Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used his recent visit to Kabul to send the message that, unlike the West, New Delhi has no 'exit strategy' from Afghanistan. India and Pakistan have long competed for influence over their regional neighbour, and Singh's first trip to the country in six years came at a crucial time - with the US preparing for a troop drawdown and US-Pakistan relations strained by the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. By supporting Afghan President Hamid Karzai's peace efforts with Taliban insurgents, committing an extra $500 million in aid and announcing a 'strategic partnership', Singh was making clear India's long-term interest in Afghanistan.Delhi has made civil reconstruction central in its efforts to prevent the return of Taliban rule and of the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven for anti-India terror groups, and the latest promise of aid will bring the total since 2001 to $2 billion. What was really new during Singh's visit (scheduled before bin Laden's death) was his public support of the Afghan peace plan for reconciliation with Taliban insurgents. At the official banquet on the evening of his arrival on 12 May, Singh said: 'We strongly support the Afghan people's quest for peace and reconciliation.' Addressing parliament the following day, the first foreign leader to do so in recent times, he acknowledged that 'Afghanistan has embarked upon a process of national reconciliation' and wished the members well in the enterprise.
A political gear shift
This differs significantly from India's position from 18 months ago, and mirrors a growing international shift. At the London Conference on Afghanistan in January 2010, India's External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna told Britain's then foreign secretary, David Miliband, that Delhi did not recognise 'good' Taliban, just as there were no 'good' terrorists.Yet India's policy towards the 'reintegration' of lower-level Afghan Taliban fighters was already undergoing a significant change.
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao first hinted at this when she said at the IISS in London that 'Any integration process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led, and should include ... those who abjure violence, give up armed struggle and terrorism and are willing to abide by the values of democracy, pluralism and human rights as enshrined in the Afghan Constitution.'
Krishna publicly reiterated this at the Kabul Conference on Afghanistan in July 2010. Singh's support for Afghan political reconciliation was the eventual conclusion. However, it is not clear that India would wholeheartedly support all attempts at political reconciliation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signalled a significant shift in US policy in February when she said that the 'red lines' for talks with the Taliban - the renunciation of violence, abandonment of an alliance with al-Qaeda and abidance by the Afghan Constitution - were 'necessary outcomes' rather than preconditions. India may not support this move towards negotiations with the Taliban without preconditions.
Reconstruction needs security
Meanwhile, Delhi's contribution towards Afghan reconstruction has not exempted it from the problems associated with operating inside the country. The country's four landmark projects are the Delaram-Zaranj road, transmission lines providing Uzbek electricity to Kabul, the hydroelectric Salma Dam and a new parliament building in Kabul - the latter two of which are still under way. The $500m newly committed will be used for development and infrastructure projects in agriculture and mining.
Through its provision of education, medical treatment and small-business support, India has projected considerable soft power in Afghanistan. It provides 2,000 scholarships to Afghans annually for schooling and training in India, including for 500 Afghan civil servants. More than 100 Indian-supported but Afghan-owned small development projects are being implemented. Indian medical missions in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif provided free treatment for more than 350,000 Afghans in 2009-10. Its foreign-aid programme in Afghanistan is India's biggest.
Yet despite being the largest regional donor in Afghanistan,and the fifth largest internationally, India finds it increasingly difficult to operate in Afghanistan. There have been two suicide bombings of its embassy in Kabul, the first of which killed two senior Indian diplomats, two security personnel and 50 Afghans. Just last month a terror plot targeting the Indian consulate in Jalalabad was foiled. Since 2001, 20 Indian nationals have been killed.
Crucially, no new major construction project has started in the past two to three years. The drawdown of US and ISAF forces, in the absence of sufficiently trained and capable Afghan security forces, will adversely impact Indian projects and personnel in Afghanistan. And there are fears that India's influence could be eroded as Karzai seeks a peace deal with Taliban insurgents aided by Pakistan.
Cooling the rivalry with Pakistan
Much distrust exists between Islamabad and Delhi over their respective activities in Afghanistan. Islamabad perceives New Delhi's presence and influence as a deliberate attempt to encircle Pakistan and prevent it from attaining the strategic depth it needs in Afghanistan to avoid two 'hot fronts' (or borders with rivals). Pakistan's government often accuses India's embassy and four consulates in Afghanistan of carrying out clandestine operations against Pakistan in its tribal areas and restive province of Baluchistan. Pakistan has claimed, for example, that India arms and funds Baluchi rebels and the Pakistani Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), which India denies. Pakistan resents the goodwill of Afghans towards Indians.
For its part, Delhi sees Pakistan as attempting to force it from Afghanistan. The Indian government charges that 'elements' in Pakistan - essentially its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate - planned the 2008 and 2009 terror attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul (which Islamabad denies) and says that the Pakistan-based Haqqani terror network was responsible for carrying them out.
This is against the background of a 26-month freeze on peace talks between India and Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks perpetrated by the Pakistan-based jihadist group Lashkar-e-Tayiba (LeT). India believes the Pakistan army and the ISI continue to nurture and fund LeT, and recently testimony by LeT operative David Coleman Headley (aka Daoud Sayed Gilani) has led Delhi to hold serving officers of the ISI or 'retired' military officers employed on contract by the ISI (although not its leadership) responsible for planning and coordinating the Mumbai attacks - accusations denied by Pakistan.
Despite all this, Singh has made it clear that the recently resumed peace talks with Pakistan will continue. It is also worth noting that Pakistan's position towards Kabul has recently become more nuanced. Terror attacks since late 2007 by the 'homegrown' TTP, reportedly responsible for the bold attack on Karachi's Mehran naval base on 22 May, have helped Islamabad recognise that a Taliban government in Afghanistan will not be in its interests. Taliban control over Kabul could set up a model of success for the Pakistan Taliban which Islamabad will be keen to avoid.
There also appears to be a shift in Pakistan's perception of 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan, from one that requires 'control' over the country or the imposition of a friendly government in Kabul towards one that instead ensures a stable and peaceful Afghanistan as necessary for Pakistan's own domestic stability and security. A sign of this shift was seen in 2009, when Pakistan withdrew six divisions from its border with India in order to carry out counter-insurgency operations in its tribal areas close to Afghanistan.
One mutual interest India and Pakistan have in Afghanistan is in enhancing economic and trade links to help the country emerge as an economic hub linking south and central Asia. Yet, they do not talk to each other on Afghanistan. Significantly, Singh did not refer by name to Pakistan in his speech in the Afghan parliament. Although Pakistan views India's aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan - especially in rural Pashtun areas - with its usual suspicion, it made no official comment on India's bolstered economic package for Afghanistan, nor on the security cooperation and strategic partnership between Delhi and Kabul that were envisaged in a joint declaration.
Who brokers the endgame?
With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Pashtun-dominated Afghan Taliban will now be further encouraged to jettison its links with al-Qaeda. However, the group does not yet appear to be willing to talk directly to the Karzai government, nor could the influential minority Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara tribal leaders be expected to support a putative peace deal. Nonetheless, bin Laden's death provides Pakistan - with its widely reported links to elements of the Afghan Taliban (including the Quetta Shura leadership body), to the Haqqani network and to the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin group of powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - the ability to broker such a deal. In April, a prime ministerial-led Pakistani delegation to Kabul resulted in the formation of a two-tiered joint commission reportedly giving the Pakistan army a formal role in facilitating reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban.
The possibility of a Pakistan-brokered endgame between hardline elements of the Taliban and the Afghan government, along with the potential destabilisation of existing Afghan governance structures, remains of concern to India. India enjoys broad public support in Afghanistan, because its reconstruction efforts have been spread throughout the country and benefited all ethnic and tribal groups. However, if Delhi is to retain a say in the political future of Afghanistan, or to avoid being forced from the country, it needs to quietly reach out itself to the Taliban and other powerful militant groups, to assess views towards India.
The Indian government could therefore feel pressure quickly to ascertain whether there is any scope for setting preconditions for its own future engagement with elements of the Taliban. These would focus on ensuring, along with Western powers, that the Taliban cut off all ties to terrorist groups, and that no terrorist-training camps targeting India are set up in Afghanistan. Ultimately, such a responsible political settlement between the Karzai government and the Taliban would be very much in India's interest.