Securing Indian Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2014

Securing Indian Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2014

by C. Christine Fair
January 16, 2014

This is one of nine essays in the roundtable “Afghanistan Beyond 2014: The Search for Security in the Heart of Asia.”

Few countries are as motivated to stay the course with Afghanistan as is India, whose interests there are numerous and enduring. Over the last decade, India has largely used its amicable relations with President Hamid Karzai and the U.S.- and NATO-provided security umbrella to pursue its varied objectives in Afghanistan. However, as the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force in 2014 looms, India must now craft its future policy amid numerous sources of uncertainty. No one knows who will govern a post-Karzai Afghanistan or what role, if any, the Taliban will have at the central and subnational levels of governance. No one knows how the United States will disengage and what security forces, if any, will remain for modest operational support or sustained training of Afghanistan’s fledgling security force. Equally worrisome, no one can say whether the United States or other members of the international community will continue their financial support for a bloated Afghan government that has no ability to pay for itself, and if they do, for how long. Worse yet, will the United States again outsource its Afghanistan policy to Pakistan? These are all pressing questions for India. This essay seeks to briefly outline India’s policy preferences, the means it has to execute these preferences, and the domestic and international alliances that will likely shape India’s ability to stay the course in Afghanistan after 2014.

Indian Interests in Afghanistan

While it has long been recognized as the preeminent power in South Asia, in recent years India has projected itself as a rising power in the international system. In the past, India largely reacted to events within its extended strategic environment, which it sees as comprising the entire Indian Ocean basin and much of central and southwest Asia. Increasingly, however, India wants to play a decisive role in determining regional security throughout its near and extended strategic environment. Consistent with this goal, New Delhi has become more interested in proactively employing its formidable and growing economic and political influence to prevent developments that undermine its strategic interests.

India’s current and future interests in Afghanistan should be viewed through the lens of India’s emergence as an extraregional power and an aspiring global actor. It hopes that Afghanistan will not revert once more to a sanctuary for Islamist terrorism taking diktat from Pakistan. Through continued investment and support in Afghanistan, India aims to mitigate Pakistan’s tenacious efforts to cultivate Afghanistan as a client state. Most importantly, Afghanistan, along with Iran, is an important corridor through which India can project power and influence throughout Central Asia and beyond. By pursuing its varied interests in Afghanistan, New Delhi can demonstrate that its foreign policies are not driven solely or even primarily by Pakistan. Over the last decade, India has succeeded in some measure by cultivating a suite of sophisticated diplomatic relations with an astonishing array of countries in Southwest, Central, and Southeast Asia. Afghanistan and Iran are of particular import for India because they are its only gateways for the transport of goods into and out of Central Asia and beyond, particularly as Pakistan is not likely to ever offer India access to its ground lines of control.

Above and beyond using engagement with Afghanistan to advance its position as an aspirant to global power, India needs to address significant and persistent security concerns that emanate from Afghanistan, as well as from Pakistan. Most of the militant groups that have terrorized India since the early 1990s—e.g., Harkat-ul-Jihad-Islami (HuJI), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen/Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuM/HuA), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—have trained in Afghanistan, with varying degrees of connection to the Afghan Taliban and, by extension, al Qaeda. [1] Most of these groups (i.e., HuJI, HuM/HuA, and JeM) are also of the Deobandi school of Islamic thought, as are the Afghan Taliban. These Deobandi groups all share enduring and complicated personal and organizational ties through a network of Deobandi madrasas, mosques, and Islamic scholars; they have benefited from the protection of various factions associated with the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, a Pakistan-based Islamist political party representing the interests of the Deobandi ulema (religious scholars). LeT, in contrast, is tied to the Ahl-e-Hadith interpretative tradition, which never co-located with the Taliban and instead operated its own training facilities in Afghanistan. Despite the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan, these groups continue to operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, where most still enjoy sustained patronage from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which employ them against India. India dreads Afghanistan again becoming a terrorist safe haven.

India also seeks to secure and retain Afghanistan as a friendly state from which it has the capacity to monitor Pakistan and possibly even influence events there. Pakistan, for example, has long alleged that India has worked with the Afghans to destabilize Balochistan by supporting Baloch rebels. Pakistan also alleges that India is supporting the Islamist terrorists operating throughout Pakistan. New Delhi denies these accusations as vigorously as Islamabad makes them. While Pakistan’s maximalist allegations are most certainly false, India’s insistence on complete innocence is also unlikely to be true. This puts the two sides in indirect conflict in Afghanistan, which has become increasingly bloody. Pakistan’s terrorist and insurgent proxies have attacked Indian workers, diplomats, soldiers, and intelligence personnel in an effort to increase the cost of India’s presence in the country.

Additionally, the future of Afghanistan has a number of important domestic impacts on India, which motivate New Delhi’s apprehensions about Islamist militants based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. First and foremost, militant groups are actively recruiting disaffected Indian Muslims throughout India, even going as far as establishing franchises in the country that are increasingly distant from their parent institutions in Pakistan. Second, Islamist militancy in India coexists in devastating synergy with a growing Hindu nationalist movement. Proponents of Hindu nationalism seek to reshape India as a Hindu state, and Hindu extremists have used Islamist violence in India to justify their anti-Muslim violence. In turn, Islamist militants justify their own actions on the basis of “Hindu” oppression. In the process, India’s ostensibly secular fabric is at risk with increasing communal polarization that worries moderates of all faiths.

Securing These Interests without the U.S. Security Umbrella

India and Afghanistan have enjoyed cordial relations since the early days of Indian independence, including signing a friendship treaty in 1950. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–90), India’s presence in the country was restricted due to the U.S. decision to work almost exclusively with Pakistan to create thousands of mujahideen (with Saudi funding) to fight the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet era, New Delhi supported whatever government was in place provided that it was opposed by Pakistan. Once the Taliban consolidated power in 1996, India was again marginalized and forced to pursue very modest goals. Working with Iran, Tajikistan, and…

[1] LeT is a notable exception.

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