By Brig SK Chatterji (Retd)
The testbed for holding a more comprehensive round of talks with Afghanistan has been considered successful by the parties involved. The US and Taliban have signed an agreement on February 29, 2019, that could usher in peace after a 19-year-old war. It has taken 10 years of intermittent engagement with the Taliban for the Americans to work out an agreement. India has never been a party to it. However, Indian representative was there to at the signing of the agreement at Doha. The agreement calls for a partial US troops drawdown and initiation of talks with the Afghan government. The Afghan government is itself in a state of flux with two claimants to victory in the recently concluded Afghan elections.
For Indians, Afghanistan is geo-strategically extremely critical. In terms of our outreach to the Central Asian Republics and as a counterbalance to Pakistan and China, Afghanistan is of vital importance. The country has the Central Asian Republics to the North, Pakistan to its East, and through Iran and Pakistan the Indian Ocean deeper south. For Indian trade with the Central Asian Republics, the flow could be through the sea lanes of communications of Indian Ocean to Gwadar port, and thereafter by land astride the Delaram highway that India has built-in Afghanistan, to destinations in CAR states. The route also competes with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and given a boost and necessary political stability along its length, work as an alternative to the BRI.
Afghanistan also denies strategic depth to Pakistan. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border remaining active denies Pakistan the opportunity of positioning additional military capabilities along its borders with India.
So far the Indian involvement in Afghanistan has been centred on the needs of the people of Afghanistan. These have been in consultation with Afghanistan’s elected government. Indians have constructed major projects to include three dams, the Parliament building, road networks and medical facilities. Till date, Indians have not displayed any affinity towards the Taliban or any other contesting group. Their focus has primarily limited to the political authority in Kabul as decided by the ballot boxes. Indians are also among the largest trainers of the Afghan forces.
Over the years, a constituency would have emerged in the Afghan forces that have a better understanding of India and our commitment to an Afghan-led and Afghan driven solution of the Afghan problem. India is also home to a fairly large Afghan diaspora that has been continually enlarging with hopes of peace receding in Afghanistan.
Among the bigger bonanzas that Afghanistan promises are its deposits of energy raw materials and high-value mineral deposits. Geological surveys undertaken by US agencies identify some of these deposits as amongst the largest, globally.
A substantial concentration of such resources is along Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan. Further, most Afghan resources remain untapped, so far. In fact, it’s these resources that have triggered the New Great Game and is a prime reason for the Americans wanting to retain control on powers that be at Kabul. It’s also the reason for the Chinese to be more and more earnest in their designs and the Russians yearning for revisiting their old battleground.
So far, India has been out of Afghan talks. Even the regime at Kabul has been kept out of it. In contrast, Pakistan has played a pivotal role. It’s important for India to be present in future multi-lateral talks and chalk out its strategy in consort with the elected government at Kabul. Taliban will need to be accepted by India, though we have shunned them so far. Keeping out of the talks will erode our presence in the West Asian strategic space.
In the interim, before there is greater stability, India needs to continue with its people-centric developmental projects. Our involvement and commitment of funds will need to increase. However, there is no scope for deploying our forces in Afghanistan. The logistics of such a move is beyond our capabilities; especially so, when viewed in the inevitable context of Pakistanis contesting their presence violently. Pakistani military leadership will commit every resource required to overrun any element we deploy in Afghanistan for operational purposes.
If there is a handicap that weighs inexorably on the Afghan government, it’s lack of trained human resources. In fact, it overshadows lack of financial resources and handicaps the quality of not just its armed forces but the entire Afghan administrative machinery. Military training of Afghan forces is no doubt essential; however, Afghans need to be educated in our institutions in multiple disciplines in large numbers for the nation to modernise.
Gwadar port development needs to gather speed. We could tap the Afghan market for Indian origin defence equipment, and extend our marketing to the CAR countries. The goodwill that we enjoy in Afghanistan needs to be further strengthened by influence operations based on our displayed commitment and continued efforts to dissipate the grey clouds that have hung heavy on their heads for decades.
(The author is a strategic expert. Views expressed are personal).