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No boots on the ground

India’s aid programme in Afghanistan is commendable, but that’s not enough.

india Updated: May 12, 2011 21:38 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Afghanistan and the announcement of another multi-million dollar aid package cannot hide the truth that Indian influence in that country’s future is on the wane.

Even as Mr Singh arrived in Kabul, the Afghan foreign minister was on his way to Beijing to get a feel of what the latest and newest player of the Great Game has in mind. The overriding foreign policy concern of President Hamid Karzai is how drastic and how permanent will be the coming troop withdrawal by the United States.

His primary domestic political concern is the nature and scope of negotiations between his regime and at least sections of the Taliban. New Delhi’s influence in either policy area is negligible. The US withdrawal will not be determined by Indian concerns.

And India’s belated support for the Taliban talks is largely at Mr Karzai’s insistence.

At the heart of this state of affairs is that India has little or no hard-nosed influence on events in Afghanistan. This reflects geographical reality, the greater stakes of players like Pakistan but also the fact that, in a war situation, what determines influence is the amount of military power a country exercises.

India has made much of its billion-dollar aid programme. And, to be fair, its aid programme has won it much praise.

However, not having troops on the ground is what matters there. With the US’s role looking uncertain, Mr Karzai is leaning towards some sort of accommodation with the Taliban.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has begun dealing with China. Beijing, goes the message Pakistan has been sending to Mr Karzai, can fill the vacuum the US is about to leave. Kabul has to tack in the direction of Islamabad as a consequence.

While India continues to produce rhetorical support for Afghanistan, it declines to put bullets where its mouth is.

There is an argument that Afghanistan is a subset of India’s larger policies with Pakistan and China. India, therefore, should focus its energies in stabilising its relationship with these two countries. There is sound reasoning behind this stance.

But it is safe to say that the ebbing of Indian influence in Afghanistan from the high watermark it reached when the Northern Alliance captured Kabul will probably not strengthen New Delhi’s negotiating hand with its two main rivals.

India’s struggling Afghan policy is a lesson in the political and military limits of India’s emergence as a regional power, even for a people and government who are arguably among the most Indophilic in the world.