India Makes a Move in the Afghanistan Endgame

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Afghanistan this week at a crucial time for both countries and the troubled state lying between them. India and Pakistan have been engaged in a regional power struggle for influence over Afghanistan, and events of the last two days seemed to underline their differences.  A day after India promised an additional $500 million in aid to Afghanistan, bringing its total contribution to $2 billion, Pakistan was hit yet again by violence — this morning a suicide bombing killed at least 80 people in an attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban as an act of revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

It would be an oversimplification to cast the choice between Pakistan and India as a choice between prosperity or violence — neither country has a monopoly on either of those. But with the death of bin Laden, the endgame in Afghanistan is beginning, and India is making its first move. This visit was Singh’s first to Afghanistan since 2005. The two countries issued a Declaration of Strategic Partnership yesterday, and today Singh addressed the Afghan Parliament – whose members will soon meet in a building funded by the Indian government. He sent one clear message — that India, unlike the U.S., will stick around — and several other important signals:

1. India isn’t using Afghanistan as a base for espionage in Pakistan. This has been a constant accusation leveled by Pakistani officials against India. They claim, without offering evidence, that India is supporting a separatist rebellion in Pakistan’s Baluchistan region. Singh’s veiled response:

“I have come to Afghanistan to renew these ties of friendship, solidarity and fraternity. This is the only agenda that I have come with. This is the only agenda that the people of India have in Afghanistan.”

2. India will help Afghanistan rebrand itself. India has successfully sold the world on its image as a rising superpower (“Incredible India”), despite the continuing struggles of its hundreds of millions of poor citizens. If Afghanistan wants to find a new image for itself, India will promote it as a “confluence of cultures,” in Singh’s words, rather than as the home of the Taliban and the site of a notorious act of cultural vandalism.

3. India needs Afghanistan, too. A rising superpower needs fuel, and Afghanistan could be a vital link in connecting India to the natural gas reserves of Central Asia. This will be Afghanistan’s most important leverage over India, a much larger country, so the Joint Statement points out “the importance of regional projects such as TAPI” — a proposed pipline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

4. Talking to the Taliban isn’t a dealbreaker. As much as India would like to avoid the re-emergence of the Taliban, it isn’t going to stand in the way of talks between the Taliban and Karzai’s government. There is still a hawkish faction in New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment who will never see the Taliban as anything but pawns for Pakistan — but India has sent out a signal that it won’t stand in the way of talks. “The President shared with me the political processes underway towards reconciliation,” Singh said. “India welcomes and supports these efforts.”

It’s a modest step, and the first of many as New Delhi tries to clear the remaining obstacles on the Grand Trunk Road.