(EXCLUSIVE) Afghanistan, a strategic milieu for New Delhi to embrace


Aimal Faizi

New Delhi is finalizing the “the transfer of four Russian-made Mi-25 helicopters” to Kabul as the Afghan national security advisor met his counterpart in New Delhi this weekend (8th & 9th Nov).

According to an Indian official source, “the decision is already done” and the “actual transfer and delivery” of the helicopters will take place in a months time from now.

New Delhi must step up its role in Afghanistan by further strengthening the security dimension of its strategic partnership with Kabul and positively respond to the defence and security needs of the Afghan government.

Afghans have sanguine expectations to receive New Delhi’s renewed commitment towards enhancing security and defense cooperation.

Why is an active Indian military involvement in Afghanistan a strategic necessity for the two countries?

Strategic realities of the surrounding region, brought Kabul and New Delhi to sign a strategic partnership agreement in October 2011. In accordance to the strategic partnership agreement, New Delhi is committed to the “training, equipping, and capacity building” of the Afghan national security and defense forces.

Based on this landmark accord and facing Washington’s unwillingness to genuinely equip Afghan national armed forces, President Hamid Karzai, in May 2013, presented a “wish-list” to New Delhi asking for lethal and non-lethal weaponry including military helicopters, medium-lift aircrafts, tanks, 105 mm howitzer artillery and etc.

As an aide to the president, during the May 2013 visit to New Delhi, I observed Karzai’s desire to encourage Indian leadership for a more active role in the region’s geopolitical stability. He was stressing on the fact that India’s -as well as of the region’s- security is tied to a stable Afghanistan, therefore, it is imperative for New Delhi to boost the security and defece capabilities of the Afghan national armed forces.

But wary of a Pakistani reprisal and an unsupportive US reaction, under prime minister Manmohan Singh, the previous Indian government was hesitant to fulfill Kabul’s “wish-list” at that time. Instead, between 2004 to 2014, India continued to lean more towards a soft-engagement in Afghanistan; providing more than $2 billion to Kabul mainly for humanitarian assistance, infrastructure and capacity buildings projects.

After Karzai’s May 2013 visit, the Indian press wrote: “India needs to balance its stakes in Afghanistan against the potential reaction from Pakistan and the NATO.”

New Delhi, seemingly, had left regional affairs in its neighborhood to the United States. Though New Delhi could have been America’s bona fide ally in the war on terror, it was marginalized as Washington, for its Afghan strategy, relied more on Islamabad.

Indians soon perceived that Pakistan’s ever-existing paranoia about India’s influence in Afghanistan, has led Washington to be “actively discouraging India from assuming a higher profile in Afghanistan.”

Now, the changing ground realities of Afghanistan seem to have made Prime Minister Modi’s government to reconsider their military engagement with Afghanistan. By supplying attack helicopters from the old Kabul’s wish-list, New Delhi is practically building on a foundation laid by the former president of Afghanistan.

Modi’s government seems to have reassessed its regional objectives realistically and is now upgrading New Delhi’s security role in Afghanistan.

According to the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr Amar Sinha, the Afghan national security advisor, Hanif Atmar’s visit to New Delhi will “focus on reviewing the bilateral cooperation in all sectors”, besides the situation in the region, “the peace process and the outlook of major powers.”

Mr Atmar’s visit will now be followed by the Afghan deputy foreign minister, Hikmat Karzai’s visit to New Delhi from the 17 to 20 of this month. For all intents and purposes, India has successfully engaged the Afghan national unity government after a year of confusion and blurriness.

All that is good news for Afghanistan, India’s second largest recipient of development assistance.

But India also needs to work with regional allies. As violence by new brands and designs of terrorist groups intensifies in the region, ensuring stability in Afghanistan will contribute to the regional stability, which, for India as a regional power, is of a fundamental interest. Therefore, New Delhi should coordinate its Afghan policy and enhance its cooperation with Russia, China and Iran. In spite of their divergent interests in the region, Russia, China, India and Iran should be glued to strongly support Afghanistan and jointly fight the facing political menace: terrorism.

Pakistan needs not worry about the enhancement of military cooperation between Kabul and New Delhi. Characterized by realism, Islamabad also has growing stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan. Instead of a terra firma for rivalry, Afghanistan should become a theatre for confidence building between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Obsessed with its growing “war on terror”, Washington should officially welcome and support India’s momentous gesture to deliver combat helicopters to Kabul. As Alyssa Ayres, a former State Department deputy assistant secretary for South Asia and now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations puts it: “India has been an extremely helpful development, trade, training, and investment partner for Afghanistan and its role should be encouraged.”

The author is a former spokesperson & current aide to Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai.