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'Training programmes will continue even in worst case scenario'


Mayank Singh speaks to Vishal Chandra, an Afghanistan specialist, to discuss the nuts and bolts of the New Delhi-Kabul engagement once the American troops draw down.
MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: March 3, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Afghanistan | Security forces | |

1. How are the developments taking place in Afghanistan going to effect India?
In my view, sustaining the momentum of its engagement with Afghanistan would be a key challenge for India after 2014. India has emerged as a major ‘development partner’ of the Afghan people since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in November-December 2001.  India has been extremely innovative in terms of diversifying and improvising its assistance programmes as per the changing ground situation and specific requirements of the Afghan people. Perhaps, therein lay the strength of the Indian approach towards Afghanistan.

India started of with some large reconstruction projects but gradually realised the significance of carrying out local community based small development projects across Afghanistan. Indian assistance and training programmes, including Indian medical missions to the country, have been very well received by the Afghan people. On the basis of my field studies in Afghanistan, I can suggest that the Afghan people look up to the Indian experience on a wide range of issues – right from managing their own social and political diversity through an inclusive political order, to re-building their modern institutional capacities. In fact, India has shown the way forward as far as carrying out reconstruction projects in an in-conflict situation is concerned. There was never really a post-conflict situation in Afghanistan after 2001. If one has to take a long-term view of the Afghan challenge, then there can be no viable option other than helping the Afghan people in rebuilding their institutions and state capacities as per their own cultural and political specificities. 

India has clearly been adjusting its policy corresponding to the developing situation in Afghanistan. India’s support for an ‘Afghan-led’ and ‘Afghan-owned’ peace process has to be seen as part of India’s continuing support for the government in Kabul. Similarly, India’s assistance in training the Afghan army officers, as envisaged in the Strategic Partnership Agreement of October 2011, should be seen as part of the wider international effort to help strengthen the position of Kabul.

2. In your opinion how will the exit of ISAF in 2014 change the situation?
As the US and NATO-led force drawdown and the security situation deteriorate, it might be increasingly difficult for India to sustain its current levels of engagement and presence. India is not a major player in terms of political and military leverages inside Afghanistan. India’s future role and position would therefore depend on the outcomes of the ongoing security and the next round of political transition in Afghanistan, both of which are suppose to culminate by 2014.

Following factors could be considered as critical to the Indian role and position after 2014:

  • The survivability and sustenance of the current Afghan political system and constitution, basically the strength of the Afghan institutions to withstand the implications of Western drawdown;
  • Nature and level of Western engagement and commitment in the post-transition period; Salience of Pakistan’s military establishment in the post-2014 Western approach to Afghanistan;
  • The political perception, orientation and composition of the next government in Kabul; and,
  • The strength of India’s ties with various Afghan factions


3. What is your assessment of the Pakistan factor in future Afghan politics?

The situation in Afghanistan is definitely worrisome, but may not be all that pessimistic as is often made out to be.  The Pakistan factor in the Afghan politics and the future Western strategy too has its limitations. Perhaps, Iran too is a huge factor and an influential force inside Afghanistan. It would not be all that easy for Pakistan-backed Haqqani-Taliban network to make an absolute comeback to power inside Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military establishment, or at least sections of it, might not be sure of how favourable the Haqqani-Taliban network would be towards Pakistan’s interests this time in case they make a full comeback to power. It is also unlikely that a Pakistan-brokered or mediated deal between the Afghan Government and the top Taliban leadership would be acceptable to a vast section of Afghan population.

Compared to 1990s, today’s Pakistan is far more unstable and bedevilled with protracted internal crisis, ranging from sectarian violence to militant extremist ideologies spreading across the country. In fact, at times there is more violence inside Pakistan than in Afghanistan. What the West has either consciously ignored or deliberately trivialised is the fact that Pakistan’s military has mastered the art of surviving on the instability of its own country, and imaginary constructs of existential threat to Pakistan from neighbouring countries. 

4. In the changed scenario, what is your suggestion for India?
As a neighbouring country, India has to take a long-term view of the challenges emanating from its turbulent north-western neighbourhood. The development leading to and following 2014 is yet another phase in the long-drawn Afghan conflict. However, India has severe geo-political limitations when it comes to doing more or playing greater role in Afghanistan as is often suggested in Western analysis. Lack of clarity in Western policy towards both Afghanistan and more so towards Pakistan, particularly in terms of their over all objectives and commitment in the region, makes the situation all the more complex for India. India’s presence and relatively huge contribution to Afghan reconstruction, though often praised, has at times also invited Western scepticism and even criticism in view of her historically adversarial relations with Pakistan.

Despite all limitations, India for its own reasons cannot afford to disengage from Afghanistan. Apart from direct physical threat, India and Afghanistan face a major ideological threat from a range of Pakistan-sponsored violent extremist groups operating from within its territories. In view of the developing situation, following may be recommended:

  • India must take a long-term view of developments in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and should not be bogged down with post-2014 uncertainties;
  • India must engage the next generation of Afghan leadership and should remain a key ‘development partner’ of the Afghan people. India must find innovative ways to invest more in tapping into the Afghan youth. Training Afghan youths and professionals in Indian institutions will keep India connected to diverse sections of the Afghan population even in a worst case scenario.
  • It would be in the long-term interest of India to evenly develop its relations with diverse ethnic groups and factions in Afghanistan.
  • Given the socio-political polarisation and fractious nature of Afghan politics, India should firmly avoid any direct military involvement in Afghanistan. Any pre-emptive or adventurous militaristic approach is bound to prove counter-productive. It would subsequently alienate India within Afghanistan and the wider south-central Asia region.
  • Though regional groupings/mechanisms are not likely to play a direct military role in the stabilisation of Afghanistan, India must continue to try and engage other regional countries which share India’s concerns, both bilaterally and also through multilateral forums.

5. What are the options before the International Community?
Broadly, there are two options before the so-called international community – either build Afghan capacities to the extent that it could deal with its myriad internal and external challenges with minimal external assistance, or work towards transforming the Pakistan state. Though both would need a long-term strategic thinking and sustained commitment, the option of developing Afghan capacities through sustained support and engagement is apparently a more viable option. If history is any guide, reabandoning Afghanistan is simply not an option.

Vishal Chandra is Associate Fellow on Afghan affairs at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017