Afghanistan’s India outreach

The likely transfer of four attack helicopters from India to Afghanistan marks a significant change in the positions of not only India and Afghanistan, but also that of the US.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Suhasini Haidar reported in The Hindu on November 4, 2015:

India is discussing the transfer of attack helicopters to Afghanistan when Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar visits New Delhi this weekend (November 7-8) for meetings with NSA Ajit Doval.

As Haidar details further, these four Russian-made Mi-25 helicopters will be India’s first offensive weaponry transferred to the National Unity Government in Afghanistan.

This transfer marks a significant change in the positions of not only India and Afghanistan, but also that of the US, as explained below.

Up to this point, the Indian government had rolled back its engagement with Ashraf Ghani’s administration following his efforts (backed by the US) to reach out to all sections of Pakistan in the hope of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. Back then, it made sense for India to let its displeasure be made clear to the Afghan government, which chose to throw its weight behind Pakistan-led talks while keeping the Indian connection on the back burner.

However, we had argued in our writings that India should look to refresh its Afghanistan relationship in light of three new developments: failure of the Murree round of talks, splintering of the Taliban movement and its relative weakness in the South, and the changing geopolitics of Afghanistan, Central and West Asia over the last six months.

It finally appears that the Indian leadership has decided to re-energise its Afghanistan desk. Reports suggest that it was the Indian government that reached out to Afghanistan—the invitation to Mr. Atmar was extended by Mr. Doval during a telephone conversation a few days back. This is a welcome change—India looks to have overcome its fear of aggravating Pakistan in order to boost Afghanistan’s quest for strategic autonomy.

Second, this move also reflects a change in the Afghan government’s position. Already frustrated by the failure of the Murree round of talks, the Kunduz attack turned out to be the last straw. Following the Taliban takeover of the important northern city, the Afghan government was forced to re-evaluate its relationship with all its neighbours. The Chief Executive of the government, Abdullah Abdullah welcomed Russia’s potential assistance by saying:

If any country wants to assist Afghanistan in war on terror, Afghanistan welcomes the offer.

This outreach to India is a reflection of this realignment of Afghan government’s priorities.

Third, the National Unity Government’s change of heart is impossible without a change in the US position. We had indicated that the U.S., in search of an honourable exit from Afghanistan, had been shaken by the Kunduz incident and was looking for more options:

The Kunduz attaack makes it clear that the optimism generated by Pakistan-led round of talks was misplaced. The halt in troop withdrawal until 2017 is meant to buy time until the U.S. finds a better roadmap to peace in Afghanistan. While the U.S. and China still continue to place their bets on Pakistan-backed efforts, there is a growing realisation that the price Pakistan demands will never be acceptable to large sections of Afghans. Nevertheless, the U.S. is said to be examining various other possibilities for securing peace.

It is most likely that in search of new options, the US would have encouraged the national unity government to re-engage with India.

A few important questions emerge in the light of the new development: given the new start, will India further deepen its military relationship with the Afghan government? And more importantly, will India help the Afghan government and the US in starting a new peace process with sections of the Taliban? These questions will be answered in the days to come. In any case, well re-begun is almost half done.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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One Response to Afghanistan’s India outreach

  1. Guru Aiyar November 16, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    Very well articulated. With the responsibility for recent Paris terror attacks being claimed by the ISIS,the US can be further diplomatically compelled to let India play a much greater role in the subcontinent. It remains to be seen where will the policy lie-whether only transfer of military hardware or more active training of Afghan government forces in counter-terrorism?

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