There have been claims that India and Pakistan are in a proxy war over Afghanistan. But India only had a limited military presence in Afghanistan — a few thousand paramilitary soldiers — and a largish aid programme. India has otherwise stayed out of the conflict between Pakistan-backed Taliban groups and the United States-backed Kabul regime even though its sympathies were with the latter. This has changed. The decision to provide helicopter gunships to the Afghan National Army — the first shipment of lethal weaponry to the regime — has changed the nature of India’s engagement with Afghanistan.
It is also clear New Delhi has been seen by the Pakistan military to have crossed a red line. This precipitated a attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in which Pakistani army men are said to have participated. It is possible that the use of Pakistani soldiers was designed to send a message to India. Perhaps the attack on the Pathankot air base was not unrelated to India’s robust Afghan policy. After all, the terrorists were targeting the helicopters India has begun to ship to Afghanistan. More attacks, sponsored by the Pakistani military, against Indian assets in Afghanistan and possibly in India should be expected.
Rawalpindi’s message is evidently that India should scale back its military support to Kabul. New Delhi’s response should be to hold the line in Afghanistan. India is not providing such support on a whim. The worst years of Pakistan-sponsored militancy in Kashmir coincided with years of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Pakistan used Afghan soil to build a jihadi machinery, financed with Afghan heroin and militants were sent to fight in Kashmir and other parts of India. The loss of Afghanistan was a big setback to the Pakistani military’s plan to bleed India into submitting on its territorial and other demands. Rightly, India should continue to do what it can to ensure the Kabul regime survives and the Taliban are held at bay. Until now, India has focused on persuading the Americans to stay on and fight. Today, its tactic is to empower the Kabul regime. Pakistan has not given any reason for India to believe that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would not resume its bad old ways. If anything, attacks like Mazar-i-Sharif and Pathankot only underline that Pakistan remains an unreformed sponsor of terrorism. A full Indian retreat from Afghanistan will only encourage Pakistan to go further down this path.