BACKGROUND: Indian engagement aims to win Afghans’ hearts and minds through foreign aid, with special focus on building roads, medical facilities, education programs, power generation networks, and other critical infrastructure sectors. India’s extensive private investment aims to integrate Afghanistan into regional trade arrangements that will promote the type of economic growth that is critical for Afghanistan’s long-term stability. Furthermore, the Indian government has promoted Afghanistan’s regional economic integration, such as securing its membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Despite growing ties with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, India’s lack of direct access to the region continues to impede its commercial opportunities there. Developing international rail and road links with Afghanistan strengthens that country’s economy as well as India’ access to important Central Asian trade and energy markets. Indian investors would like to help market the trillions of dollars of mineral resources Afghanistan is thought to have beneath its soil. Indians also see Afghanistan as partners in their economic outreach to Iran.
Bilateral security cooperation has also been growing. Indian security strategists see Afghanistan and Central Asia as falling within India’s “extended strategic neighborhood.” Given New Delhi’s concerns about geopolitical encirclement, Pakistani and Chinese activities in Afghanistan and Central Asia have traditionally received much attention. Since the USSR’s disintegration, India’s Eurasia strategy has sought to prevent Afghanistan and other Central Asian states from joining any “Islamic camp” that could adopt anti-Hindu policies. New Delhi’s nightmare would be the emergence of a bloc of hostile Islamic governments in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, linked closely with China, which would seek to contain India, support terrorism in Kashmir, and perhaps stir up trouble among India’s other Muslim minorities. The growth of terrorism and Islamic radicalism has become a more recent concern. Though Kabul follows a balanced rhetoric aiming to prevent alienating Islamabad, Afghans perceive New Delhi as a more reliable strategic partner. In their 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement, India agreed to train Afghani military officers and provide light-weapons useful for counterinsurgency operations.
Yet, New Delhi’s generally cautious foreign policy and concerns regarding Pakistan’s reaction to its growing role in Afghanistan have constrained the Afghan-Indian strategic partnership. The ties between India and Afghanistan naturally worry Pakistanis, who fear strategic encirclement through a pro-Indian regime in Kabul. Pakistani strategists desire to create “strategic depth” and limit India’s influence in South Asia. They also want to retain their preeminent role in Afghanistan’s politics and economy. For some Pakistanis, the danger of “encirclement” through increased Indian influence in Afghanistan justifies increasing support for the use of jihadi proxies to weaken Kabul, or to conduct further terrorist attacks against India. In partnership with Washington, which seeks to promote trilateral cooperation among these countries, Indians have unsuccessfully tried not to alarm Pakistanis about their growing ties with Afghanistan.
IMPLICATIONS: The stressed India-Pakistan relationship and U.S. concerns have constrained India’s military involvement in Afghanistan. The Obama administration is seeking to assuage Pakistanis’ regional security concerns and secure Islamabad’s support for an Afghan peace settlement. Aside from a 500-person police force, India has had no troops on the ground. But changing circumstances—specifically the declining U.S. military presence and influence in the region, have led Indians to elevate their engagement with Afghanistan. As analyzed in the 08/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst, the U.S. is the great power whose strategic and economic policies - preserving a regional balance of power and promoting regional integration between Central and South Asia - best align with India’s goals. China and Russia have different goals and lack the will and capacity to intervene militarily in Afghanistan with their own forces.
Although Singh declined to press Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington, Indians share the same unease that one finds throughout Eurasia that the end of the U.S. and NATO combat missions in Afghanistan could result in a deteriorating security situation in that country, as occurred after all U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq. A security vacuum in Afghanistan could worsen the completion for influence among Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India for influence in Central Asia. At worst, Afghanistan could again become a hotbed of radical Islam in alignment with Pakistan’s radical Islamist terrorism, posing a threat to India’s security. Since there is no popular desire to deploy combat troops to Afghanistan, the Indian strategy is to deepen support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and provide more direct and indirect economic aid. The World Bank estimates that by 2021 or 2022, maintenance and operating costs for the ANSF will absorb some 17 percent of the Afghan government’s budget, which will be unsustainable without further economic growth through more trade, investment, and regional economic integration.
During Karzai's visit to India last month, the two governments announced they would deepen their defense ties, with several initiatives designed to increase the capabilities of the ANSF as NATO combat forces leave the country. India will raise the number of ANSF members it trains each year to some 1,000 soldiers. For the first time, this training will include a group of 60 Afghan Special Forces, who will receive instruction at India’s military facilities in the Rajasthan desert. According to Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, about 350 Afghan army officers now receive annual training in India, with a total of 1,400 trained since 2003. An Indian defense spokesman said that the “focus of the training is on conduct of counter insurgency and counter terrorism operations, with special emphasis on operations in built-up areas and rural areas in a realistic environment.” An obvious goal of the augmented training is to help the ANSF battle the Taliban, which is widely seen in Afghanistan and India as a tool of Pakistan’s national security establishment.
Yet, fear of Pakistani reprisals for Indian support for Kabul may be the reason why Singh stalled on acquiescing to Karzai’s “wish list” of helicopters, tanks, guns, and other heavy weapons. Indian officials also claimed that Russia needed to give permission to transfer these Soviet-era arms. Concerns that the next Afghan president to be elected in a few months will be less pro-Indian than Karzai also may have made New Delhi cautious, at least for now.
CONCLUSION: India seeks a stable regional security environment to continue its steady economic ascendancy. To that end, Afghanistan’s post-occupational security becomes of paramount concern. The recent meeting between Singh and Karzai clarified how this enhanced security cooperation could develop. Although Indian officials declined to fill all of Karzai’s shopping list, Afghan-Indian military cooperation will likely increase still further now that the U.S., which has generally bolstered India’s growing regional influence even while discouraging New Delhi from assuming a major security role in Afghanistan for fear of further antagonizing Pakistan, is losing regional influence. Broader defense cooperation with the Afghan government helps both protect India’s economic interests in Afghanistan and counter larger regional destabilization scenarios detrimental to New Delhi’s foreign policy aspirations.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.