The strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan signed today is interesting. At some level, it has the potential to be the new game changer in the centuries old Great Game in Central Asia.
What is new? Well, simply, it is a formal articulation of India’s intent of “training, equipping and capacity-building” of Afghan security forces. While the phraseology is sufficiently open-ended (“security forces” can mean the civilian police as well as the army, “capacity building” can stop at usual officer training slots in Indian academies), presumably to preempt any paroxysms of fresh hurt from Pakistan, the intent is clear. India is willing to step up the game on Afghanistan.
There is a feeling, not always unjustified that India’s strategy of engagement in Afghanistan has been carried out under the protective umbrella of US/ISAF presence. Barring a few hundred ITBP policemen for proximate security of workers building the Zaranj-Delaram project, India has been loath to put any overt military content to the relationship. In a large measure, it is understandable. Afghanistan’s long land border with Pakistan is a reality that is not lost on anyone, and India has been very congnisant of the same. But creative policy-making does not necessarily have to remain hostage to geography.
In many ways, India has been building the blocks. The Chabahar port in Iran, the Zaranj highway are all elements of a potential grand bargain of increasing India’s military presence in Afghanistan. With the US likely to be gone by 2014, there will be less sensitivities around using an Iranian route to sustain military presence.
An Indian-run training operation, executed cheaper than the current American effort to train Afghan light infantry, coupled with an aid programme that equips the forces for CI operations – will go a longer way than maintaining a US-style presence.
The agreement yesterday might well be the start of something really good.