India might end up paying a big price for its strategic myopia in Afghanistan.
By Sushant Sareen*
One of the most galling whines that has characterised the take of Indian politicians, officials and analysts on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is the threat this poses to Indian investments in that country. Apart from being insulting to our Afghan allies and friends, it is also reflective of the pettiness and penny-pinching attitude of India’s strategic community on an issue that they themselves label as being critical for India’s strategic security.
The constant refrain of the $2 billion (or is it $3 billion?) investment India has made in infrastructure projects and institution- and capacity-building in Afghanistan is flung in everyone’s face to justify Indian interest in Afghanistan. But India’s interests in Afghanistan transcend the bean-counter’s approach to any problem—India doesn’t need to wave the bill to justify its interests in Afghanistan. Even if we had spent nothing, or spent 10 times the amount we claim to have spent, India will always have a legitimate interest in Afghanistan’s stability and security.
If only we did the math before we wave the $2 billion figure in other people’s faces, we would realise that for a country with a $2.5 trillion economy to talk of $ 2 billion is only to demean itself. The $2 billion has not been spent every year in Afghanistan since 2001-02. It has been spent over the last 15-17 years. Average out this sum over this period and it means that India has spent around $150 million a year on Afghanistan. As a percentage of India’s GDP, this is 0.006 per cent. Even if India was to spend $2 billion every year in Afghanistan, it would constitute only 0.08 per cent of India’s GDP. In a country where scams like CWG had a price tag of around $10 billion, and other UPA-era scams like Jijaji, 2G, Coal and Jayanti Tax also ran into billions, to crib about the $2 billion we might lose if things go south in Afghanistan is really the worst sort of carping.
While it is fashionable to mock at and even bristle over the politically incorrect utterances of US President Donald Trump, he did have a point when he said that other countries—referring to regional players like India, Russia, Pakistan and China—were taking advantage of the US and doing their stuff in Afghanistan on the cheap by letting the US pick up the tab. Of course, Trump himself has a very cost-oriented approach to strategic issues. But given that his country foots most of the bill in and for Afghanistan, it can be justified to some extent.
Even more than Trump, it is Amrullah Saleh, the former Interior Minister and head of the Afghan intelligence and now running mate of President Ashraf Ghani, who gave a reality check to the international community when he said no one was doing Afghanistan a favour by assisting the Afghan state and society. He called it a partnership in which the Afghans sacrificed their blood in a war that also secured the Western countries spending money in Afghanistan. Although his comments were aimed more at the Western countries which spent more money on their consultants than on Afghans, they apply just as much to India, even though the Indian developmental record in Afghanistan has been better than anyone else’s.
What Amrullah is basically saying is that if the Afghan state collapses and the forces of medieval barbarism represented by the Islamist Taliban take over, then the war that is currently being fought in Afghanistan by Afghans will be fought by countries like India in India. Therefore, rather than worrying about the $2 billion, India should worry about the security fallout of a destabilised or Talibanised Afghanistan. This will cost us far more—in blood and money—than what we have spent so far in Afghanistan. If anything, India has so far profited handsomely from its investments in Afghanistan and has recovered in both tangible and intangible terms the investments we have made. The sort of influence India has wielded in Afghanistan since 2001 has actually come on the cheap.
It was India’s failing that we were diffident in cementing strategic gains by pushing the envelope further, not the fault of the Afghans who were always ready to partner with India in fixing our mutual enemy. If anyone lost the many opportunities that came India’s way in Afghanistan to actually steal a strategic march over its enemies, it was the pusillanimous policy of appeasing the enemy rather than fixing him. Part of the problem is cultural and civilisational—we like to appear to be the nice guys, people who are respected as friends not feared as foes. We were riding on US shoulders and therefore despite our tall talk of “strategic autonomy”, there was neither any strategy nor any autonomy that we chose to exercise in Afghanistan.
But part of the problem was also policy vacuity.
I remember a meeting with some of the top policymakers of the former regime in which one diplomat was jabbering about gender equality, women’s rights, etc. She was unable to understand that none of this would matter if the security dimension was ignored. But the focus in the meeting wasn’t so much on exercising hard power as it was to further push India’s soft power—capacity-building projects, Bollywood, cricket, medical tourism and trade promotion.
Soft power is very important but has no meaning without hard power to back it up. At a time when security was at a premium in Afghanistan, no one was going to be interested in India’s soft power. When things started going bad, and the Americans refused to build the sinews of the Afghan National Army by giving them force multipliers like airpower, tanks, artillery and choppers, the Afghans looked towards India. But we were scared that the Pakistanis wouldn’t like it. Plus we were afraid that some of this equipment could fall in the hands of the enemy. The wrong decisions of that time meant that we lost credibility with some of our friends and allies.
The result of this credibility loss is that even at this late stage when the US is all set to abandon Afghanistan, if India was to try and double down on support for its friends and allies and anti-Taliban forces, it is unlikely if it would find anyone who thinks India will use all its national power to back them against the Taliban. Indiscreet remarks by top officials have only further undermined India’s credibility among the Afghans. That barbarians like the Taliban can never be India’s friends or allies, nor can India’s interests ever be served by reaching out to this evil force which is also a puppet of Pakistan, somehow just doesn’t enter the mind-space of Indian officials who live in a world of their own make-believe.
India will probably end up paying a big price for its strategic myopia in Afghanistan. There is very little we can do at this stage to turn the tables in our favour. This doesn’t mean leaving the field open. If anything, India should continue to strive to build leverages because nothing ever remains the same in Afghanistan for very long and we will get our chance if we show strategic patience. But more importantly, we should learn the lessons from the blunders we have made and the opportunities we have missed.
First and foremost, India should ask itself what price tag it puts on strategic security. Do we want to continue seeking strategic stability and security on the cheap or by riding on other’s shoulders, or are we serious about building our own capacities and capabilities for exercising strategic autonomy? One thing is clear: India’s pretensions of being an emerging power just don’t sit well with a strategic mentality of a kirana shop owner who is more interested in counting pennies and nickels. Without an imperial mindset in which rather than playing for small change, India is ready to play the big game and take the risks and pay the costs—India will remain a bit of a pushover.
But how will we change our attitude to something like strategic security and stability that transcends our own borders? Remember, India is a country which ignores its own defence and puts national security at a deep discount by starving its defence forces of the capabilities they require and putting stupid bureaucratic obstacles in the path of developing a robust defence industry. We may continue to delude ourselves about our economic and military strength, but as long as we keep treating national security as something we can buy on tap—why else does every finance minister say in the budget speech that “more will be allocated for defence if required”?—we will continue to be treated as a weak power that can be trifled with.
The tragedy is that given the level of political debate in which the temptation to score political points and pulling down political rivals takes precedence over the damage caused to India’s interests, it is unlikely that India will wake up to the enemies and threats it faces, and the things it needs to do as a nation to secure itself.
This article originally appeared in Newslaundry.