India’s Afghan policy has invited more critiques than appreciation over the years. It is criticised of being far too dependent on the military effort of the US-led ISAF forces. Predictions have been repeatedly made that once the Taliban-led insurgency makes a comeback to that country, either subsequent to the US downsizing its presence by 2014 or through a reconciliation process, India will have little leverage left in Afghanistan. However, as 2011 ends, the future of India’s presence in Afghanistan appears a little more stronger than before, for the US option of abandoning Afghanistan to its fate in near future looks highly improbable.
The credit for the spectre of optimism goes to India’s policy of staying engaged in the war-torn country in the face of adverse conditions. Some credit is also due to Pakistan’s policy of intransigence, which has inadvertently strengthened the Indian position. With the hope of rediscovering its strategic depth, Pakistan has made itself redundant in the stabilisation project in Afghanistan.
The year 2011 is sure to go down as a landmark year, during which India’s position on Pakistan as an unreliable partner of the US in the war on terror was vindicated. The May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden marked a new low in the US-Pakistan relations and since then, the bilateral relations between the two countries have dipped. While the US has made some attempts to restore normalcy in the strained ties, the marginalised civilian authorities in Pakistan have chosen to be a part of the growing tide of anti-Americanism in the country. Pakistan’s policy of non-cooperation is clearly based on the premise that such a policy would simply hasten US withdrawal from Afghanistan, thereby assisting it to reclaim its lost influence in that country.
Its directives to the US to vacate the Shamsi air base in Balochistan is the latest of the examples of growing divergence in the approaches of both countries. The decision came after a November 26 NATO air strike on a border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The details of the incident are still shrouded in mystery. Pakistan had ignored seven such earlier strikes that killed its forces. But strangely on the eighth occasion, it asked US to leave the strategic base, suspended fuel and other supplies through land routes, and pulled out from border coordination centres.
The December 2011 conference in Bonn, held 10 years after the first conference in the same city to decide Afghanistan’s political future, had generated lots of expectations. The US had pinned its hopes on a regional settlement of the conflict so that its project of downsizing in Afghanistan becomes a reality. However, with a sulking Pakistan and the militarily unscathed Taliban refusing to participate, Bonn II ended with little achievements. Since then, Pakistan has reiterated the need for involving the Taliban in any decision to finalise Afghanistan’s future, but has remained mum on the modalities of a process that would facilitate such participation of the extremists — typical of its decision to play a spoiler in Afghanistan’s stabilisation.
A day after the Bonn conference, Kabul witnessed one of the deadliest attacks in its history, an attack which President Karzai believed had its roots in Pakistan. Over 50 people were killed as a suicide attacker carrying an explosive in his backpack detonated at a Shia shrine. Both Islamabad and the Taliban condemned the attack, but there is little reason to believe that the attack, like the past ones, was not conceptualised in Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour.
Afghanistan is nowhere close to a peaceful solution. However, the obstinacy of Pakistan does not worsen the situation, which is at its all time low. This marks a stalemate, albeit temporary, in the US-led military efforts. Although none of the statements emerging from the Obama administration has said so, but the goal of downsizing its presence through a Pakistan-assisted settlement, now looks highly improbable.
In this background of a long-term US presence in Afghanistan, a sure-shot guarantee against the return of the Pakistan-backed Taliban to the power centres of Kabul, several options open up for India. First, it is an opportunity to deepen its engagement with Kabul. The Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement of October 2011 now appears to be a solid piece of written text capable of bolstering the bilateral ties. Second, there is an opportunity to expand the security-level cooperation between both countries, envisaged under the partnership agreement. Third, India can explore the possibility of leading the search for a regional solution to the conflict. Since the US and the Western efforts in this direction, based on the centrality of Pakistan, have repeatedly failed, an India-led initiative to involve the regional powers may hold the key to the solution of the Afghan conflict.
This article appeared at New India Express (http://expressbuzz.com/voices/india-in-afghanistan-is-like-light-amid-gloom/343727.html) and is reprinted with permission.