No permanent friend or enemies: Need for India’s deeper and bolder engagement in Afghanistan

India is one of the key actors to have contributed to the post-war redevelopment of Afghanistan. So far, India has contributed USD 3 billion to it, which makes Delhi the largest donor to Afghanistan in South Asia and the fifth largest in the world, writes Chayanika Saxena for South Asia Monitor

Chayanika Saxena May 13, 2020

Pursuing the elusive objective of arriving at some semblance of peace in Afghanistan, especially in these trying pandemic times, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been shunting between different stakeholder-nations in the hope of keeping the peace process from falling through the cracks.

Making a dash to India on May 7 in this regard, but mostly to assuage the latter’s concern at being excluded from the recently-held regional discussions on Afghanistan at the UN. Khalilzad made sure that he made the right kind of noise. Reflecting what appears to be the new American approach to the peace process in Afghanistan, it appears Washington  is keen on getting the different Afghan and international stakeholders to speak to each other, including India and the Taliban. Unlike in the past, when the US dithered on endorsing India’s direct involvement in the Afghan peace negotiations it had previously led, a change in the US stance is refreshing and welcoming. However, this new approach is not without its underside.

As Afghanistan waits for normalcy to return to the country, the winding peace process is bound to get further complicated because of the direct and indirect involvement of multiple stakeholders in it. The differences between these actors will impact how and when peace is negotiated, prolonging the process at best and leading to a breakdown at worst. If history is our guide, these participation-related fractures have been complicit in derailing the previous peace processes. One only has to recall the failures of the exclusive and member-limited peace processes (Murree Dialogue) or the inadequacies of the mammoth, leave-no-one-behind platforms (Heart of Asia) to understand how the multi-stakeholder conflict in Afghanistan is rivaled in heterogeneity only by an even more diverse, multi-stakeholder peace process.

Standing Still

Among the various stakeholders, India is one of the key actors to have contributed to the post-war redevelopment of Afghanistan. So far, India has contributed USD 3 billion to it, which makes Delhi the largest donor to Afghanistan in South Asia and the fifth-largest in the world. Additionally, India has been at the forefront of assisting Afghanistan in enhancing its ability to function as an effective, albeit nascent democratic country through measures such as human capacity building; infrastructural development, and the like.

However, as much as India has been of help to Afghanistan, it has maintained a cautious distance from involving itself in both in matters of politics and security. Many structural reasons and India’s immediate concerns have reinforced the country’s reluctance to engage in Afghanistan on these fronts. While it is not possible to rehearse these reasons and concerns here, it merits notice that India’s role as a distant participant has reaped substantial socio-cultural and political benefits for it. On the flip side, however, the self and other-imposed limits to the Indian outreach have repeatedly subjected India to strategic neglect.

Ignored on different occasions and grounds, India has often found itself outside the cluster of international and regional initiatives on Afghanistan ever since the US intervention began there in 2001. For reasons that range from the US preferring its front-line ally Pakistan over India to the supposed emphasis on bilateralism in India’s dealings with Afghanistan, Delhi has spent far more time in the wings than on the stage of negotiations.

Adding to the string of diplomatic snubs, India was, once again, kept out of the so-called regional discussions on Afghanistan at the UN on April 16. The conspicuousness of India’s absence at such a forum is a matter of great concern. It is so not only because it pushes the unparalleled Indian largesse to Afghanistan to the back-burner but also because it can harm India’s national interests.

Apart from desiring a friendly, democratic neighbour for its own sake, Afghanistan is also geopolitically critical for India to access the Central Asian market and in keeping a truant Pakistan under check by denying it the so-called strategic depth. Both directly and indirectly then, the nature of Afghanistan’s (emerging) political landscape is vital for India to secure its national interests, and which, in turn, demands a change in India’s approach to this country.

Time to Recalibrate

I have long advocated for a recalibration of India’s policies and practices vis-à-vis Afghanistan.  Writing in 2015, I had hinted at both the need and urgency to do not only what other countries do i.e. follow their national interests, but also what Afghanistan has been asking of India: be more involved. While the no-boots-on-the-ground option is still the best bet forward militarily, strategically India needs to pay heed to indirect cues, and even overtures by groups like the Taliban that is “eager to maintain a positive relationship with India”, to engage with the Afghan stakeholders more holistically.

A recalibration in the Indian policy, to begin with, demands a change in the lens that will allow India to see more Afghan groups than before. To be specific, India must want to see the Taliban now. Since even the Americans appear to have had a change of heart, it will be worthwhile for India to re-examine its stance towards this group. Maybe, a change in the lens can be preceded by a change in optics and who better than a former President of Afghanistan to provide India with a lead on this? An ardent supporter of India’s greater engagement in the Afghan peace process, Hamid Karzai had once said: “If India wants to talk to the Taliban as part of Afghan people and mediate, it can. India is a friend of the Afghan people. The Taliban are Afghans”.

The US, through its Special Representative, has already confirmed that the Americans want to see more of India in the peace process. The US has even recommended that the latter take-up its concerns regarding terrorism – the biggest stumbling block – with the Taliban directly. Likely, the American interest in India’s more significant role is merely a useful tactic to allow the US to convene the intra-Afghan dialogue at the earliest and leave Afghanistan.

India, perhaps, recognises these hidden layers in the American objective and is, reportedly, not willing to change its stance vis-à-vis the Taliban. While the reluctance in Delhi to engage with the Taliban is understandable, a change in the geopolitical equations demands a revision of the Indian approach. After all, no friend or enemy is permanent; only national interests are. India has to proceed with caution and on its own terms. But it must go with the flow lest it gets washed ashore a new Afghanistan that it does not recognise.

(The writer is a President Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at

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