When US President Donald Trump arrives on his first official visit to India next week, the fanfare surrounding his agenda with Prime Minister Narendra Modi — including addressing a crowd of over 1,00,000 people in Modi’s home state of Gujarat — will dominate the coverage. The US and India are seeking to conclude arms and energy sales worth $5 billion and a mini trade deal is also under discussion. But there is one area of co-operation where America’s fast-evolving strategy has direct bearing on India’s long-term security— Afghanistan.
The US is on the verge of signing an agreement with the Taliban that could be a turning point in the long-standing conflict in Afghanistan. In exchange for a commitment from the Taliban to reduce violence for a sustained period of time, the US would agree to a conditional drawdown of its troops at a pace that will be determined later. The aim is to pave the way for a negotiation between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and a range of influential Afghan stakeholders from across the political spectrum to pursue a peace agreement.
Afghanistan needs India’s help
How should India position itself at this potential turning point?
First, New Delhi should provide robust diplomatic support to the new intra-Afghan negotiations. Afghanistan will need help from regional powers and European partners to support a new peace process. If these longer-term peace talks are to have any chance of success, they will need support from not only the US but the entire international community, including India. In addition, New Delhi could offer to support the Afghans in creating a framework for future elections, building on its past support.
Second, India should continue to pursue new, regional economic trading routes that could boost Afghanistan’s economy, giving the new peace talks a chance to succeed. Given India’s investment in the Chabahar Port in Iran, which received a boost in the Modi government’s 2020 Budget, new regional trading patterns could emerge between India and Central Asia. India believes it has mitigated the risks of investing in Iran and now hopes that the project can attract the investment it needs to succeed.
The Indian stake
Overall, India has been a major donor in Afghanistan, providing about $2 billion of humanitarian assistance. During this next phase in the country’s long-running conflict, India should work multilaterally with other donors so that its contributions catalyse other investments.
Third, while India has reasons to be wary of any deal that could lead to the rapid US withdrawal, it should also understand that there will be a period of significant ambiguity about US plans, even as a conditional drawdown is being negotiated. There will be little that India can do to influence the US’ decision-making on Afghanistan, which will be driven by a combination of security conditions on the ground, and election-year politics and public fatigue in the US with the war in Afghanistan.
The shifting tides in Afghanistan could raise the risks for India, but India can also be a part of the solution towards stability across the region. The shifting US posture makes it all the more important for India to play an active diplomatic role in supporting an intra-Afghan negotiation towards peace.
Sumona Guha is Vice President, Albright Stonebridge Group. Views are personal.