The ouster of the Taliban at the end of 2001, Delhi has tended to plough a
lonely furrow. Its emphasis was on economic assistance. The Western countries,
noting Pakistan’s objections, discouraged India from seeking a larger security
role in Afghanistan.
In the new and regional phase, India is bound to be drawn
more deeply into the Afghan conflict. With India’s relations with Pakistan
entering a period of turbulence, Afghanistan could acquire an unusual
prominence in India’s regional strategy.
India’s own new significance in Afghanistan’s politics is
reflected in the recent American decision to resume the trilateral consultations
with Delhi and Kabul. Unlike in the past, Washington is urging Delhi to step up
military support to Kabul. India and Afghanistan are also involved in trilateral
cooperation with Iran.
Ashraf Ghani’s diplomatic support for India on pulling out of
the South Asian Summit in Islamabad is a shift from Kabul’s traditional
reluctance to be drawn into the India-Pak disputes.
In the recent past, Delhi’s engagement with Kabul was also
limited by Delhi’s hopes for a normalisation of relations with Islamabad. Those
hopes have receded for now and created conditions for fresh Indian thinking on
the relationship with Afghanistan.
Developments in the Kabul valley have always been
consequential for the empires centred on the Yamuna. But Delhi was tied down by
the “Panipat syndrome” — the inability to look beyond its nose and anticipate
the gathering challenges. By eliminating the physical border with Afghanistan,
the Partition further reduced Kabul’s salience in Delhi’s strategic calculus.
Now, with the widening arc of India’s conflict with Pakistan, Afghanistan is
likely to loom larger than ever before for India.
As India’s power in Afghanistan expands, especially its soft
power, Pakistan is losing its position of economic and strategic privilege. In
its place is a power with possibly hostile intentions against it. For example,
India’s reconstruction and development projects through Afghanistan’s Pashtun
belt are seen as ways of fomenting separatist movements in Pakistan.
Pakistan sees India’s growing influence, particularly its
consular presence in Afghanistan, as a threat. Islamabad believes that India is
colluding with Afghan officials to stoke Baloch separatism in Pakistan.