Jul 10, 2013
New Delhi’s unwillingness to transfer arms to Afghanistan is not merely baffling but reeks of cowardice
India’s ministry of external affairs has now formally rebuffed Afghanistan’s request for the transfer of lethal weaponry arguing that it is neither able nor willing to meet such a request. There may well be sound political or strategic reasons underlying this demurral.
However, it strains the imagination to believe that New Delhi lacks the capability or the resources to provide small amounts of military hardware. The absorptive capacity of the Afghan armed forces is so limited that any such transfer would amount to a miniscule amount of India’s overall defence spending.
The question of India’s resources to meet the request aside, the rebuff that it has now delivered raises a host of questions about the country’s long-term strategy towards Afghanistan especially as the prospect of the American (and International Security Assistance Force) drawdown looms on the horizon. Ever since the US’ intervention in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, various regimes in New Delhi have sought a larger role and voice in the future of the country. So this rebuff is odd.
Despite the forging and evolution of India’s strategic partnership with Washington, DC, the two George W. Bush administrations, while in the thrall of yet another squalid dictator in Pakistan, sought to keep India at an arm’s length from Kabul. Islamabad’s, nay Rawalpindi’s, bromides about “strategic depth” and “Indian encirclement” led US policymakers to keep New Delhi away from having any strategic role in the Afghan fray. Policymakers and commentators also paid scant heed to India’s periodic calls for its inclusion in various diplomatic discussions on Afghanistan. In the event, all India could do was to provide developmental assistance to Kabul and deploy small numbers of paramilitary forces for the sole purpose of force protection.
Though New Delhi periodically grumbled about its role being confined to reconstruction and developmental assistance while being denied a seat at the diplomatic high table, for the most part, it went along with these arrangements. In the process it earned some plaudits across the world for the success of its developmental programmes. These came even as Pakistan’s foreign office kept up a steady stream of propaganda about New Delhi’s putatively sinister designs in Afghanistan under the guise of development and reconstruction. A number of pro-Pakistani commentators in the US also chimed in, echoing similar sentiments, often without adducing a shred of evidence.
Of course, given the current government’s reticence to supply weaponry to Afghanistan, one is now forced to wonder whether, despite the clamour for greater representation and voice in various multilateral forums on Afghanistan, any policymaker in New Delhi was ever serious about a strategic role for India in Afghanistan either then or now. The summary dismissal of the Afghan request strongly suggests that New Delhi never possessed and continues to lack the necessary commitment to take on a strategic role in the country that may require it to bear some potentially costly burdens.
New Delhi’s unwillingness to step up to plate is especially disturbing for three compelling reasons. First, as many in the nation’s capital frequently underscore, India’s experience with the Taliban regime was hardly felicitous. During that time Afghanistan not only became a safe haven for any number of Pakistan-based terrorist organisations, but also became the site of the infamous hijacking of IC 814 and its ignominious end. If New Delhi is even halfway serious about ensuring that a neo-Taliban regime does not come to the fore in a post-2014 Afghanistan, it needs to stand its ground, and now. Second, even US intelligence officials, in public testimony before Congress, revealed that the Taliban attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 had involved the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Given the sheer brazenness of this attack and the evidence of ISI complicity (in the Mumbai attacks of 2008 as well), New Delhi’s unwillingness to transfer arms to Afghanistan is not merely baffling but reeks of cowardice. Third and finally, this reticence to take on a strategic role in Afghanistan also suggests that for all its loose talk of wanting to play a critical role in stabilising the country as well as securing India’s vital interests in the wake of the American drawdown, New Delhi has not given enough thought to how it may accomplish this end.