Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why India must stay in Afghanistan

Last week, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was in Kandahar, a city that is far from unfamiliar to India. At the height of the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked and taken to Kandahar, an event that led to a series of decisions that trouble India to this day. And in the same Kandahar, India now runs a large consulate and just opened an Agriculture University for the war-torn nation. Indeed, how quickly the tide changes: a country where India once had no footprint at all and indeed faced a grave threat from, is now the largest recipient of Indian development aid, with a vast diplomatic footprint and a lot of goodwill from the people.

2014 will be a game-changing year in Afghanistan, with the NATO-led ISAF withdrawing all combat troops and, with the way things are going, all military personnel entirely. The Indian Army is already expecting a dangerous spurt of terrorism in Kashmir if Afghanistan falls into another Civil War and particularly if the Taliban rises to the top. Therefore, for India, the most obvious thing to do would be to prevent that situation from ever taking shape. Of course, India's stated policy of never sending troops abroad outside of the UN Peacekeeping Missions (with the only exceptions in post-Independence history being East Pakistan and the Maldives) does not allow any direct role, but there are other options.

With India having signed the SPA with Afghanistan, it is necessary that our leaders virtually adopt the ANSF and bring it up to a level where it can at least maintain status quo with the Taliban. As a friend and the superpower of South Asia, it is what is expected. And from the perspective of Kashmir's security, which implies all of India's security, it is imperative. Indeed, Afghanistan could be India's first major arms market for our fledgling arms industry. But not just arms, military training and joint exercises would serve the ANSF well and further India's interests.

However, it is also important to remember that war have to be won of both the ground and in minds. India already enjoys a significant soft footprint in Afghanistan, with Bollywood movies and Hindi TV shows being all the rage there. Many Afghans are happy to meet a 'Hindi' person. Historically too, Afghanistan has played a role in India - from the Mahabharata days in Gandhara to the Mughals. While Pakistan might choose to appropriate the history of the Mughals as its exclusive, the Mughals rules from Delhi and are a part of Indian history and culture. Indeed, Afghans and Indians, at a historical level, are the same people. Therefore, continuing to spread this soft footprint is not only a historical duty but also makes sense strategically,

In the end, Afghans will have to decide their own future. Foreign powers, particularly Western powers, cannot. India's role in assisting and facilitating those choices will be crucial for both countries. 

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