Despite having invested $1.2 billion (about Rs 55,000 crore) in efforts aimed at Afghanistan's post-Taliban reconstruction, India is being treated as an also ran in the ongoing Afghanistan summit at London. In the run up to the London summit hosted by Turkey a few days ago, India had not been invited to participate. This had been done in deference to Pakistan's opposition to India's presence in Afghanistan.
India recognises the need for a stable Afghanistan and views the Taliban's hosting of Al Qaeda as a major regional security threat. Given Al Qaeda's connections with radical Islamist organisations based in Pakistan, which are dedicated to destabilising Jammu and Kashmir, it is also a potential national security threat.
The repeated attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul highlight the challenge to India's interests. The consistency of Indian investment in Afghanistan shows its commitment to the reconstruction of the state. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said, "India has an enduring civilisation of links with Afghanistan. We do not see Afghanistan as a hater of influence. Our interest is in building a region of peace and stability. India will continue to assist Afghanistan in building its institutions and human resources."
India is the sixth largest bilateral donor and the largest regional donor in Afghanistan. Most of its investment is linked to capacity building and fostering economic growth. It is also involved in co-financing several power projects with the Asian Development Bank in northern Afghanistan and interested in promoting Afghanistan as a transit state for Central Asian energy. To this intent, India is pursuing agreements with different Central Asian states.
The Zaranj-Delaram road, which connects Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar, was completed by India in 2008 at great cost. It is also building the country's new parliament in Kabul, which, along with the Salma Dam in Herat, is scheduled for completion by mid-2010.
India has also been conducting training programmes for Afghan government officials since 2003 and has also deputed Indian civil servants as mentors and guides to develop training modules in Afghan ministries and departments. Around 100 Afghan defence personnel are trained at different Indian military academies in India every year. India has also posted some of its army officers to Afghanistan to teach basic military field craft and English skills to the Afghan National Security Forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked the Indian government to provide training programmes for its pilots and technicians of Mi-35 helicopter gunships. The US administration has also expressed an interest in Indian Special Forces instructors imparting counterinsurgency and commando operations training to Afghan military personnel.
Given the vulnerability of its projects and personnel, India's aid to Afghanistan has led to a vibrant debate within the country. Some analysts have suggested that India should be prepared to send in its troops. However, most commentators are in favour of stating with the present aid policy.
Those who support the aid-only approach stress the fact that neither the Afghan government nor the international community (read the US government) have yet made any request to the Indian government asking for troops. In fact, on being asked about possible Indian military involvement in Afghanistan, US Pacific Command Chief Admiral Robert F Willard commented, "It (deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan) is for the Indian government and military to decide. We have not sought any ground-level cooperation (deployment) from India. We are happy with India's significant rebuilding role in Afghanistan.''
It is in India's strategic interest to reduce Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan. It is clear that the current strategy in Afghanistan has not been as effective as is desirable. The threat of extremist violence spilling over into India is growing every day. In this kind of geopolitical climate, it is a moot point whether India should wait to be asked to send in its troops or offer to send troops, especially since the international community's intentions appear to be oriented towards keeping Pakistan mollified. General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, has noted, "Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghanistan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India."
India must not allow American perceptions and the US' misplaced tolerance of Pakistani sensibilities to override its legitimate interests in Afghanistan. Or else, its strategic partnership with the US will not be worth much in terms of mutuality of interests.
India must take all steps that are necessary to ensure that its legitimate interests in Afghanistan are protected. It should offer to train the Afghan National Army in-country as well as at bases in neighbouring countries, for example the Ayni base which India helped to build in Tajikistan in addition to the training already being provided in India.
In the unlikely eventuality that India is invited to contribute troops for stability operations in Afghanistan, as an emerging regional power and in its national security interests, India should be prepared to do so. India must be willing to join the so-called war on terror to ensure that the epicentre of terrorism remains confined to the Af-Pak territory astride the Durand Line and does not spill over to the areas east of the Indus River.
If the radical extremists extend their sway to Pakistani Punjab, it will only be a matter of time before fundamentalist terrorism manifests itself in northern India. Hence, it is not in India's interest to allow Pakistan to dictate terms over the future course of events in Afghanistan and reduce India to becoming a mute spectator on the specious plea that India is not an immediate neighbour.
India must leverage its strategic partnership with the US and other nations that are members of the Western alliance to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.
Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi and Samarjit Ghosh is Associate Fellow, CLAWS.