India May Be Key to Stable Afghanistan

By Ramesh Thakur

The site of the terrorist attacks on New York became known as Ground Zero. But 2001 was not Year Zero for Afghanistan. Much of post-2001 Western policy towards Afghanistan seemingly airbrushed its history and detached it from geography. Yet historically, Afghanistan's destiny has often been determined by its geography. Foreigners come and go, but neighbours are forever.

Afghanistan connects south Asia to central Asia and the Middle East. A descent into anarchy in Afghanistan would risk spilling over into the other regions. But this also means that for reasons of history, geography and culture, the major regional players - Iran, Pakistan and India - as well as China and Russia as global players with a permanent geographical footprint in southwest Asia, should be engaged in shaping the future of Afghanistan.

The battle space in Afghanistan straddles the border with Pakistan and those with a deep appreciation of local realities would have known the battle for Afghanistan would be won or lost ultimately in Pakistan.

As Western powers lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was kept alive by Russia, Iran and India.

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After 9/11, when Western powers returned to Afghanistan with a vengeance, India, like Iran, was frozen out. Pakistan has more proximate and critical historical, ethnic and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan than India. No peace in Afghanistan will be stable and durable unless Pakistan has a seat at the negotiating table.

Owing to propinquity, Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan have been readily grasped by Western policymakers and analysts. But India, too, is linked to Afghanistan by geography, history, culture, and commercial and strategic interests that give depth and texture to bilateral relations.

Compared with fleeting Western interest, India has enduring and permanent historical, cultural, commercial and geopolitical interests too: defeating the Taliban, eradicating Islamist extremism, strengthening state institutions, capacity and stability, developing Afghanistan as a trade and transit corridor to Central Asia and Iran, especially for energy, and precluding the re-emergence there of a base for launching terrorist attacks on India. Mostly these dovetail with Western interests more readily and enduringly than they do with Pakistani interests. President Hamid Karzai signed a number of high-profile agreements with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi in October under which India will bolster its soft power contributions with hard power activity.

Along with educational, energy and development assistance, India will help to train Afghanistan's security services. Karzai has been careful to stress that India is "a great friend", but Pakistan is "a twin brother".

There is a natural marriage of convenience between US hard power and Indian soft power in Afghanistan. The markets of Kabul are generously stocked with Indian music and movies. Karzai studied in India and speaks Hindi. Injured senior Afghan military officers are often flown to India for treatment. Just about every public opinion poll shows India to be immensely popular among Afghans and Pakistan to be deeply unpopular. In the words of a BBC analyst, in the streets of Kabul, "while you never hear a good word about Pakistan, you rarely hear a bad one about India." India has provided more than $US2 billion ($1.9bn) in aid, built Afghanistan's new parliament, and operates the biggest children's hospital in Kabul. It was emphatic in welcoming the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and has been just as emphatic in warning against a hasty withdrawal of Western forces.

Can Washington take the risk of backing the Kabul-New Delhi axis? Pakistan has proved problematic and unreliable and the US-Pakistan relationship has been transactional. US interests converge on just a few issues with those of China and Russia.

By contrast, since 2001 India-US relations have been based on a fundamental convergence of interests in Afghanistan, which has featured regularly in security and political dialogues between them, covering sharing of sensitive intelligence, homeland security and combined defence exercises.

The combination of US military and aid influence and Indian cultural and political influence should be useful for shaping Afghanistan's future for the better without, however, guaranteeing any such outcome.

On June 28, the Confederation of Indian Industry, in collaboration with the governments of Afghanistan and India, hosted the Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan to showcase the country's potential and attract foreign investment.

But India cannot play a more robust role in Afghanistan without Iranian support. To circumvent Pakistan, India needs access to Iranian ports and supply routes into Afghanistan. Washington and other Western capitals need to understand India's geopolitical imperatives and work with New Delhi to secure Afghanistan's future after 2014.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and adjunct professor, Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University.

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