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Last weekend’s bombing in Jalalabad came as a reminder to India’s policy makers that there is no free lunch in international relations. Together with the news of the escape of hundreds of jihadists from Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as the United States reconsidering the resumption of its military aid to Pakistan, India needs to think quickly on how to defend its interests in Afghanistan.

India’s present options are neither pretty nor pleasant, but conflict seldom provides one with neat choices. Even if India were to increase military and infrastructural assistance to Afghanistan, even if it were to create and deploy an elite “Diplomatic Assets Protection Force” to its four missions in Afghanistan, Delhi cannot hope that it would be enough. Given the humbling even the greatest empires have received in the mountainous central Asian state, what can India do that countless others before it have not tried and failed?

The first and most difficult step for anyone getting into Afghanistan would be to understand and accept that they will be in there for at least 20 years. Though theories on counter-insurgency abound, very few have actually snuffed one out. The second step is to realise that everyone needs allies – India once found an ally in Iran against the Taliban, and today, Russia and the United States may also share some of the same goals. The third step, which has proven impossible for India in the past, is to articulate a clear and limited vision behind which these like-minded states might temporarily band.

Delhi has one potential partner in Moscow for its Afghan venture. Russia has been torn about US presence in former Soviet backwaters, but realises the dangers present in a complete NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Worried that the country might collapse into civil war and become a hub of narcotics and Islamism, the Russian foreign ministry has announced that it is considering deploying troops along the Tajik-Afghan border. The Kremlin genuinely worries that like in the turbulent 1990s, Islamist ideology might spread to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and that drug money might reinvigorate criminal organisations in the region. Under no circumstance, however, will Moscow be drawn into sending troops back into the war-torn country.

Russia’s leasing of an airbase to NATO forces to assist in logistics and resupply efforts is nonetheless a sign that the Eurasian giant is willing to assist in curbing the Taliban’s influence. Russia has sold, through the US as well as directly to Kabul, approximately 100 Mi-17 helicopters that can act as a transport as well as a gunship. However, after its own ten-year war with the mujaheddin, extensive Russian aid might not only be politically difficult for Kabul but also unwanted. India can augment Kabul’s supply with its own Russian-origin arms and the training of Afghan troops.

Tehran is an old ally in the region that Delhi can also turn to. Like Russia, Iran has viewed US presence in Afghanistan with suspicion, so much so that it has been alleged that Tehran is temporarily supporting a low-level insurgency against US interests in the country. The ayatollahs have maintained close ties with Kabul since the ouster of the Taliban, and contributed to rebuilding Afghanistan. At the state level, Iran has built roads, dental colleges and libraries in Afghanistan, and in the harsh winter of 2008-2009, even supplied oil at below-market rates to help with Kabul’s electricity supply. At a humanitarian level, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee is providing micro-loans, non-cash assistance, and even vocational training to families and orphans. Among Tehran’s chief cross-border concerns are narcotics and the influx of refugees, already numbering around 2.5 million.

To make matters easier, though some of Tehran’s tactics have caused resentment, Afghanistan also sees Iran as an important partner in its growth. Kabul wishes to develop road and rail links from its cities to Iranian ports to give its exports access to international markets, and the two countries recently signed a strategic pact that highlighted cooperation on counter-terrorism, narcotics control, information sharing, and bilateral cooperation with other regional nations such as Russia and India.

Working with Iran carries its own price tag – with US and EU sanctions in effect, India’s role in developing Iran’s Chabahar port and its supporting transportation links could meet with opposition. Ironically, this very scheme was considered by the US in the late 1990s to weaken Russia’s grip over the newly-formed Central Asian republics. Additionally, Iran’s support of figures like Ayatollah-al-Uzma Muhammad Asif Mohseni may raise awkward questions. India’s mission in Afghanistan is certainly not to build a secular democracy, but Mohseni’s political views, if as orthodox as his social views, may only exchange one problem in Afghanistan for another.

Some analysts see China as another partner against the Taliban. This analysis is based on an inflated threat perception of Beijing’s own problems in Xinjiang with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Undeniably, Uighurs are unhappy with their Han overlords and there have been sporadic incidences of violence, but at the same time, there has been no sustained “hot conflict” in the province since 1949. Beijing is far more likely to use its influence with Pakistan to curtail Islamist ambitions in Xinjiang than cooperate with India for the latter undermines Beijing’s goal of using Islamabad as a counterweight and distraction against Delhi.

The US withdrawal will still leave approximately 10,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2024. India must use the US presence as additional muscle behind its Afghan policy. However, India’s cabal has its own internal tensions – no one in the region trusts the United States; the US would be wary of increased Iranian or Russian influence in Afghanistan; Afghans remain sour about Russia; Iran seeks to create a pliant regime in Kabul; Russia would be unhappy with greater central Asian access to international markets via pipelines to the Arabian Sea.

In this den of thieves, India has a central role in bringing and holding together a new anti-Taliban alliance. Indians share much goodwill in Afghanistan and is least hostile to either Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, or the United States. The question is, can Delhi show the requisite leadership?

This post appeared in the Economic Times on August 11, 2013.