India Opens the Afghanistan Gambit

As the United States prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, India has a vital interest in filling the void.

While internally, India is caught up in civil unrest that could jeopardize the stability of its government, the country’s neighbors increasingly regard a powerful Indian presence in the region as in their own interest.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s state visit to India this month signaled a paradigm shift in Indo-Afghan relations. After nearly a decade of balancing relations with India and Pakistan, traditional rivals in South Asia, Kabul opted for a strategic partnership with New Delhi. The choice and its timing were largely inspired by the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

The United States are planning to withdraw up to 30,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by the autumn of next year. In December, the first 10,000 are expected home. After the winding down of the Afghan surge, a supportive military presence will remain in Afghanistan up to 2014. But what after that?

India has shown itself a partner for regional stability by investing $1.2 billion in development projects in Afghanistan and facilitating the necessary nation building in the wartorn country. India paid a price for its help. Diplomats and aid personnel were killed in Afghanistan in attacks for which New Delhi has held Pakistan’s spy agency responsible. Pakistani intelligence is known to entertain relations with Afghan insurgents and wary of an Indian presence on both of its borders.

Despite the unpredictability and violence, India maintained its presence because it has a stake in a stable, democratic Afghanistan, unlike Islamabad. Pakistan would rather have a divided country, ruled by Islamists, to achieve “strategic depth” there.

Other regional actors, including Central Asian states and Iran, as well as the United States want to keep the Taliban out of power. This convergence of interests has served India well. Its relationships with Iran and the United States are both stable if not improving. The question now is what role New Delhi sees for itself in a postwar Afghanistan? The answer may be found in its “Look West” policy which aims to improve cooperation with countries across West Asia. Afghanistan could be a launchpad from which to boost India’s diplomatic and commercial relations with the Central Asian republics.

So far, India’s “Look West” policy hasn’t been as coordinated and successful as its “Look East” policy because New Delhi is restrained from pursuing relations across Central Asia and the Middle East by Pakistan. Similarly, its relations with the United States, though positive, haven’t developed significantly because the Americans need Pakistan’s support in their War on Terror.

American-Pakistani relations are deteriorating however as Washington is growing tired of the Afghan campaign and as revelations about the intrigues of Pakistan’s spy agency stir anti-Pakistan sentiments in the United States.

As Pakistan’s influence is eroding, there is a chance for India to jump into the vacuum that is Afghanistan and facilitate a comprehensive reconstruction effort, one that is supported by the neighboring states that have most at stake in the country, including Iran, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The longer term aim for India could be to deny other great powers, notably China, a leadership position in Central Asia. Here, again, it finds itself at odds with Pakistan which is a Chinese client state.

The region north of Afghanistan will prove to be pivotal to the energy security of continental Asian powers soon. India can’t afford to slumber as usual but must design a strategy now.