Indian Ambitions in Afghanistan and Beyond
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
Although India’s borders are not contiguous to Afghanistan, it has always vied to maintain friendly ties with Afghanistan and to keep Pak-Afghan relations frosty. To India, ties with Kabul mean new trade routes, access to Central Asia’s vast energy reserves and a way to stave off the rise of Islamic militancy. It gives an opportunity to India to undermine Pakistan, as it nurtures its super power aspirations by expanding its regional influence. According to informed sources, Indian intelligence officials working in Afghanistan disguised as diplomats have a vast network to destabilize FATA and Baluchistan. Besides the Indian Embassy in Kabul, India have consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. India also opened 70 training camps all along Pakistan’s western border where Tajiks, Uzbeks, Chechans, Arabs and dissidents from FATA and Baluchistan are funded, trained, equipped and launched into selected regions of Pakistan. Bulk of RAW assets is deployed in Afghanistan.
India is the 5th highest donor in Afghanistan and has invested $2 billion in Afghanistan for various development works and has built highways in the western deserts of landlocked Afghanistan dependent upon Pakistan for exporting and importing its goods. India built Delaram-Zaranj Highway so as to bring Afghanistan-Iran into an economic and strategic alliance and to isolate Pakistan. India invested $100 million in building Chahbahar Port and after Iran built a road to connect the port to Afghan border, India connected it with Delaram-Zaranj Highway. India has also invested over $136 million in construction of Ring Road Highway in Helmand province that will connect Chahbahar with Kabul. Work is underway to link Chahbahar by railway line with Hajipak in Afghanistan. The envisaged road/rail connectivity will allow landlocked Afghanistan an alternative outlet and thus reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan and reduce latter’s leverage over former. Like USA and China, India too is desperately seeking access to energy rich Central Asia and Caspian Sea region and hence has larger stakes in Chahbahar-Kabul connectivity.
Other important project of India is laying of transmission lines providing Uzbek electricity to Kabul. In addition, hydroelectric Salma Dam and new parliament building in Kabul are also significant Indian projects. India is also helping in agriculture and mining. More than hundred Afghan owned small development projects are being implemented by India. It offers free medical care and medicines in clinics across the country. Its medical missions in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif provided free treatment for 350,000 Afghans in 2009-10. In the field of education, India provides 2000 scholarships to Afghans annually for schooling and training in Indian institutions. It has provided teachers and professors in English and other languages for Afghan educational institutions.
On October 4, 2011, New Delhi and Kabul signed an agreement on strategic partnership which has further cemented their relations. Besides imparting training to the Afghan police and other administrative organizations, RAW rejuvenated KHAD and renamed it as RAAM and also helped in setting up Central Directorate of Intelligence. Indian military has now been assigned to train ANA as well. India is assiduously working to win the hearts and the minds of the Afghans. Indian influence in Afghanistan increased so profusely that the former sacked NATO-ISAF Commander Gen McChrystal blurted out bluntly that “While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people; increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures”. His straight talk may have become one of the reasons of his sudden ouster.
India has invested huge amount and undertaken multiple development projects in Afghanistan to create pro-India sentiments among the Afghan youth and to build anti-Pakistan sentiments. India is now looking forward for socio-politico-military-
economic returns. It is greedily eying at Afghanistan’s vast reserves of iron, copper, cobalt and gold and Indian companies have already been invited by Kabul to tap one trillion dollars worth of minerals.
India remains haunted with the memory of five-year Taliban rule in Afghanistan during which Indian presence in that country had almost terminated and Islamabad-Kabul relations were at their best. Since mid nineties, India pursued anti-Taliban and pro-Northern Alliance (NA) policy. The NA leaders were treated as state guests whenever they visited India and were well entertained and their needs were met. The Indian military with the blessing of Iran provided military hardware, repair of Soviet built Mi-17 and Mi-35 attack helicopters and training facilities to NA soldiers to battle the Taliban. India’s military provided intimate guidance and support to NA forces when they launched attacks in October 2001. Indian lobbyists in USA convinced George W. Bush administration to marginalize the Afghan Pashtuns from all government departments including security forces and to bring non-Pashtuns on the centre stage. This action was necessary to enable India to rapidly gain influence in all the sections of the Afghan society.
The NA members are beholden to India for its invaluable support it had lent to their cause when they were out in the blue. President Hamid Karzai who had received his education in India has never missed an opportunity to praise India and to demonize Pakistan. The present arrangement therefore suits India the most. Under no circumstances India would like these happy tidings to end and anti-India Taliban to return to power.
India has not confined its activities to Afghanistan only but is also busy making inroads in Central Asian Republics (CARs) and has made appreciable progress. Indian military is interacting with Tajikistan security forces and is providing funding for upgrading of airbases and has constructed a military hospital and logistic depot. India inked an agreement with Tajikistan in 2007 enabling its IAF to establish itself at Ayani airbase near Dushanbe and Farkhor airbase close to northern Afghanistan border. It has parked Mi-17 attack helicopters at Ayani base and has also leased Russian jets, already stationed at the base. It has a squadron of MiG 31 jet fighter bombers at Farkhor base. The two airbases have given an option to IAF to strike Pakistan from the rear.
India’s biggest worry is the post 2014 scenario. It knows that Karzai is unpopular even within his own clan and the ANSF is still not operationally fit enough to confront the Taliban challenge at its own. India is also unhappy over US parleys with the hard-line Taliban and its efforts to induce them to share power. In concert with Israel and hawkish elements within USA opposed to the draw-down plan, India has been making hectic efforts to dissuade Obama administration to call off the exit plan and stay on till Karzai achieves complete stability and control over the country. It has been inculcating fears into the minds of the policy makers in Washington that early withdrawal would open the way for extremist Taliban to regain power and Pakistan to recover its influence in Afghanistan. It has been propagating about the possibility of Russia-China, Afghanistan under Taliban-Pakistan-Iran-some Central Asian States block coming into being, with drastic ramifications for US strategic and economic interests in the region. Likewise, it is hobnobbing with Russia, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for a possible grouping in case an anti-Indian regime comes to power in Kabul. It is owing to Indo-Israel efforts that the draw-down plan has been modified and it has been decided in principle to leave behind a size-able counter terrorism force under the garb of advisers and trainers and to retain five military bases till 2024.
Pakistan must not agree to the US suggestion of granting prime role to India in Afghanistan and should parry US pressure and coercive diplomacy. Pakistan through skillful diplomacy should stay relevant in the endgame by retaining its links with friendly Taliban and other Afghan groups. It is in the interest of Pakistan to seek timely withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Pakistan can assert only if its home front is united and institutions are mutually supporting.