By Michelle Cherian
Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist
The 9/11 twin towers’ attack is not a distant memory for the Americans and is not even remotely close to becoming so, given USA’s constant attempts to broker peace in the war-torn firmaments of Afghanistan. Before we delve deeper into recent developments and resultant changes in scenarios, it would be appropriate to mention here that America’s struggle to ensure national security in Afghanistan so that it does not turn into a spring-board for terrorist activities in the US, is a struggle of its own making.
Afghanistan was not always a lost cause, nor did it seem so until the 1980s; infact it was at peace with its neighbours and was a favoured holiday destination for many Westeners. However, the current turbulence finds its origins in the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; a well-calculated and militarily backed effort to assure themselves of this South Asian country’s fealty in the backdrop of the Cold War. America watched its nemesis’ moves closely and in order to safeguard its own interests, began funding the extremist Afghani groups; thus indirectly legitimising their war against the Soviets and directly leading to the birth of the Mujahideen and Al-Qeada. Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s Al-Qaeda was given refuge by the unpopular Taliban Government in Afghanistan- after they had successfully toppled the Mujahideen rule- which proved to be a safe haven for planning and executing the 9/11 attacks. USA’s occupation of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 was a retaliatory move in response to these attacks and it was only when the recalcitrant Taliban Government refused to hand over Bin-Laden to the US troops after a series of diplomatic talks, did it begin Operation Enduring Freedom to rout the extremist factions in the country.
Thirteen years and still counting; America’s long drawn plan to firstly, exterminate the Islamic militia, secondly to diminish Pakistan’s importance in its immediate neighbour’s nation building process and thirdly to establish security and a strong, centralised, democratic rule in Afghanistan seems far from being achieved. While USA has had notable success in eliminating the Al-Qaeda and Taliban loyalist groups from Southern and Western Afghanistan, the East is not a pretty picture, with militant camps set up in the isolated as well as the populous areas which are regaining strength and threaten to unleash new degrees of terror and chaos. In one of the single-largest disclosures of information in American History, Wikileaks, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower organisation, released data that confirmed popular suspicions and a matter that the US was trying to keep hushed up: Pakistan was secretly aiding the rebels in Afghanistan plan attacks on the US Special Operation Troops after receiving $1 Billion to from the US to help in Afghnaistan’s restructuring programme. It has become clear to the US administration that to seek Pakistan’s help in this peace-building process is like waiting for oranges to grow on apple trees, and hence, it has become cautious in its dealings with the latter. America’s noble intentions of establishing a strong democratic rule in Afghanistan and more selfish intentions of preventing itself from being used as a play-ground for terrorist activities seem nowhere near fulfilment with its own hurried drawdown of troops which began early in 2011. Obama speaks of bringing the war in Afghanistan to a responsible end, by reducing its military presence gradually and limiting its role to that of advisory affairs after 2014, but this move, apart from tacitly implying the huge burden the Afghan wars had on the US exchequer, may altogether fail to achieve the objectives of the war it initially waged in (not against) Afghanistan.
With USA, Afghanistan and India itself, being well aware of India’s extremely important role in ensuring Afghanistan’s security, India had little choice in providing all the help it could afford, economically and geographically. At the outset, India’s aid was largely civilian and it focussed on building human capital and physical infrastructure and helping agriculture, among other sectors of the Afghan economy. New Delhi has pledged some US$1.3 billion on various projects, emerging as the sixth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan. Important infrastructural projects undertaken by Indians include the construction of electricity transmission lines, the Salma Dam power project in the Herat province, construction of the Afghan parliament building and the 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway, enabling Afghanistan to have access to the sea via Iran and providing a shorter route for Indian goods to Afghanistan, which was completed by India’s Border Roads Organization in 2008 despite stiff resistance from the Taliban.India has also vocally expressed support for Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s President and has pushed for Afghanistan’s membership in the SAARC. In short, it has been a ‘soft power’ in the region.
India has had the singular advantage of establishing cordial ties in Afghanistan without much difficulty, an advantage that weighs heavily upon its long-time disenchanted neighbour, Pakistan, which has contiguous but rather contested borders with Afghanistan. In light of India’s consistent civilian aid and recent border skirmishes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the former’s penchant with India became even stronger. Pakistan has not been ignorant about this particular development and in addition to abetting armed attacks on the US troops, it has also targeted the Indian embassy and guest houses, killing 9 Indian nationals in the past two years. Even America seems to humour Pakistan’s sentiments as it feels India show step-down in its presence in Afghanistan for fear of incurring the wrath of Pakistan, which could lead to disturbance not only within the sub-continent but world-wide as well.
However, India should not see its role in Afghanistan through the eyes of the Americans, who have their own interests at heart while making such claims, nor through the eyes of the Pakistanis who have always been envious of India’s stronghold in Afghanistan and who view their own increasing presence in the Afghan nation crucial to settle scores with India, but through the eyes of the Afghanis who have definitely benefited from India being the soft power it has. The US administration and the allied powers’ decision to strip Afghanistan of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) that they have long provided, has added to Karzai’s strain and in an attempt to stall the ensuing operation, he has refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement for the present with the US.
Contrary to its reputation for indecision, India took things to a new climax, starting last year. It has begun to provide military aid to Afghanistan, much to Pakistan’s and USA’s disdain, but frankly, nothing should matter more to it than its own national security. India has agreed to pay for military equipment sourced from Russia and also repair the equipment left behind by the Soviet army when they were routed in 1989. Moreover, it has also begun training camps to help prepare the fledgling Afghan National Security Forces to face the onslaught from a slowly strengthening Taliban. India has the dual advantage of sourcing weaponry, artillery, helicopters and other armoured vehicles from Russia because this avoids its own direct contact with Afghanistan’s borders and also means it doesn’t have to compromise on its own supply of arms from Russia.
The stakes are high, especially for India when its path to becoming a global power could be obliterated by security concerns. However, standing its ground in this rough weather and not bending to external pressure, could expedite its smooth sailing in the future.
Michelle is a student of Economics at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi. She is an ardent writer and takes pleasure in writing on various topical issues such as Economics, politics and world affairs. Development Economics is her region of interest and being an idealist as well as a realist, is convinced that through dedication, hard work and foresight, she can help India achieve great highs, economically and otherwise. Her greatest strength is that she believes in herself and she ascribes her achievements to her family and friends.