It is a pertinent question as to how India-Afghanistan relations stagnated[i] from the days of the Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Karzai government in 2011 to the current days of relative disengagement and marginalization of India compared to other big players of the region. The question is aggravated if it is considered that neither country has made a hostile or negative move towards the other during this period. Yet, Afghanistan’s new leadership has resumed its ‘competitive yet brotherly’ relationship with Pakistan as the US withdrawal becomes imminent.
The complications of a dialogue with Pakistan are all too evident with the Taliban leadership fiasco, President Ghani’s admonitions to Pakistan, Pakistani rebuttals, festering insurgencies in both the countries, the deadly attack on the Kabul airport and the recent prison break. The Afghan leadership has been stern with Pakistan but willing to negotiate. The current situation is a far cry from the time when the Karzai government was making statements regarding breaching the Durand line to fight the non-state actors on the Af-Pak border. What accounts for this difference between 2011 and 2015 and what are the implications for India in this situation?
Afghanistan remains skeptical of American commitment to reining in Pakistan and Indian ability to influence the situation. Americans themselves have new global priorities in West Asia and Ukraine. India continues to remain neutral[ii] to the US-AfPak dynamic and tentative about the new Afghan government’s intentions and strategy in direct comparison to President Karzai’s regime which in turn had a fraught relationship with US and Pakistan in the later stages of its tenure.The bilateral course since then, has led to sub-optimal outcomes for the Indo-Afghan relationship. This diplomatic gap between India and Afghanistan has been due to the US and can only be filled by the US in the future.
Therefore, the critical and largely ignored variable in this state of affairs is that a symmetric reflection of the current stagnation occurs in a completely different relationship, that of India and the US. It should be born in mind that India has a lot to contribute to Afghanistan’s future in terms of economic, political and personnel support. India continues to receive decent public support among Afghans. What both countries have struggled with is to form a strategic understanding about the tangibles of India’s role in Afghanistan, each other’s capabilities and the sudden neutrality of US since the pullout announcement.TheUS is not convinced of the Indo-Afghan relationship compared to the pervasive influence of Pakistan in Afghan ground situation. There has been an overall failure of India and Afghanistan to renew the strategic relationship. The root cause of that, however, lies in the failure of India-US to do the same. A more elaborate explanation will follow.
It needs to be argued first that President Obama is a true blue liberal democrat who has shown a conservative temperament when it comes to security conflicts and policy. He has been pragmatic in his foreign policy and has not shied away from stern tactics abroad. However, as has been widely documented[iii], he has chosen the nuclear deal with Iran as his administration’s main legacy. He has been willing to stake his liberal-democrat legacy on the relatively liberal principles of the Iran deal based on verification and international law despite continuing concerns about the historical political relations with the Khomeini government. This leaves him with limited political capital to invest elsewhere and South Asia has been a particular blind spot for the Obama administration. After the demise of Richard Holbrooke, South Asia has fallen a few steps below in the priority order. Long standing policies are being winded down under the concepts of ‘strategic patience’, ‘sustained leadership’ and ‘shared responsibility with regional partners’.
The US has allowed Pakistan under Chinese patronage to drive the reconciliation with the Taliban and the old flawed dichotomy of ‘good and the bad Taliban’ has resurfaced in Afghan psyche. Afghans, who are hailed and berated at the same time for their history of intra-national conflict and fighting capabilities, are ill-equipped to tackle sustained Taliban insurgency. The unity government is delicate, the constitution fragile, the society historically tribal and primacy of pashtunwali prevalent and many ethnic groups[iv] like the Uzbeks and Tajiks are only recently being acknowledged. The rural bias in analysis of Afghanistan persists and the small urban Afghanistan with echoes of the 1950s and 60s liberalism are in their nascent stage of development. The aid is reducing but smart macro-economic and financial management[v] has shown encouraging signs of initial phase of economic stability wherever institutional mechanisms have taken root and corruption curbed.
However, grave challenges of nature of the economy, literacy, political instability and historical tribalism and religious radicalism continue to lurk. The Taliban insurgency, in spite of suffering massive losses, continues to behave according to the Kissingerian analysis[vi] that “Insurgents merely need to give the impression that the state is not winning to project false success”. However, many analysts have still hailed them in resisting American presence, akin to the successes of Vietcong, who incidentally were insurgents with a clear political objective and substantial territorial control. Taliban on the other hand are far from their political objectives besides holding pockets rather than areas under control.
The Obama administration after dismantling Al-Qaeda networks and the old Taliban government is going through what some scholars call “Grand strategic fatigue” of the last decade with two wars and are eager to withdraw troops. In fairness, they are trying to phase them out judiciously. The failure of Iraq has often been conflated to subsume Afghanistan but it can’t be forgotten that the latter was an internationally sanctioned war in response to the 9/11 attacks and International coalition was largely successful in enforcing severe costs to the planning organization and the regime harboring it in 2001. History will judge American intervention differently from the Soviet one.
In the east, Pakistan and China are collaborating on the new Silk Road framework and therefore the security situation in Afghanistan has led to a break from the ‘business as usual’ policy of the Chinese and their free-riding on the security umbrella provided by the US. Pakistan’s strategy was always premised on waiting out the Americans and cultivating their ‘geographical brother framework’ which gets inadvertently enmeshed with the more negative ‘strategic depth framework’ with respect to Afghanistan. The US has conceded to an unreliable but a pro-active ally in Pakistan and is looking to recede to shared international responsibility with the SCO. Afghanistan has strategic choices at hand between the newly co-opted Iranian regime which would be looking to engage the region after lifting of sanctions, and Sino-Pak dynamics, which will continue to hold persuasion for Afghanistan. However, there is one more dynamic Afghanistan can be convinced to channel which is the Indo-US dynamic. This is possible if Afghanistan calculates that her future grand strategic state and persuasions match with the more liberal India-US dynamic subject to tangible cooperation among the latter. This brings us back to the main variable- the India-US relationship.
The India-US relationship is a prisoner of strategic autonomy, systemic differences and history but it rests on relatively solid foundations of common values and interests. The change in priorities of the US administration in Afghanistan led to the glacial sidelining of India during the period from 2011 to 2015. Neither party escapes from criticism in this case. Slow implementation of the nuclear deal, slow progress on the new centerpiece –DTTI, delay in international institutional reform and consequent Indian graduation, reactive and cautious policy towards the new government in Afghanistan and inability to extract political advantages in return for assistance to Afghanistan has led to the current situation.
The Pakistani factor is definitely pervasive in influence but India needs to step up cultivation of the US in the regional stability of Afghanistan. India does not yet possess the strategic and political capital to influence Afghanistan in a bilateral capacity considering the number and diversity of internal and foreign actors involved. India needs American assistance and commitment in that role. American support has been less than forthcoming due to the domestic political priorities of the Obama administration which was alluded to in the previous section.
The Obama administration is split between a reliable but difficult partner insisting upon neutrality in all cases and an unreliable but proactive partner in Pakistan.The US herself has to elaborate on her‘strategic patience strategy[vii]’ in a region where they are looking to accommodate the rise and stabilization respectively of two status quo powers-Afghanistan and India simultaneously with two revisionist powers namely China and Pakistan. It further complicates the matter that all these countries are in competitive relationships whilst sharing geographical borders. The American strategy short of explicit statement is veering towards isolation in the region. None of the countries barring China and US have the wherewithal to stabilize the region on their own. Having said that it needs to be conceded that, Chinese priorities lie eastward in the near future. US needs to continue to be the chief balancer in the region.
Even China has started to rethink its two pillars of foreign policy[viii] – ‘non-interference’ and ‘business without politics’ in the Af-pak region due to disturbance in their Xinjiang province. The prudent option available to India, short of interference in light of her long standing status quoist and peaceful co-existence credentials, is to reach a strategic understanding with the US in the region and help demystify American hegemonic image in the region. The Indo-US relationship is inextricably linked to Indian and American goals of reinforcement of friendly behavior from the new Afghan government in the event that Afghans themselves are committed to chart a liberal course for their country away from what Jaswant Singh[ix] called Afghanistan’s greatest strength and her greatest weakness- Historical Societal Tribalism. India and US need to assist the nascent but evolving Afghan state in this goal for the foreseeable future.