Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India visited Afghanistan this week for the first time in nearly six years and brought with him promises of some $500 million in additional development aid. He was warmly welcomed in what President Hamid Karzai said was the prime minister’s “second home.” Singh in turn described Afghanistan as India’s “special friend,” insisting that it was “not like the United States.”
As the war in Afghanistan drags on and talks with the Taliban are probably underway, India is deeply concerned about the prospect of American troops starting their withdrawal after the summer.
India doesn’t believe in negotiating with the Taliban lest it herald their eventual return to power. Even if only elements of the Taliban are made part of the Afghan government, Pakistan would probably seek to regain its leverage while militant activity in the disputed territories of Kashmir could increase. It did during the Taliban’s previous reign.
New Delhi is already painfully familiar with the effects of Pakistani interference in Afghanistan. At least one of two devastating attacks on its embassy in Kabul, a July 2008 bombing that killed 58 people, was traced to Pakistan’s intelligence services.
During a press conference with his Afghan counterpart on Friday, Singh expressed frustration with Pakistan’s inability to capture terrorists wanted by India. He also said to be confused about Osama bin Laden being found and killed by US special forces in the country last week, suggesting that the Al Qaeda leader must have had support of “certain forces in Pakistan” to be hiding in plain sight for many years.
The sole voice cautioning against Taliban reconciliation, India was sidelined when the fate of Afghanistan was sealed during the London Conference in January 2009. Western powers, including the United States, did not seem to appreciate that India’s objectives in Afghanistan, unlike Pakistan’s, were perfectly aligned with their own — “to defeat the Taliban and to support the elected Afghan government,” as Fareed Zakaria put it.
Islamabad, on the other hand, “has long argued that it has a right to see a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan.”
India has much at stake in Afghanistan as Rupakjyoti Borah pointed out at The Diplomat this week.
India’s primary goal in Afghanistan is to ensure that the country doesn’t emerge as a hotbed for the anti-India Taliban and other extremist groups. India is particularly wary of anti-India elements offering support to militants in Jammu and Kashmir.
India also has an economic interest. It invested close to $1.5 billion in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, including roads, power lines and a hydroelectric and irrigation dam. Afghanistan serves as a gateway to the resource rich republics of Central Asia. India, booming, needs a stable oil and natural gas supply. It now heavily relies on imports from the Middle East and would certainly like to lessen that dependence.
Without a prolonged security commitment on the part of the United States, India fears that Afghanistan could once again succumb to fanatic Islamism that exports terror to India. If the Taliban are made part of a power-sharing agreement, the possibility of a semi-independent “Pashtunistan” that includes the unruly tribal areas of Pakistan could undermine the stability of India’s nuclear eastern neighbor and rival moreover. Neither scenario serves the interests of India. It may seek to avert both by supporting the government of Hamid Karzai in building infrastructure and providing security to boost its legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people but if the Taliban continue to be able to menace people even in territories that were recently pacified by American forces, real security is still far from attained.