The loss of two officers of the Indian Armed Forces and the Indian Foreign Service brought Afghanistan back into the national consciousness. While Brigadier R.D. Mehta and V. Venkateswara Rao are not the first victims of our new policy of strategic engagement, they are the most senior.
For most of us engrossed in our daily drudgery of potholes to work and late night outs on weekends, Afghanistan may be another land where a war-like situation prevails. But not long ago, the Pathan was a household name immortalized by Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala, which can move even the hard-hearted to tears to this day. It also picturizes the harsh land that Afghanistan was then, and it is apparent that nothing much has changed.
Partition severed our centuries-old physical links with Afghanistan, though traditional people-to-people bonds remain. India’s official relations with Kabul, but for the brief period of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, have always been healthy and, at times, controversial too. Even during those days we continued to host the Northern Alliance. President Hamid Karzai did his Master’s in political science in Shimla and many Afghan youths can still be seen on our campuses.
The backdrop of the lethal strike on the Indian embassy on 7 July is the eternal instability in Afghanistan over the centuries. Tempered by Pakhtunwali, the traditional code of the Pathans, and fundamentalist Deobandi brand of Islam, Afghans have refused waves of modernization, be it the British, the Soviet or, now, the American variety. This has also been conveniently used for continued presence of global powers in the region, romanticized as the “Great Game”, which is nothing but a euphemism for geopolitical hegemonism.
With the Karzai regime in power since 2002, India’s aspirations in Afghanistan received a fillip. New Delhi is one of the largest donors, providing $750 million-plus, and has undertaken a number of major infrastructure projects such as the Zaranj–Delaram link road with Iran and the construction of the Afghan parliament. Our soft power of Bollywood movies supplemented by television soaps such as Kasautii Zindagii Kay were the rage in Afghanistan, till hardliners forced Kabul to clamp down on cable channels airing programmes which were not “in line with our culture,” in Karzai’s words.
India’s popularity and rising economic engagement has been irksome to regional rival Pakistan, whose policy of strategic depth in the West is being challenged by New Delhi’s assertiveness in the region. Thus, proposals for direct land links to Kabul have been stymied by Islamabad from time to time. Enter the ubiquitous Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI, and its erstwhile protégé, the Taliban, and Islamabad’s resistance to Indian presence in Afghanistan finds an ideal foil through a high-gain, low-cost suicide attack strategy which has been steadily taking Indian lives over the past one year or so.
Yet, India’s revised foreign policy of greater engagement of the regional periphery and the extended neighbourhood implies that it would have to stay the course in Afghanistan. The external affairs minister left no doubts on this account in his post-incident press statement. Moreover, with large energy projects as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline in the offing, and the new link through Iran likely to provide safer passage to Central Asia, India has few options but to continue in the country. While any military involvement would be most inadvisable, better security of our personnel and assets is warranted, for we can ill afford to lose precious Indians such as Rao and Mehta operating on the front line of our national interest.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org