Home > Publications > Reports and articles > India: Jostling for geopolitical control in Afghanistan

India: Jostling for geopolitical control in Afghanistan

There is increasing anxiety among stakeholders as US forces prepare for a drawdown in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The international community, including the United States, is still groping in the dark when it comes to Afghanistan’s future. As such, they have somewhat ignored India, which, in fact, will be pivotal in solving the Afghan dilemma. Instead, the west and regional stakeholders have focussed on Pakistan as the major player in post-2014 Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban and of providing sanctuary to them inside Pakistan in order to maintain strategic depth and influence within Afghanistan. Furthermore, Pakistan has been charged with supporting the Afghan Taliban and their affiliate, the Haqqani network, in order to counter India in Afghanistan, as well as of sending militant groups such as Laskhar-e-Taiba into Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan has denied these accusations.

In contrast, India, along with Russia, Iran and Tajikistan, has always been a supporter of the anti-Taliban Panjshir-based Northern Alliance, as well as the Tajik-dominated and anti-Pashtun Afghan military. India has provided the Northern Alliance with high-altitude weaponry worth about $8 million, defence advisers to help counter the Taliban, and technicians from the Aviation Research Centre (affiliated with its intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing) to repair Soviet-made Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopter gunships.

In the past decade, India has also established more than a hundred sub-consular offices and information desks near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan border, which are suspected of being outposts for Indian intelligence and covert operations. Indian intelligence operatives are believed to be active in the border area of Khost and the Pakistani tribal area of Miranshah with the support of the Afghan Border Security Force, which facilitates their meetings with pro-Afghan dissidents. Islamabad also accuses New Delhi of supporting the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been wreaking havoc in Pakistan.

Pakistani apprehensions are indeed valid; Indian intelligence is not idle in Afghanistan. In a video recording of a 2011 speech revealed last year by investigative news website Washington Free Beacon, now US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said: ‘India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions.’

Furthermore, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable, Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted to US and UN officials that he had been providing sanctuary to Baloch separatist leaders; in Pakistan, it is widely believed that Baloch insurgents are being sheltered under Indian patronage in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan

The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, are also the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, where over half of the world’s 50 million Pashtuns live, divided as they are by the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan, therefore, sees itself a major stakeholder in its western neighbour.

Pakistan contributed more than any country in accommodating Afghan refugees during the 1979-89 Soviet war in Afghanistan and after the Soviet forces withdrawal. It had a devastating impact on the Pakistani economy, and the country’s social fabric was torn asunder because of the influx of Afghans, and subsequently, heroin smuggling and the weaponisation of its urban centres.

At the same time, Pakistan trained and supported the Afghan mujahideen during the war. These mujahideen groups have developed over time into the Afghan Taliban, and are seen as Pakistan’s proxies in countering the threat India poses to Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan.

If there is a civil war in Afghanistan after the US drawdown, Pakistan is highly likely to see an increase in terrorism on its own soil. There is also a possibility that the civil war could spread across the border. Pakistan is still hosting a large number of Afghan refugees, and a further influx could be expected in case of a civil war.

Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location is another lure for Pakistan and other regional stakeholders. As the gateway to Central Asia, Afghanistan serves as an important energy corridor. Pakistan needs a stable Afghanistan to overcome its own energy crisis. Pakistan has provided landlocked Afghanistan with access to its Karachi port, and the Pakistan-Afghanistan Transit Trade Treaty allows Afghanistan access to the port at Lahore and access to a land route to India.

Afghanistan’s vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals have attracted the interest of Pakistan and other regional players, including China, not to mention the United States and other Western powers. Afghanistan has the potential to be the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’ according to an internal Pentagon memo, with deposits so large they are game changers in the likely competition for resources between Pakistan, India, China and the West in a post-NATO Afghanistan.

India’s interests in Afghanistan

New Delhi has enjoyed a cordial relationship with Kabul since 2002. India sponsored Afghanistan’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 2006, and it signed a strategic partnership with Afghanistan in 2011.

India has undertaken several important construction projects in Afghanistan. They built the strategic Zaranj-Delaram highway, which connects Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, thus lessening Afghanistan’s dependence on the port in Karachi. India has also constructed a 202 kilometre long transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a substation at Chitmala. Indian companies have invested $2 billion in Afghanistan, which has given the mining rights to its largest Hajigak iron ore deposit to a group of Indian state-run and private companies.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, paid a two-day visit to Afghanistan in 2011, where in an address to a joint session of the Afghan parliament he promised an additional $500 million in aid for developing infrastructure. At least $1.5 billion in aid has already been pledged by India, which makes it the sixth largest donor to Afghanistan.

Pakistan is not India’s only rival in Afghanistan. China has invested $4.4 billion in the country so far, chiefly in the Aynak copper mine, and has also won the bids for developing oil fields at Faryab and Sar-e-Pul, seriously challenging Indian investment in that region. China provided $150 million in aid to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, while last year the figure rose to $200 million.

India is battling hard to counter China’s economic challenge in Afghanistan, but Beijing is embarking on a ‘new Silk Road’ project to connect China by land and sea with the West through Central Asia, and will not be easily edged out. As such, one of the most significant factors affecting India’s role in a post-NATO Afghanistan over the long term will be how it manages its relations with China.

India has had somewhat smooth sailing in Afghanistan under the US/NATO security umbrella. However, things will not be so easy for India once US forces drawdown in Afghanistan. New Delhi does not want Washington to withdraw US forces, as it dreads Afghanistan falling again under Taliban control, thus threatening it economic and political interests in the county. In fact, India’s worst nightmare is the prospect of militants from Afghanistan travelling to Indian-administered Kashmir after the US forces drawdown.

Elections and the Taliban question

As the Afghan presidential elections draw near, the country seems headed towards bloodshed. Kabul has failed to build the capacity and autonomy of electoral institutions, failed to replace the single non-transferable vote system, and failed to produce an effective voter roll. All this is likely to result in fraudulent and non-transparent polls again – like those in 2009 that saw Karzai ‘re-elected’. There has hardly been any political competition in Afghanistan, as political parties have been stamped out, while Karzai and his cronies have remained in power. This has created internal divisions that only serve to strengthen the Taliban.

The United States committed a grave error when it abandoned the mujahideen in 1989, as it eventually led to the creation of the Taliban. In 2014, the United States is once more leaving Afghanistan in a mess, which the Taliban will exploit and use their resources to take back more of the country. This risks creating a long and bloody civil war that will ravage Afghanistan and destabilise the region.

Although the Taliban will not run in the April 2014 elections, they must somehow be wooed into joining mainstream, electoral politics. Only Taliban representation in Kabul can yield positive results. The onus is now on the United States to encourage a power-sharing formula acceptable to all parties.

Meanwhile, India’s efforts in Afghanistan can be seen as part of an encirclement of Pakistan – a Kautilyan ‘mandala strategy’ – by threatening Pakistan’s strategy of strategic depth in the country. Fundamentally, the Pakistan military fears it may face hostilities on two fronts: along its eastern border with India and along its western border with Afghanistan if there is a strong Indian presence or influence in the country.

Such fears are not helped by the increase in provocative rhetoric from Singh in the run up to this year’s general election in India. This political manoeuvring from the Indian prime minister is designed to drum up domestic support and garner votes in the upcoming election. However, it also comes on the back of a sharp increase in cross-border shelling by the Indian Army in Kashmir.

Pakistan would not wish to trigger a conflict with India, especially in Afghanistan. But, at the same time, it does not want to see Indian hegemony in the region. Therefore, while the United States must initiate a reconciliation process in collaboration with Pakistan to integrate the Taliban into Afghan politics, it must also ensure that Indian machinations against Pakistan from Afghan soil are stopped.

Once Pakistan feels it has no hostile or Karzai-like pro-India government in Kabul, it may feel more secure with India’s presence and will not be as minded to use force to protect its national interests. This means Islamabad may need to accept that New Delhi will be a player in Afghanistan’s future. For its part, India needs to solve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, after which it would have less to fear from terrorism from Afghanistan-based militants. As for the United States, much will depend on whether Kabul eventually signs the Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington or not.

Afghanistan is not entirely helpless in the face of external influence though. Which of the many interested external actors will eventually have influence in Afghanistan will to some extent depend on the ability and willingness of the new Afghan leadership to play Pakistan, India, China and the West off each other for its own benefit.

Pakistan’s adviser on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz, has recently called for non-interference in Afghanistan. However, he believes this can only be realised if non-interference in Afghanistan becomes a regional policy. India would do well to take a cue from this positive gesture. Afghanistan is the key to prosperity for the whole region: Pakistan and India will both suffer if peace does not return to the country, whereas stability offers enormous trade and economic opportunities. Peace in Afghanistan would be a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

This article appeared on openDemocracy on 27 March 2014.