India’s Afghanistan Dilemma: To Stay or not to Stay!

"Pakistan's ISI has formidable links with the Afghan Taliban. India will be badly handicapped, once the Taliban comes to power, which definitely it would. India has no land and sea links with it to support her elements deployed there."

India’s Afghanistan Dilemma: To Stay or not to Stay!
“But I am here, my leg blocks of concrete, my lungs empty of air, my throat burning. There will be no floating away. There will be no other reality tonight.”

- Khaled Hosseini in the ‘Kite Runner’ -

Outgoing US President Donald Trump's administration has announced that it would be pulling out most of its troops from Afghanistan by 15 January 2021. Only a token presence of 2,500 troops would be kept at Bagram Air Base for strategic purposes and for future usage. God alone knows what is going to be this future usage or if there is some kind of an agreement with Taliban? Perhaps, Pakistan, the facilitator of US-Taliban talks, would know better.

This has left India in a dilemma: whether to stay or not to stay in Afghanistan? In the transforming geo-politics of the region, a serious re-think is needed. If Pakistan was going to be the ringmaster of the circus in Afghanistan, India is better advised to stay out of it.

Of course, pulling out of Afghanistan will bring to naught all its developmental and other activities. Maybe $3 billion went down the drain. However, when one gambles, losses also do take place. India was gambling in Afghanistan for the past 17-18 years. It worked for some time, but now no more.

Afghanistan, historically, has been a graveyard of invaders and conquerors. Alexander the Great, who came into Afghanistan in 330 BCE, had faced strong resistance from local tribes. He was stated to have observed that Afghanistan was easy to march into, but hard to march out of.

In recent history, it was found out by erstwhile Soviet leadership which led to the collapse of Soviet Union in 1989. It took 10 years for Soviet Union to disentangle itself from the Afghan quagmire.

And now it is the mighty United States, who is finding the truth of Alexander’s statement on Afghanistan. It was easy for the USA to get into Afghanistan after 9/11. But it has been almost two decades, and it is not finding an honourable exit route. The long-drawn negotiations with Taliban have not produced the desired results. Terrorist activities go on unabated.

The exodus of the USA is going to create a power vacuum. It is assumed that the dreaded Taliban outfit would take control of Afghanistan. Most Indian scholars think that Pakistan would get an upper hand and India would get marginalised in Afghanistan.

It has been so revealed by former US President, Barack Obama, in his book ‘A Promised Land’. He says in the book that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has formidable links with the Afghan Taliban.

India will be badly handicapped, once the Taliban comes to power, which definitely it would. India has no land and sea links with it to support her elements deployed there. Afghanistan is landlocked but a complex country. It is a country of multiple tribes with strong tribal loyalties.

It is inhabited by many and diverse peoples like the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbek’s, Turkmen, Aimak, Pashayi, Baloch, Pamirs and Nurstanis. Multiplicity of these rival tribes makes it a volatile and a violent country. Tribal overlords are their own sovereign bosses and are not easily subdued.

Afghanistan became a state, in the real sense, in 1747 AD, when Ahmed Shah Durrani established it. It is hemmed in between Pakistan on the East and South; Iran on the west: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the North and China to the North East through the Wakhan Corridor. It is strategically located on the interjection of South Asia and Central Asia.

Historically speaking, the land had served as a gateway to India. The ancient Silk route and many other trade routes converged on it from the West and East, and the North and South. However, its land and sea link with India got snapped in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned and Pakistan was created. Severing of this link with Afghanistan has many connotations for trade and geo-strategic importance for India.

Indian involvement in Afghanistan had started with the collapse of Taliban rule in 2002. India had been helping in economic and infrastructural buildup of Afghanistan for almost two decades. It is estimated that India had expended about $3 billion dollars on various programmes of development.

As long as US troops were present, India could carry out its development programme smoothly. However, India had to use a circuitous air link through Tajikistan or Iran for movement of stores and personnel's. This is because Hostile Pakistan does not provide any trade route though it’s territory to India and Afghanistan.

Afghan soldiers, left, and American soldiers blew up a Taliban firing position in the village of Layadira, in Kandahar Province, in February 2013; Photo Credit/Bryan Denton

The US administration wanted that India deploy its security forces to ensure Nationalist forces of Afghanistan are balanced against Pakistan sponsored Taliban. But it is not a worthwhile proposition,

Many Indian scholars too stress upon the need to deploy Indian military in Afghanistan. The reason seems to be more emotional than borne out of reality. They do not realise the significance of what Alexander had stated 2,350 years back or what Soviet Union and USA have recently found to their dismay. They have not also learnt a lesson from the Indian misadventure in Sri Lanka.

The basic reason of Indian supporters of military intervention in Afghanistan seems to be to negate the likely influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan. It may be noted that Pakistan wants to use Afghanistan as ‘strategic depth’ in a military confrontation with India.

Not only this, but Pakistan also wants India to be pushed out of Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel. The reason for Pakistan to throw India out of Afghanistan was to disallow it to support the Balochistan insurgency.

Pakistan also cites the case of a former Indian Naval officer, Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, who is in Pakistan custody, to blame India for destabilising Pakistan. He is accused of terrorist activities in Sindh and Balochistan.

Pakistan is convinced that it was India who was supporting the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). Pakistan is also worried about its China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which it thinks India would sabotage from Afghanistan. This project, at the cost of $62 billion, is considered as a game changer for Pakistan Economy.

In Indian parlance, maybe, India wants to use it as a second front against Pakistan. India might also be thinking of helping BLA as a tit for tat on the Kashmir Insurgency supported by Pakistan. With regards to CPEC, India has serious reservations about it, because the corridor gateway passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which India claims as its own territory.

CPEC, of course, is a major Indian concern and India would like to scuttle it at all costs. It provides a geo-strategic advantage to China, who is India’s sworn enemy now. With the full operationalisation of the Gwadar port, China would gain not only economic and trade advantages but also military and strategic edge over India.

China’s military presence in GB, in the garb of protection to Kashgar-Khunjerab pass highway to Gwador, would endanger India’s Ladakh region from West. In the long run, it is a security threat to not only Ladakh but the entire Kashmir. Therefore, India must sterilise and stall it.

The question is, notwithstanding historical and cultural linkages with Afghanistan, is it realistic for today’s India to involve itself economically and militarily in Afghanistan? And at what cost, when India does not have a proper land and sea route to Afghanistan. In case a hostile Taliban government comes into power, post US withdrawal, it would not be possible for India to carry out its activities.

It seems Indian economic indulgence in Afghanistan has been wasteful. $3 Billion dollars would be a sheer waste once Taliban springs to power. Taliban has no love lost with India. Like China, It cannot be trusted. Some would argue that India would lose it’s manoeuvrability of the second front. It is not so.

Whatever India was doing from Afghanistan, the same could be done from Leh and Ladakh. In fact, as a quid pro quo on Kashmir, India has all the right to provide logistic, moral and material support to separatists of GB.

If Pakistan can provide logistic financial support to Kashmiri militants, why should not India do it for GB? In fact, Pakistan ISI link is also established with ULFA militants. It is revealed by ULFA deputy C-in-C, Manoj Rava, alias Drishti Rajkhowa, who recently surrendered to Meghalaya police.

As it is Pakistan blames India for the situation in Balochistan, why not actually do it and openly support BLA? India should provide them a base in Ladakh and let them carry out their activities in GB and Balochistan. It would also be a cost-effective way to checkmate CPEC. Baloch insurgents could be an effective tool for an uprising in GB. India should Aim to strike at the heart of CPEC gateway.

In the final conclusion, it is assessed that India has to change its gears and do a real stock taking of geo-political environs of the region and be more proactive in GB and Balochistan  all  the same, India must support these covert operations not from Afghanistan but from Ladakh.

Indian taxpayers money would be better utilised from Ladakh than in Afghanistan. India should no more think of wasting funds in Afghanistan. Military involvement would be fraught with dangers. To defeat one’s enemy, one ought to think of the unthinkable.

(Col. Rajinder Kushwaha is an ex-NDA, commissioned into 3 Bihar. He is a battle-hardened veteran of the ’71 War & has served extensively in various counter insurgency environments across the country. He is a renowned author, and a highly respected defence & national security expert and a regular contributor at the 'Fauji India' magazine, ‘Defence and Security Alert’ (DSA), the ‘Indian Defence Review’ (IDR) among others. You can reach him on Twitter: @RajeeKushwaha, Email ID: [email protected])

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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