Following on the heels of the Indo-US joint military exercise, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said that there is no possibility of Indian military involvement in Afghanistan. Though the joint military exercise was aimed at the study of counter-terrorism efforts and peace-keeping operations, the Indian Defense Minister categorically denied any intention of sending troops to Afghanistan. Earlier in the week, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Sashi Tharoor emphasized in an interview with Fareed Zakaria that “We (India) are a big player in Afghanistan, but we have absolutely no military role whatsoever.”
The only Indian security personnel present in Afghanistan were sent to protect Indian workers involved in reconstruction and rehabilitation work there. These paramilitary force guards were deployed after a spate of kidnappings and attacks against Indian workers. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been attacked twice in two years (July 2008, October 2009). Though no Pakistani involvement has been proved in the 2009 bombing, US intelligence reports confirmed ISI involvement in the 2008 bombing.
Instead of military involvement, India is the second largest contributor after the US and has spent almost $2 billion on humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan so far. Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations writes, “In January 2009, India completed construction of the Zaranj-Delaram highway in southwest Afghanistan near the Iranian border; it is building Afghanistan’s new parliament building set for completion by 2011; it is constructing the Salma Dam power project in Herat Province; it has trained Afghan police officers, diplomats and civil servants; and it has provided support in the areas of health, education, transportation, power, and telecommunications.“
In spite or because of the significant humanitarian assistance being provided by India, Pakistan has frequently raised doubts about the real motive for Indian presence in Afghanistan. The Indian consulates in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kandahar are accused as being facilitators for covert Indian intelligence operations against Pakistan. According to them India does not have reason for such a huge presence in Afghanistan and is undermining the stability of the region. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar writes at War and Peace, ” (Pakistani) Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly warned on Monday … that Indians “have to justify their interest” in Kabul. He told Los Angeles Times that India′s “level of engagement [in Kabul] has to be commensurate with [the fact that] they do not share a border with Afghanistan, whereas we do … If there is no massive reconstruction [in Afghanistan], if there are not long queues in Delhi waiting for visas to travel to Kabul, why do you have such a large [Indian] presence in Afghanistan? At times, it concerns us.” It does not help that Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai studied in India.
Though the US has been supportive of Indian efforts in Afghanistan the attitude seems to be changing. During a recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Milton Bearden said, “Though Pakistani concerns over Indian involvement in Afghanistan have in the past been dismissed by American officials as overwrought, they are nonetheless real; and it is correct that these concerns are being taken more seriously now by the United States.“
Even if the US’ attitude changes and Pakistan’s allegations continue, the Indian government should stand firm in its resolve to provide necessary humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. A perceived shift in the balance of power in the region by a few countries should not keep India from fulfilling its duties as a neighbor and regional power. The Afghan people need all the reconstruction and rehabilitation assistance possible to survive the prolonged war. India also needs a friend to its West when relations with Pakistan are deteriorating. Indian foreign policy cannot be dictated by one country; and if the ultimate goal of policy is for India to be a big player, involvement in Afghanistan is prudent and necessary. It would open up new business and diplomatic opportunities in countries in Central Asia and Iran. It could possibly help soften India’s Big Brother image among SAARC countries. The good work in Afghanistan needs to continue unhindered in the interest of both countries.