By Ajai Shukla
First published in The New York Times
September 22, 2017
NEW DELHI — President Trump has pivoted toward India and away from Pakistan. Calling upon India to help in Afghanistan, “especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Mr. Trump was holding up the prospect of a major Indian presence to goad Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban and deny them sanctuary.
Indian policy makers were pleased with Mr. Trump’s blunt warning to Pakistan to stop “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” but Indian officials know the American president is neither measured nor consistent.
India could easily spare tens of thousands of soldiers for Afghanistan from its 1.4 million-strong military. Even as the Pentagon and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have scrabbled for troops to fight a resilient Taliban insurgency, the United States has discouraged India from sending troops or weaponry to Afghanistan.
It is because Pakistan insists that if the Taliban are to be persuaded to join peace talks over Afghanistan and the supply lines through Pakistan to the United States forces are not disrupted or stopped, the United States must not allow an Indian security presence in Afghanistan.
In the early years after the fall of the Taliban, Indian policy makers were miffed at being prevented from putting a security presence on the ground. In 2011, India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, which enabled India to provide direct military support — initially trainers but potentially combat troops if the need arose.
Pakistani generals fear a Kabul-New Delhi axis would lead to Pakistan’s “strategic encirclement,” with the Indian military along a contested eastern border and hostile Afghans on its western border.
Indians are conscious of the limited leverage the United States has over Pakistan. Mr. Trump, like his predecessors, is likely to ease the squeeze after Pakistan sacrifices some jihadi pawns to save the king and queen.
Since the Taliban was evicted in 2001, India has confined itself to managing a $2 billion humanitarian aid program that is only Afghanistan’s fifth largest but reputedly the most focused and effective dollar for dollar.
But the Indian presence in Afghanistan rests on deeper cultural foundations than United States support. Any evaluation of India’s options requires an understanding of the close, even inexplicable, friendship between the two peoples who seldom meet. The irrational friendship toward India among Afghans of every stripe — Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Communists, Islamists, everyone — stems from the soft power that India projects in Afghanistan.
Afghans avidly consume Hindi language soap operas and Bollywood films, which create a perception of India as a utopian idyll of noble friendships and relatively chaste romances where the good folks always win. Paradoxically, the physical distance between India and Afghanistan brings their people even closer in their common dislike of Pakistan, which separates them geographically.
A common South Asian cultural kinship insulates relations from controversies like the burning of “waste” Qurans by the United States forces in 2012 in Bagram, or propaganda leaflets dropped last week depicting a lion (the American military) chasing a dog (the Taliban), wrapped in a flag inscribed with Islam’s holiest verse.
On several occasions, on learning that I am Indian, Afghan airport security officers insisted that I pull my bags off the scanning machine since checking them would be insulting a friend. Over years of travel in Afghanistan, I encountered surliness just once, while interviewing an Afghan currency dealer for a television network. After the interview, it emerged he had mistaken me for a Pakistani. The Afghan apologized profusely and insisted on a retake.
The Taliban field commanders and fighters I have met, who many assume would be hostile to India owing to the support they receive from Pakistan, display the same disdain for Pakistan and affection for India as the average Afghan. One senior Taliban official reproached me for India’s failure in 1979 to condemn the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But he returned quickly to criticizing the domineering control of “Punjabis,” as Afghans disparagingly call Pakistanis.
Sustaining this priceless Afghan affection for India is the fact that Indian troops have never spilled Afghan blood — not in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, nor the civil war in the 1990s, nor through the insurgency after 2002.
The combat-weary Afghans associate India’s presence with Kabul’s biggest children’s hospital and medical missions in their major cities that treated hundreds of thousands until some Indian doctors who manned them were killed in Kabul in 2010.
India has financed and built Afghanistan’s Parliament, Kabul’s most prestigious high school, the transmission lines that light up Kabul and the buses that ferry commuters in the capital. India funded and helped rebuild the hydroelectric Salma Dam in western Herat province. India also built a 133-mile highway linking Afghanistan to Iran. Hundreds of Afghan diplomats, administrators and soldiers are sent to India for professional training.
While public impact was a key consideration in selecting these aid initiatives, the most striking examples of good-will creation are the approximately 300 “small development projects” (S.D.P.s) that India has financed, dovetailing them closely with Kabul’s own development priorities. Those projects benefit remote border villages that large aid donors seldom target because of the prevailing insecurity.
Each project allocates up to a million dollars for a health, education or rural development project — such as building an irrigation channel for a village to bring water from a mountain stream to its fields.
India merely selects and finances the project and provides technical oversight; the local community takes ownership of the project and executes the work on the ground. The wave of good will for India generated by the S.D.P.s has encouraged New Delhi to allocate a larger share of Indian development aid to these projects.
Mr. Trump’s call for a greater Indian developmental role in Afghanistan hardly constitutes a dilemma for New Delhi. India could oblige Mr. Trump, while simultaneously furthering its own interests, by doubling down on an aid-based strategy in Afghanistan.
In 2017, India has allocated almost six times as much aid to tiny Bhutan as it has to Afghanistan. Even Nepal will get more than Afghanistan. India has its own developmental needs and priorities, but for the world’s seventh-largest economy, there is scope for stepping up its game in Afghanistan. India does not need boots on Afghan ground.