Afghanistan has both benefited and suffered from the decade-old international intervention. A vast and a diverse section of the Afghan population, nearly a generation of Afghans, have benefited in several ways – right from increased participation in national politics to rise in social status to evident economic empowerment – and have come to have stakes in the international engagement.
Perhaps, one of the key achievements of the initial Bonn Process was the civilianization of the role of factional or militia commanders of various hue and persuasions. In view of the virtual absence of state institutions in 2001, the democratization of Afghan politics, however weak, has been a significant achievement. A new era of political accommodation that began with the overthrow of the Taliban regime, despite constant jostling for political space and dominance among disparate factions within the new set up, has quietly led to the emergence of what may be referred to as the ‘New Afghanistan’.
The attributes of the old factional politics of the 1990s are very much part of it, nevertheless, it has a broader political vision for the country based on an inclusive representational political order against the strictly narrow, sectarian and backward looking worldview of the Pakistanbacked Afghan militant groups. The challenge post-2014 would thus be one of sustaining and strengthening the democratic political system and the new constitution, considered as critical to the survival of the ‘New Afghanistan’. India, though not considered a major player or a leading force in Afghanistan, is the largest regional contributor to the Afghan reconstruction. However, Indian presence and engagement remains critically dependent on the security situation there.
The provisions of the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement are supposedly geared to ensure the continuity in engagement at various levels even in worst of scenarios. India’s support for an Afghan-led peace process aimed at the Taliban, and its readiness to ramp up its training program for the Afghan military, is very much in sync with evolving strategy to help Kabul deal with the likely challenges. The shift in India’s approach to reconstruction assistance, from huge to small development projects, and innovative capacity building programs for thousands of young Afghans at its own institutions, is part of India’s constant effort to adjust and adapt to the changing ground realities.
However, as the Western engagement draws down and old patterns of Afghan conflict re-emerge, India may be confronted with some very familiar as well as newly emerging challenges. It might be pertinent to ask whether the current level and nature of engagement with Afghanistan would suffice in terms of protecting India’s interests after 2014-15? Perhaps, following set of factors would be critical to re-evaluating India’s approach: Firstly, the kind of political leadership or power structure that emerges in Afghanistan after 2014 and its perception about Indian role and presence; secondly, effectiveness of the US presence and strategy and how West deals with Pakistan; thirdly, what are India’s existing leverages within Afghanistan or at the regional level; fourthly, and most importantly, how far Afghans are willing to go with India’s interests and objectives.
The current debate within India’s strategic community on possible ways and means of dealing with the likely political instability in Afghanistan post-2014 varies widely. It can be summarized into three broad categories: a more neutral or nonpartisan approach towards the internally factionalized politics, basically keeping out of the proxy politics and working towards an internationally-guaranteed neutral Afghan state; a more balanced approach by way of reaching out to the entire spectrum of political leadership, including the Taliban elements willing to work with the Afghan Government; and finally, a more pro-active approach in terms of providing direct military assistance towards the stabilization of Afghanistan, preferably by way of deploying troops on Afghan soil to work closely with the Afghan military or as part of a UN-led and mandated peace keeping force.
As for Pakistan and its politics, it is likely to remain a huge geo-political reality for both India and Afghanistan. Afghanistan and the region cannot wait for Pakistan to reverse its decades-old policy of nurturing and using militant religious and terrorist organizations against its immediate neighbors and transform itself into an enlightened modern nation-state. Perhaps, a relatively viable and practical option would be to rather help Afghanistan transform itself into a stable democratic state, capable enough to deal with its challenges with minimal external support, while keeping up the engagement with Pakistan. The long-term objective here should be to build a cooperative relationship between the countries of the region based on increased economic connectivity and its shared advantages in a gradual and phased manner. This is where the significance of working with newly emerging modern Afghanistan lies.