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India and Afghanistan: Why India Must Push Harder

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

New Delhi must overcome it’s reluctance, and realize it’s potential to contribute to renewed governance in Afghanistan.

The recent visit to India of Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has highlighted the need for India’s greater role in the Afghan geopolitics. In an interview, Khalilzad emphasized on the continued constructive contribution of India to build sustainable Afghan governance, and also encouraged her to adopt a more active, assertive role in the broader peace process. While the voices for India’s greater involvement in bringing about a cohesive outcome to the fragmented Afghan polity have been getting louder, it is an opportune phase to modify the current ‘non-committal’ approach, to prevent further sidelining in negotiations, and make itself heard.

India’s approach to the Afghan peace process is quite apparent from it’s stand- it believes in an ‘Afghan-led, owned, and controlled process’. This, alongside it’s emphasis on engaging only with an elected government, and it’s reluctance to negotiate with the Taliban, which it regards as a terrorist entity, explains the near exclusion of India in a massively international intervention. But regardless, the realization of a seat at the table is vital for the success of a growingly outcome based foreign policy; the outcome being a stronger South Asia, that is otherwise surprisingly, one of the least integrated regions in the world.

The call for an accelerated push stems from the recent US-Taliban peace deal, and the broader narrative of US pull-out from Afghanistan. The deal puts onus on the Taliban to not let Afghanistan become a hotbed of terror activities against the US (and it’s allies), while promising it significant stake in domestic Afghan politics. Confidence building measures in this deal include a continued ceasefire, prisoner swap agreements, lowering of US presence, and lifting of sanctions against Taliban. This is a significant culmination of a near two-decade long ‘war’, albeit highlighting the limited success of the US to create cohesive governance within Afghanistan or reduce the Taliban’s power. The accelerated push, has also been necessitated by the implications of the above developments, such as

  • Political Instability within Afghanistan, where there is distrust not only between the government and the Taliban (seen by the recent air strikes), but also within the government, highlighted by two warring power centres in Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

  • Dangers of radicalization stemming from possible resurgence of the IS in Afghanistan, that may alienate it from India and penetrate the sensitive Jammu and Kashmir region.

  • The possible strengthening of the Haqqani network with it’s expected presence in a future Taliban backed government

  • Increased role of Pakistan in Afghanistan, which could jeopardize India’s claims to PoK and Gilgit Baltistan

  • Economic instability, that would reduce Afghanistan’s capacity to deal with it’s high poverty (over 40% of it’s population), poor health, and low GDP.

This vacuum is exactly where India must step in, building on not only the immense social and political goodwill that Afghanistan has for India, but also the strong cultural, economic, and strategic links. This must be in response to Khalilzad’s remark, that in spite of India’s role in Afghanistan’s socio-economic development, it hasn’t been the most active in international peace efforts.

A brief overview of the areas of cooperation between India and Afghanistan

For India

For India, a greater voice indicates it’s willingness to take leadership in reducing instability in South Asia, and subsequently craft a unified grand strategy for the subcontinent as part of it’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. A dominant role in regional integration would improve India’s credentials for a permanent UN Security Council seat manifold. Further, a stable political and economic regime in Afghanistan is key to make greater inroads into Central Asia, a resource rich region with which India has had limited economic partnerships in spite of an overarching Connect Central Asia policy.

From a strategic and security perspective, a strong Afghanistan allows India to develop greater stronghold over the Chabahar port, in the process, also having an oversight over Chinese developments in Gwadar port. Consequently, an increased bonhomie with Iran may just invite strong American condemnation, but that’s a risk India must be willing to take, learning from it’s tightrope walk in matters of oil import from Iran. Also, a vocal role for India is essential to counter a possibly hostile China-Pakistan axis, given the significant say of China and Pakistan in the Moscow Format.

For Afghanistan

For Afghanistan, an assertive India is a gateway to it’s greater visibility in SAARC, which seems to have gained a spark, out of necessity in cooperation in tackling Covid-19. The argument of greater visibility can consequently be extended to other multilateral frameworks, such as the WTO, and International Solar Alliance. It would also reduce opportunistic strategic manoeuvres by numerous nations, and would lend greater legitimacy to an Afghan led effort to frame a sovereign polity, an inclusive constitution, and a secular society, thus reducing a chance of crises arising out of interventionist policies as seen in Iraq and Syria. Further, India could prove to be a useful ally in cementing future US-Afghan relations, since most members of the Moscow Format (Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan) are currently witnessing a downturn in relations with the US. Lastly, it would pave way for stronger cultural and economic ties between Iran and Afghanistan, building on historical Persia-Taliban links; much to the probable dismay of Saudi interests, but soothed by an Indian assurance.

Potential Actions

With a brief overview of the importance of a renewed Indian approach to Afghan peace process having been established, it would inevitably come down to the ‘how’, a task that’s known to be wide in scope and notoriously slow, in diplomatic circles. Attempts to have a dominant role, would require India to go further than the traditional ‘soft power’ approach, that has been present till now, to ‘smart power’, that involves more Track 1 dialogue (high level interaction between political leaders) with multiple stakeholders. Track 2 (retired diplomats, academics, etc.) and Track 3 (people to people) diplomacy must fulfill the finer nuances of negotiations that result out of this dialogue.

Late in March, the US hinted at a $1 billion aid cut from it annual $4.5 billion package for Afghanistan, due to the failure of Afghan government to reconcile differences between Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah. Although recent developments indicate a temporary convergence between the two, India must use this as an opportunity not only increase it’s aid (that currently hovers around only 400 crores, and centres around Kabul), but also contribute to constructive governance in Afghanistan. As part of its policy to engage with elected governments, India could offer to reduce differences between Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah in a formal sitting, or a series of informal settings, cementing other progress made in regional forums like the Heart of Asia conference, or more unlikely, SAARC meets.

With regard to negotiating with Taliban, India must come to terms with an inevitable Taliban participation in Afghan polity, as even though it might not enjoy the confidence of the Afghanis, not negotiating would just exacerbate the numerous power conflicts. In this regard, it must focus on drafting a renewed framework for constructively engaging with Taliban. This may include it’s concerns ranging from the Haqqani Network’s presence, to understanding Taliban’s approach to accommodate minorities, such as Shias and the Indian diaspora. The recent statement of the Taliban, about Kashmir being India’s internal affair, must come as a positive signal in lieu of any such possible negotiations.

Greater administrative collaboration, from election training, to setting up dedicated vigilance units, could also prove to be useful in rejuvenating governance and a creating a positive global outlook, that builds on the already existing training programs for Afghan national security forces. Going forward, mechanisms, such as a 2+2 format, or the proposed ‘2+1 Formula’ (India, China and a south Asian country) could prove to be vital confidence boosting measures for the subcontinent as a whole.

Areas of concern

However, that being said, there are a few caveats, which make the case for charting India’s actions more carefully. Reassurances to the US and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are easier said than done. The US is currently witnessing a strong anti-globalization sentiment, leading it to focus more on individual ties, and consequently, more scrutiny of it’s friends’ foreign policies. KSA, with it’s planned massive investments into India, and it’s sway over the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, is also an important piece of India’s tense middle east policy.

Further, Afghanistan citizens may not fully appreciate India’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban and give it space in governance, thus leading to a potential loss in socio-political goodwill earned so far. In it’s negotiations, any provision detrimental to Chinese and Pakistani interests may invite their wrath, with questions being asked about India’s sudden active participation and it’s possible explicit intentions to limit their say.

Lastly, India’s assertion may lead to greater focus into India’s own internal issues, specifically in Kashmir, and the seemingly contradictory stance of interfering in other countries’ affairs while rebutting any international efforts into it’s own issues.

In Conclusion

Foreign policy is seldom a zero-sum game, especially in these times when balancing globalization and domestic interests go hand in hand. India’s endeavours to secure peace and stability in Afghanistan must thus, be rooted in the demands of realpolitik. It won’t be the first time that normative considerations of foreign policy have undergone sea change, as can be seen from the evolution of traditional non-alignment to NAM 2.0 in light of the need for greater multilateralism. On the same path, India must aspire to have a significant say in the post-peace deal era, that not just allows Afghanistan to move towards actual sovereignty, but also addresses it’s own considerations, strategic and otherwise.

(Abhishek Venkatesh is Fellow, Policy in Action program, Young Leaders for Active Citizenship - 2020). 


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