America's Dilemma and India's Role in Post-2011 Afghanistan

President Obama has staked his foreign policy credentials on achieving success in Afghanistan. Since Obama's attempt to lure Iran to the negotiating table has been marked with U.S. ambiguity on the one hand and increasing Iranian intransigence on the other, it looks more and more likely that the surge in U.S. commitment to Afghanistan -- and the Karzai Government -- will prove to be the litmus test for whether Obama can claim a major foreign policy success in his first two years in office.

As the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan enters a new and dangerous phase, and with the next big NATO military campaign due to start in Kandahar in June, there is a growing recognition that the U.S.-led 'coalition of the willing' is stuck with two equally bad options: it can neither leave Afghanistan swiftly and honorably, nor can it stay long-term without paying an unacceptably large human and material cost.

Leaving Afghanistan without at least having contained the Taliban to isolated pockets -- if not substantially degrading their strength, morale, and ability to influence the local population -- would be seen universally as defeat and could embolden jihadis globally. Despite the huge strategic importance of Afghanistan on the war against terror, the sheer intractability and violence of the Afghan reality on the ground is making it difficult for the U.S. and its allies to define an end-point, but staying on in Afghanistan stands the risk of conferring greater legitimacy and resilience on the Taliban as "freedom fighters".

For President Obama, the key strategic objectives in Afghanistan are to prevent the country from once again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists who could attack U.S. and Western interests, to use Afghanistan to project U.S. power in the region, and to promote a political settlement with the Taliban. The stakes are certainly high, and history is not on America's side, but the importance of Obama's success cannot be overstated.

Given the geopolitical realities of the region, the country that perhaps feels the most boxed-in is India. Afghanistan's geopolitical relevance for India arises primarily from its security concerns vis-a-vis Pakistan, and New Delhi considers it crucial that Islamabad not be allowed to have a free hand in shaping Afghanistan as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when battle-hardened and Pakistan-controlled Afghan mujahideen fighters were deployed in large numbers against India. For India, it is imperative that any kind of fundamentalist Taliban regime -- even one that is willing to make tactical peace with the West -- does not take root again, for it would portend a repeat of history. On the other hand, given its Pashtun-ethnic linkage with Afghanistan, Pakistan considers its role to be a privileged one in the affairs of Afghanistan, and it remains resentful of any enhanced Indian footprint there, even for "soft" Indian help in village-level economic development.

In recent weeks there has been much talk in Western capitals about differentiating between a "bad" and "good" Taliban in order to justify the idea of making a deal with them. That the Western powers would manufacture such a distinction horrifies Indian policymakers. India feels isolated, having insisted at April's London conference on Afghanistan that there is no "good" or "bad" Taliban - only a bad one. Based on India's experience and close proximity, it believes that any Taliban faction will, sooner or later, revert to an extreme, doctrinaire way of looking at the world, which will ultimately have negative consequences both for India and Pakistan.

It is a firm belief in India that Afghanistan can never be made secure for the West as long as Pakistan remains a safe haven for Islamic jihadi groups. No matter who the declared target of these jihadis may be for now -- whether India, Israel or the U.S. -- Islamic fundamentalism which is opposed to any form of secular thought will inevitably strike western targets. As long as armed jihadis can be recruited in large numbers in Pakistan and move freely across the AfPak border Afghanistan will continue to have festering militancy that is inimical to U.S. and Western interests. As Fareed Zakaria recently noted in the Washington Post, "...all attacks against Western targets that have emanated from the region in the past eight years have come from Pakistan, not from Afghanistan. Even the most recently foiled plot in the United States, which involved the first Afghan that I know of to be implicated in global terrorism, originated in Pakistan."

While the mood in India is resigned to drafting its own calibrated response to a post-2011 Afghanistan without depending on either the U.S. or NATO for support, an increasing number of Indian analysts are also convinced that the U.S. cannot realistically "exit" Afghanistan by 2011, no matter what the stated position of U.S. policy is. There is an emerging consensus in private Indian circles around the following most likely Afghan scenario:

  1. At least 50,000 ISAF forces will remain in Afghanistan until 2015 to protect major population centers;
  2. Even if the Western alliance cedes much of the countryside to various Taliban factions, it will prevent all-out civil war by leaving the governance of provinces to local war lords; and
  3. Drones and air power will play the role of final arbiter.

In this view, any Indian response should be built around a quiet confidence that Pakistan will trip over itself and get caught in its own military and policy contradictions. Likewise, today's stated American policy is likely to be modified over the course of the next 12 months to reflect its accomplishments or failures.

Quite apart from India, many of the current state actors in Afghanistan also do not share identical interests either with each other, or with the U.S. While the U.S. and France call it "war", the Germans, reflecting their strong anti-war sentiment, refer to the Afghan imbroglio in official pronouncements as an "armed conflict". There is public cleavage over resource and manpower commitments between the U.S. on the one hand and its NATO allies on the other, even though NATO countries have committed to send 9,000 extra troops (it is still short by at least 6,000, according to U.S. defense experts).

Fortifying the international coalition in Afghanistan has become a key tactical aim for Obama following last month's quick visit to Kabul, whose significance has now been overtaken and marred by subsequent public spats with President Karzai over election fraud, corruption and governance. This is why the U.S. has given clear and persistent admonishments in recent days to the leaders of Canada, France, the UK and even countries like Estonia to beef up their contribution to Afghan forces.

Meanwhile, India remains one of the largest bilateral donors and the largest regional donor country to Afghanistan, with reconstruction assistance totaling $1.2 billion in the post-9/11 period. India's civilian aid to Afghanistan has been spread over many sectors, including education, health, transportation, telecom, civil aviation, power generation and rural development. India has built major highways and schools, it gives scholarships to more than 1,000 Afghan students and civil servants each year, its engineers have built the new national parliament and power station in Kabul, and Indian doctors and nurses work in the four largest hospitals in the country.

However, recently these aid projects and their Indian staff have been increasingly threatened by the growing boldness of the Taliban in using violence against foreign aid workers. The vicious attack two months ago on a team of Indian doctors and paramedical staff in Kabul, in which 7 Indians were killed, has triggered an urgent security re-assessment of the massive Indian aid program in Afghanistan, and has for the first time prompted the government to seriously re-think the kinds of projects and associated risks it is willing to take in a post-2011 Afghanistan where the security cover provided by NATO's presence sharply decreases.

While the official Indian position, reiterated at every opportunity, remains that India is steadfast in its commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the fact remains that there is an increasing chorus of senior voices within India's security community who are demanding that in Afghanistan's highly fluid security architecture India's engagement in civilian reconstruction should be scaled down dramatically, with perhaps even a complete exit of Indian personnel. In this view, India "should stop frittering its resources on what is for the foreseeable future a hopeless cause - Afghanistan" and instead spend its resources on building a domestic security architecture that can effectively combat an anticipated increase in terrorism flowing in from Pakistan. As one analyst wrote recently in an op-ed in a leading Indian newspaper, "it takes some strategic innocence to aspire for influence in a country as dangerous, conspiratorial and bloody as Afghanistan, without being willing to muddy our boots."

Which is a pity, since among all U.S. allies in the region India is most ideally suited to help in Afghanistan's post-conflict reconstruction, a task the U.S. is sworn to uphold. Aside from economic linkages and incentives through its vast domestic market, India is perhaps best placed to assist Afghanistan in crafting its own unique institutions of governance, especially those that combine tribal traditions with some semblance of accountability and democratic pluralism, by leveraging its own experience in building social, educational and political institutions. But this is possible only if a viable Afghan government exists beyond 2011 and not only promotes but also protects such an Indian role.

Even if it is not yet publicly acknowledged, India is already reviewing its future civilian aid program in Afghanistan, with an emerging consensus that its presence there is highly dependent upon the success of Western military strategy in containing the rise of the Taliban. As things stand, an autonomous Indian presence in Afghanistan will be very difficult to sustain following a NATO withdrawal in 2011.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama Administration's strategy in Afghanistan will ultimately be successful. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. can maintain its 2011 exit strategy and also achieve its long-term objectives. Having bet so much on President Karzai for lack of any other viable political options, and with Karzai becoming increasingly bellicose and unreliable as an ally, it is doubtful that the U.S. will either exit in 2011 or achieve its objective of making a durable pact with Taliban factions that appear to be pliable. Very likely, western military presence will be extended by at least two years as the inherent contradictions and unrealistic nature of an early U.S. exit become clear. If history is any guide, the West will exit Afghanistan having stayed longer than anticipated, having achieved much less than desired, and leaving genuine allies like India once again threatened by a new cycle of medieval fundamentalism and chaos.

This is adapted from a commentary that originally appeared in the Journal of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Subhash Agrawal is a frequent essayist on India's political, diplomatic and economic trends and heads India Focus, a New Delhi based think-tank consultancy. Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Country Risk Solutions, a Connecticut-based political and economic risk consultancy.