Foreign Policy Blogs

Growing up in Afghanistan

Former foreign secretary of India, Shyam Saran has an excellent piece in Business Standard where he argues that staying back in Afghanistan and strengthening its presence there is the right strategy for India. He examines the ‘exit strategy’ from Afghanistan for the U.S. put forth by Henry Kissinger at a recent conference in Geneva. According to Kissinger, the U.S. should pursue a strategy whereby a “regional compact among key stakeholders” is established and “that effectively sanitised Afghanistan from regional and great power competition. This would effectively give the country a neutral status, guaranteed by the international community and respected by the country’s neighbours.”

Shyam Saran says that the approach would not be viable in the present scenario. He elaborates on the interests and attitudes of the major stakeholders in the game and what it means for India. He argues that India needs to have a well-crafted policy to stay in Afghanistan irrespective of what other actors decide. He says, “This is dictated by the need to prevent the country from once again degenerating into a base for jihadi terrorism against India. It is also an useful platform for India’s engagement with Central Asia. India does have convergent interests with some of the stakeholders, both within Afghanistan and including some of its neighbours like Iran and Russia. At the very least, there are those who, like India, cannot accept a fundamentalist Sunni-dominated regime in Kabul. We need to help coalesce them together in the pursuit of our shared interests.”

I have previously argued on this blog that India should continue its rehabilitation and reconstruction work in Afghanistan without being bogged down by dubious Pakistani claims of such presence harming the security situation in the region. “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.”

With the US talking of exiting from Afghanistan shortly and Pakistan waiting to eat the whole pie, it is crucial that India develops a comprehensive long-term Afghanistan strategy that fulfills its strategic and security needs, as also its global aspirations. Such a strategy would have to include successfully addressing and/or fighting Pakistan’s claims and aligning other stakeholders to the need for India’s presence in that country. Without the other stakeholders decisively on the Indian side, retaining and increasing its presence in Afghanistan would be a very difficult task.

The Chinese movements into India’s neighbors (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, etc.) are of serious concern to Indian security interests, particularly given the ‘special relationship’ between Pakistan and China, and should be a part of the Afghanistan strategy. So far India has been hesitant in pursuing its neighbors in Asia, allowing China enough space to move in and dominate. For this to change, India needs to get aggressive about its interests in the region and follow that with comprehensive long-term  strategies. It has managed to change perceptions of western countries through its economic growth and nuclear dealings. It is time to bank on those and create lasting relationships with its Asian neighbors, irrespective of who is in power.

Afghanistan, and the U.S. exit from that country, are an opportunity for India to practice and fine the art of projecting power. It is an useful tool to have in the foreign policy business; however, India has sadly been unable to acquire it so far. Today it has the economic and military poweress in place to back such an attitude, and India should not let it go waste. It is time for India to mature as a player and take charge of its Afghan policy, no matter what the US does.



Manasi Kakatkar-Kulkarni

Manasi Kakatkar-Kulkarni graduated from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. She received her degree in International Security and Economic Policy and interned with the Arms Control Association, Washington, D.C. She is particularly interested in matters of international arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and India’s relations with its neighbors across Asia. She currently works with the US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC).