India’s Role in Afghanistan Could Make Things More Complicated

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India’s Role in Afghanistan Could Make Things More Complicated

India’s role in Afghanistan is now being recognized by global powers.

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan told the U.S Senate Foreign relations Committee that India’s role in Afghanistan is vital to peace and that India has a lot to offer for regional stability. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who applauded India’s “Statesman” like restraint after terrorist attacks in Mumbai, backed Holbrooke’s comments.

Richard Stagg, the British high commissioner in India has issued a statement asserting that the world can learn “some lessons” from India’s role in Afghanistan”. He suggested that the London Conference on Afghanistan starting on January 28th, 2010, could showcase India’s positive role in the region, which is both, under recognized and undervalued.

India is one of the biggest donors in Afghanistan and it has invested over $1.3 billion building bridges, roads and developing the agricultural sector. India has delivered the economic aid that Washington so frequently talks about as essential to success there. India is also promising to spend more if needed.

Recognition from the World’s major powers must be music to Delhi’s ears. There is nothing that India cares for more than international recognition. However, before New Delhi decides to rush headlong into fixing the messes that Britain and the United States are creating, it must consider seriously whether a more aggressive and prominent Indian role in Afghanistan is prudent.

The United States and Britain can exit the region whenever they chose to do so, like in 1989 and leave the locals to deal with the aftermath. India has no such option. It can never exit South Asia. A more engaged India might find itself inheriting the mess if the West withdraws precipitously.

India clearly has strategic interests tied to the fate of Afghanistan and would like to see a Taliban free, democratic Afghanistan, with close ties to India and a foreign policy free from Islamabad’s influence. An Afghanistan under Taliban would be a extremist factory run by Pakistani intelligence fomenting insurgency in Kashmir and terrorism in India. India cannot also allow Afghanistan to become a failed state like Somalia and therefore US success in Afghanistan is essential to India national security.

India has managed to win the hearts and minds of Afghans who in a recent poll recognized it as the most favorable foreign country and they also rejected a role for Pakistan in Afghanistan. India hopes to foster a strong pro-India Afghanistan that allows India to perhaps even maintain a military presence on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This will allow India to completely eliminate what Pakistan considers as its “strategic depth” and also encircle Pakistan. Indian troops on the East and on the West of Pakistan is Pakistan’s ultimate geopolitical nightmare.

While Western powers will welcome all the financial aid India is willing to offer and perhaps the current high profile attention that India is getting is designed to encourage it to expand its role by committing troops to help NATO and US operations.

There is however one major catch that could upset the apple cart and that is Pakistan’s deep-seated suspicion of India’s motives and its animosity towards India. Pakistan already suspects and accuses India of engaging in anti-Pakistan subversive activities from Afghanistan. It is already resentful of the growing US-India relations, particularly military and nuclear cooperation. Pakistan is irritated by American demands and thinks that the US seeks to eliminate its nuclear capability.

An enhanced Indian role in Afghanistan will only make Pakistan more insecure and more unwilling to cooperate with the US in its war against Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban. It might even feel compelled to once again work with the militant groups to destabilize Afghanistan, increase terrorist activities in India and ensure that US does not achieve its goals in the region.

The U.S. needs Pakistan. Without Pakistani military fighting militants in Waziristan and Swat, Al Qaeda will thrive and the US will flounder in Afghanistan. The U.S. wants India to share in the burden of stabilizing the region. India needs the US to succeed and wants to help it, but its motives may not be entirely selfless. Pakistan needs the US and also wants the US to distance itself from India and curtail India. As the weakest of the players in the region, it unfortunately also needs the extremist groups to help redress the balance of power.

India and the US need to realize that they cannot succeed in the region by enhancing Pakistan’s geopolitical insecurities. Pakistan needs to understand that it cannot play with fire indefinitely. If the extremists inside its borders are not stopped, it might face a major war with India enjoying the blessings of Western powers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates nearly said as much in his recent visit to the region.

Things are getting more complicated in South Asia.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).

This article appeared on Delaware Online on January 26, 2010.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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