. Yet New Delhi has yet to decide when to decisively mobilize its contacts to prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it appears strangely content with maintaining links with the Karzai regime and bolstering its developmental assistance programs in the country.
Given the stakes involved, a small handful of Indian security analysts has started to publicly argue that India should offer to train Afghan security personnel. They stress that such a policy choice would not only bolster the Karzai regime but would also enable India to help shape Afghan's political future. Sadly, the Indian political leadership has shown little inclination to act on this proposal.
Simultaneously, Washington has evinced little interest in promoting that prospect for fear that it would promptly elicit strenuous Pakistani objections. Quite predictably, its political and military leadership will argue that such a policy shift would grant India undue political influence within Afghanistan and prove detrimental to Pakistan's security. Such objections notwithstanding, Pakistan should not be in a position to exercise a unit veto over Indian policy choices.
Bluntly put, given the growing evidence of the Pakistani military's duplicity in sustaining the Taliban, its misgivings may have to be set aside. Despite its professions of cooperation, and after nearly $12 billion worth of U.S. assistance over the past decade, it has proved to be a Janus-faced ally. India's interest in ensuring a non-Talibanized Afghanistan actually dovetails with those of the United States. In this context, it is worth recalling that it was the Taliban that played host to Osama bin Laden after he was forced to leave Sudan. There is little reason to allow them to find their way back to power in Kabul, Karzai's recent overtures notwithstanding. Given that India shares a compelling strategic interest in preventing their resurgence and possesses the requisite institutional capacity to train Afghan security forces, Washington should prod it to assume that burden.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her entourage sit down with their Indian counterparts, a candid discussion of the regional implications of the troop drawdown is more important than ever. The United States may have the option of washing its hands of Afghanistan, but India does not.
AHMAD MASOOD/AFP/Getty Images