In early 2002, after the Taliban had retreated from Kabul, the one medical facility that functioned unencumbered by the bombs and fighting was the 30-year-old Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital. That cold February morning, as one watched Indian doctors and nurses take mine-hit Afghans, children and adults, through the paces as they were fitted with the prosthetic “Jaipur foot”, the warmth and strong bond Indians shared with the locals was more than evident.
In the 16 years since the Taliban’s exit, India’s overarching strategy in Afghanistan has been to stop Pakistan from reimposing the writ of its Taliban proxies, particularly the Haqqani Network, without backing down from its commitment to help rebuild the lives of the people of this war-torn country, despite Pakistan’s best efforts to keep India out of every international aid forum as it threw sand in Washington’s eyes.
The cost has been high. The ITBP were prime targets when they were deployed to protect men from the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation, working out of fortified camps as they built the Zaranj-Delaram highway. Once built, the highway would bypass Pakistan and give landlocked Afghanistan a much-needed alternative route to bring in goods through Iran’s Chahbahar port. India’s foot-dragging on Chahbaharand America’s uneasy relations with Iran have, of course, put paid to that plan.
Easy pickings for the resurgent Taliban were Indian construction crews who built the Selma Dam in Herat, renamed the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, and the men who built the Afghan Parliament in the heart of Kabul, at a cost of $115 million. The Parliament’s gleaming dome and soaring pillars serve as a daily reminder to Pakistan that it may terrorise hapless Afghans but their hearts and minds remain with New Delhi.
That’s why US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Afghanistan policy announcement, that reversed his predecessor Barack Obama’s ill-advised withdrawal of the US military, did not set Delhi afire. There was celebration when Mr Trump said: “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: we must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America… Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.” But then came not just the dreaded India-Pak hyphenation that Delhi must have believed it had ended, but Pakistan’s twisted reasoning on why outside powers must bring India to the negotiating table on the Kashmir mess: “The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict. And that could happen.”
Mr Trump’s most troubling line wasn’t his “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” It was this: “Appreciated India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the US, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, specially in economic assistance and development”.
India’s contribution to Afghanistan in development assistance adds up to $3 billion so far. It built schools, provided power and drinking water, sponsored the education of 16,000 Afghan students and with the signing of the October 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), now trains the Afghan military, which was supplied with three Mi-25 attack helicopters.
India’s only holdout — its refusal to put Indian boots on the ground. Is that about to change? Is this the price India must pay to stay in Trump’s Afghanistan?
Neither India-leaning Hamid Karzai nor successor and India-sceptic-turned-supporter Ashraf Ghani were completely comfortable with the SPA. It didn’t go far enough, bring India into the gameplan as fully as they would have liked, and help withstand pressure from Washington and Rawalpindi GHQ on legitimising the Pakistan proxy’s political re-entry. The SPA was, in fact, signed a month after Mr Karzai’s mentor, former President Burhannudin Rabbani, was assassinated by a Taliban bomber who arrived at the presidential palace pretending to be a Taliban peace negotiator.
The only redeeming feature was Mr Trump’s lambasting of Pakistan as openly and undiplomatically as he did. “Pakistan has sheltered the same organisations that kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars. At the same time, they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting. That will have to change.”
Only his former arch-rival, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, came as close to slamming Pakistan when, in response to Islamabad’s oft-repeated “we are the victims of terror” tack, she said: “You can’t expect to rear snakes in your backyard and not expect it to bite only your neighbours”.
The US couldn’t stop the “snakes” then. Can it stop them now?
It’s what President Trump left unsaid that could have far greater import. Was this the unarticulated anointment of India as the US’ non-Nato ally in South Asia? Are we seeing US generals prevailing over the establishment, which has long-standing ties with the ISI and Taliban network, a relationship that allowed the Quetta Shura and Peshawar Shura to openly operate these last 30 years and more?
Unlike former President George W. Bush who, faced with the “unnwinnable war” in Afghanistan, diverted key resources to Iraq, Mr Trump, at the behest of his generals, maybe more committed to taking the Taliban head-on.
But Pakistan isn’t about to back down. It’s ISI operatives, embedded in Afghan society, posing as Gulf Arabs who tour the country under the guise of houbara hunters, actively fund Taliban attacks across Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand. As Taliban sanctuaries on both sides of the Durand Line bear the full might of the US military’s wrath, Pakistan will sacrifice one or the other of the Haqqanis in return for their prized asset, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islamiparty, being given a legitimate political role in next year’s elections. But in an Afghanistan that has seen the return of Russians — Najibullah’sHizb-e-Watan party has raised its head out of nowhere — the challenge for India is not to get sucked into the Trump’s quagmire but stay focused on keeping the Taliban out of Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul.