As the Indian prime minister prepares for his Afghan visit, coming within a few days of the killing of Osama bin Laden, most analysts see the visit as a last-ditch effort to salvage India's waning influence in the conflict-ridden country, where it has made huge economic and strategic investments.
With the commencement of a drawdown of United States forces slated to begin in July 2011 and the chatter now indicating the possibility of an accelerated US exit in a post-Osama Afghanistan, analysts in New Delhi and outside see Dr Manmohan Singh's long-pending visit as a pressing of the panic button by India which is still coming to terms with the evolving realities.
India's deep and sustained involvement in Afghanistan for the past years has been interpreted as a fragile entity. In spite of the aid pledge of US$1.3 billion and its involvement in several development projects which have generated support and goodwill among the Afghan population, India's presence in that country remains critically linked to the fragile security situation, which in turn is overtly dependent on the US and NATO war efforts. It is, thus, suggested that any scale-down of the international presence and consequent spike in Taliban violence will compel India to shut shop and return.
Such a line of thinking, however, is problematic, for it ignores a few basic facts on the ground.
Firstly, even as the US backs President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, the return of Mullah Omar and his ilk to the seat of power in Kabul can be certainly ruled out. The Taliban has dismissed the idea of being amenable to talks in the aftermath of the killing of Osama.
Secondly, even while the US pulls out its forces from the Afghan countryside by July 2014, it will still remain in charge of counter-terrorism of a few cities through its strategic bases while allowing the Afghan National Security Forces to do the bulk of the counter-insurgency duties.
Thirdly, the plummeting relations between the US and Pakistan, especially in the wake of accusations of nexus between the Al Qaeda and the Pakistani establishment, would put a halt on the latter's ambition of using the Taliban leadership as their 'strategic asset' in Kabul. That the US will be disinclined to allow such a scenario for it also means abandoning Afghanistan yet again to such machinations.
These scenarios open up numerous opportunities for India and turn the possibility of making a hasty retreat from Afghanistan a non-event, almost. And this needs to figure prominently in the imagination of the Indian foreign office when they set the agenda of the visit as a building block for the long-term stabilisation of Afghanistan.
On April 16, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met President Karzai with a set of demands asking the Afghan president to dump the Americans and align with Pakistan and China. Even as the possibility of Afghanistan itself getting dumped by the US looms large, the Indian prime minister needs a suave and different approach. Karzai feels let down by his allies and it is time for the Indian prime minister to demonstrate more than symbolic support to the beleaguered leader. At a time when the regional proxies are hedging their bets, India needs to send a clear message of assurance to Karzai that India will continue to support the Afghan people.
Pakistan would continue to remain a critical factor in Afghanistan and it will be almost impossible for any regime in Kabul to ignore that reality. The prime minister needs to assuage Karzai's concern that India is not seeking exclusivity in its relations with Afghanistan and linkages with Pakistan furthering Afghanistan's interests is acceptable to India. But this would need to be done through a trilateral cooperative framework. This would further boost the prospects of Indo-Pakistan peace and weaken the forces that benefit from an atmosphere of acrimony and distrust.
New Delhi cannot remain aloof to the processes of reconciliation and reintegration of President Karzai. As some local commanders and insurgent faction leaders are sending feelers for reconciliation, India needs to widen its web of engagement. This is a requisite for reintegrating the local commanders from the ideologically-hardened insurgent leadership based in Pakistan. However, the adherence to the red lines stated at the London Conference -- respect for the Afghan constitution, human and women rights -- would be crucial to prevent any subversion of the gains Afghanistan has made thus far.
Indian participation in the reform of two key Afghan sectors -- political and security -- needs to be further expanded. The need for a parliamentary system with political parties to build an inclusive political order has been increasingly felt in Afghanistan. India could help in developing a federal polity based on its own experience of balancing diversities.
Apart from expanding its role in training the ANSFs, India could play an enabling role in training the officer corps, evolving an appropriate civil-military relations model and developing human resource management capabilities. Enabling the Afghans to take charge of their security concerns will be a better option for India at a time when Afghanistan is seeking help in the transition of authority to its local forces by 2014.
In addition, India's core national security interests in Afghanistan can only be protected by maximising its economic, socio-cultural and regional leverages, directed at long-term stabilisation of Afghanistan. India's aid, which has generated huge goodwill among the Afghans, would need to be further expanded in building on the positive stories in the field of agriculture, education, telecommunications, mining and so on. Soft power approach combined with low visibility and maximising Afghan participation remains India's strength, and policies to reinforce the Indo-Afghan ties need to be built around this.
There has been considerable appreciation of Indian music concerts in Afghan cities and these need to be widened. Moreover, Pushtu music, which is gaining popularity in Afghanistan and is defying Taliban diktats, can be promoted in India. To promote the growing popularity of cricket in Afghanistan, India can possibly include some Afghan cricketers in the Indian Premier League. Building on Track II initiatives between the academia, media, youth, women, business groups of the two countries would go a long way in strengthening the relationship.
Sky is the limit for what India could do in Afghanistan. It would only take vision and risk-taking abilities to translate projects into reality, providing an edifice for durable Indo-Afghan relations.
Dr Shanthie Mariet D'Souza is a visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi