It is said that the less you know about an opportunity, the more attractive it is. Recently, I got a golden opportunity to engage in a three-day dialogue at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Brussels, along with some selected policy makers of our country, on the invitation of the government of United States, for a deeper understanding and interaction on how NATO’s post-2014 security partnership intersects with India’s security interests in Afghanistan, focusing on the complexities of the transition process and on the importance of international cooperation, especially India’s, in making the transition a success. From India’s point of view, it was very important for us to analyse, measure and understand the magnitude of threats and opportunities for India vis-a-vis situation in Afghanistan, in the post-2014 scenario.
A key focus of our engagement was the security relationship. We shared the genuine security concerns of our country about Afghanistan’s future and keenness of India for a broader opportunity in the country in the post-2014 scenario.
There is no doubt that the UN mandated intervention in Afghanistan by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2001 was culmination of varied geopolitical and economic considerations, besides the genuine security factors, but given that situation, there was no comparable or equivalent organisation other than NATO to effectively deal with the huge responsibility. The achievements of NATO could be measured in terms of its objectives, as a security organisation.
Whenever the integrity and sovereignty of any of its member country has been under threat, it has acted and acted decisively but NATO has never attacked any country or invaded into the territory of any country gratuitous. The economic and military mighty of NATO had completely marginalised the Talibani forces in Afghanistan. Their biggest achievement has been to help Afghanistan to build a 350,000-strong security force from scratch.
But they are still ill-equipped, particularly when it comes to air support and intelligence gathering. Whereas NATO is committed to continuing self-sustaining economic and military support to Afghanistan, given the resources and the level of training they have vis-a-vis the strength of the Taliban’s, it is a legitimate fear that the Afghan Nation Security Force (ANSF) may face difficulties to prevent resurgence of Taliban in the region.
If this happens, it will have serious regional repercussions and will disturb peace and governance in South Asia and Central Asia. Post-withdrawal, security overall is deteriorating and Taliban is already regaining significant position in much of Afghanistan, jeopardising peace and security in the region. A Somalia like situation or emergence of a civil war in Afghanistan will have grave regional implications. Narco-terrorism is another serious concern for the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, including India.
Our three-day engagement with NATO gave us a feeling that for the persistent economic, political and military engagement of India as a peace keeper in the region and for its role in reconstruction of the post-Taliban Afghanistan, NATO has accepted India as a legitimate stakeholder so far as post-2014 Afghanistan is concerned. NATO shares India’s interests and vision in Afghanistan which is very important in the context of the proactive role of China and Pakistan in the region. After all, it was no one but India which persuaded Afghanistan, successfully, to join SAARC in 2007.
In the present context, uncertainty is there. Beyond Afghanistan, NATO has its own challenges in Ukraine, Syria and Russia. NATO is big enough and powerful enough and stable enough to be able to deal with both threats at the same time. But post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan, India has opportunities to expand its role in the region and take the crucial responsibility of leading the international community in sustaining a stable and functional democratic government in Afghanistan on the one hand and to deal firmly with the challenges of threat perception from the non-state actors hostile to India operating from the Afghan soil on the other hand.
India has been historically discharging its responsibility in the region in a constructive manner. Despite its own many domestic needs, India is Afghanistan’s sixth largest donor, providing the country with some $2 billion in effective aid since 2001. The Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries gives a legitimate edge to India in Afghanistan.
India is well-positioned to play a responsible and democracy-supporting role in security issues, not just in the volatile South Asia region but also beyond. The need is to intensify our efforts in the region. It is also because ISIS activities are gaining roots in Afghanistan and the region is gradually emerging as a hotbed for breeding Islamic extremism. If the recent trends are any indicators of the future, the security situation in Afghanistan is serious and headed to take a complicated turn that would further test the tenacity and already dwindling resources of the Afghan government and security forces.
The presence of ISIS in Afghanistan has direct security implications for India. Therefore, as developments in Afghanistan will directly impinge on India’s security, the present and future demands that the government of India should craft a futuristic policy and execute it strategically to cease the opportunity in Afghanistan. It is in the interest of not only India but entire South Asia and also in the interest of Central Asia that the rein of Afghanistan should not be handed over to the radicals once again.
Afghanistan is also a significant trading partner of India. In spite of many transit obstacles, the volume of Indo-Afghan trade stood at $680 million during 2013-2014, a figure that should exponentially rise, following the full implementation of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA). The only caution is cut in international aid after NATO withdrawal may take Afghanistan into a recession, which will have adverse economic impact on India, complicating things in the context of global slowdown in demand.
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But, at the same time, historical considerations are equally important in defining parameters of foreign policy. It is in this context, the dialogue between India and NATO can be understood. It is not an issue whether the largest democracy and the biggest political-military alliance should cooperate and consult each other but the real questions are how and to what extent .