My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power

Why India must strengthen its military presence in Afghanistan

In today’s op-ed in Mint Sushant and I call for India to increase its troop levels in Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of the following appeared in print.

Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint
Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint

Afghanistan exported US$1 billion worth of drugs last year. In contrast, its pomegranate exports amounted to only US$1 million. Poppies or pomegranates, the Afghan farmers who grow them earn around the same amount of money—around US$2000 per hectare every year. If somehow they could be made to grow a lot more pomegranates, and a lot less poppy, Afghanistan, India and the world would be a much better place indeed.

That’s because growing pomegranates and other legitimate cash crops requires water, electricity and most importantly access to foreign markets. Now, much of the international assistance flowing into Afghanistan aims to build and repair dams and connect villages to the electricity network. India, for instance, is financing irrigation projects in Northwest Afghanistan and power projects in Herat and Kabul.
But the one Indian project that could transform Afghanistan’s economic landscape is the just completed 218km road link connecting the town of Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj adjacent to the border with Iran. From there Iranian roads run to the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf. This will be Afghanistan’s fastest overland route to the sea. Last year, because they had to be air-flown, only 1000 of the 40,000 metric tonnes of Afghan pomegranates made it to markets in India, Dubai, Singapore and Pakistan. With the new road, Afghan farmers can export a larger fraction of their produce to the rapidly expanding Indian market. The competition from this route will compel Pakistan to review its policy of throttling the Afghan transit trade. In time, the Zaranj-Delaram road can be expanded into a trade and energy corridor that connects landlocked Central Asia to Indian and global markets.

This sounds wonderful, and it is. The problem, however, is that its success hinges on two key factors: on Afghanistan’s stability and on the nature of relations between India, Iran and the United States.

Unless there is an increase in the number of troops battling the resurgent Taliban, Afghanistan’s stability will go into a downward spiral. There is increasing awareness in Washington that the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre needs additional resources. But the United States will be hard pressed to find them as long as it remains engaged in Iraq. Meanwhile, despite NATO being in command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), its member countries have neither been willing to increase their troop levels, nor indeed, to allow their troops to engage in combat. The Afghan National Army is now around 80,000 strong, but it will be some time before it can emerge as a decisive force on the ground.

So far India’s military presence has been limited to around 400 troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). These troops are primarily tasked with protecting Indian nationals engaged in reconstruction efforts. Even these were supposed to pull out after the completion of the Zaranj-Delaram road. The suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul this month may have changed these plans, but the fact remains that India’s military presence is way too small to meaningfully secure the barest minimum of its interests. Pakistan remains committed to neutralising Indian development initiatives. And along with China, it is unlikely to want the Zaranj-Delaram road to be too successful. The Taliban could either attempt to destroy it or control it. At stake is not only the US$750 million that India is spending in Afghanistan. At stake is India’s ability to keep Afghanistan open and safe for bilateral trade and private investment.

If the international troops battling the Taliban are already stretched, they will face an additional challenge next year as Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections. If the Taliban succeed in undermining the electoral process it will be a huge setback for Afghanistan—and for India’s interests in the country. This dire scenario may well be averted if the West can send additional troops in the next few months. In addition to their numbers, their capabilities matter too. Helping conduct elections in an insurgency-affected area is a rather different kettle of fish.
India can make a major difference by strengthening its military presence in Afghanistan. Force levels carefully calibrated, on the one hand to secure Indian interests, and on the other, to avoid being seen by the local population as an ‘occupying’ force. Such a mission will have three broad mandates: to safeguard trade routes, to secure Afghanistan’s fledgeling democracy and to prevent an unfavourable balance of power in Afghanistan.

The 1990s bear testimony to the cost of allowing Afghanistan to fall under the Pakistani army’s baleful influence. The Pakistani army, according to Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood, continues to think that the Taliban can be used as frontline options against US troops along the Durand Line, just as it uses other jihadis against the Indian army. Faced with the prospect of the Indian military presence releasing the US troops to take on the Taliban across the Durand Line, the Pakistani army will be forced to rethink this approach. More importantly, boosting troop levels is a very good way of signalling New Delhi’s commitment that it will not to allow a repeat of the 1990s.
For sure, India has an enormous store of goodwill among the Afghan population. It has been argued that this will be dissipated if India were to bolster its military presence. That need not be the case, not least if troop levels, deployment locations, duration and missions are well thought out.

A stronger military presence in Afghanistan will complement India’s air base in Farkhor, across the border in Tajikistan. Even as the United States and NATO have joined Russia, China and Iran in shaping the balance of power in Central Asia, India cannot afford to be a mere bystander. Despite the fervent hopes of its advocates, mere “soft power” is unlikely to be sufficient to secure India’s interests in the region.

4 thoughts on “My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power”

  1. Nitin,
    Pomegranate juice is the rage in USA these days. It is easily the most expensive juice you can find in any store,

    Do you realistically believe that Indian government (especially the current dispensation) could ever follow your recipe for Afghanistan?

    PS What’s with the joint editorials?

  2. A good article but I wonder who this is addressed to? Is there anyone in the government or outside who doesn’t want increased troop presence in Afghanistan? Are we reluctant or undecided about sending troops there?

    The real issue is how do we convince the NATO-US alliance to accept increased Indian military presence in Afghanistan, which would mean foregoing even the token cooperation they are getting from Pakistan. As you yourself had argued in your response to Kaplan, what would it take for NATO-US to mark Pakistan as the enemy instead of a reluctant ally?

  3. “boosting troop levels is a very good way of signalling New Delhi’s commitment that it will not to allow a repeat of the 1990s”


    Boosting troop levels may be a good way to signal. But when the push comes to shove, will our troops be able to prevent a repeat of 1990s? I feel that the only bulwark against that is continued presence of substantial American troops. As I tried to explain in my previous post, and that may mean US not finding the 9-11 doers. However, it is definitely in India’s interest to eliminate all jihadi networks. Some contradiction, that. Would like to know your thoughts on that.

    As I understand it, a sure way that a repeat of 1990s does not occur is the umbilical cord to be cut. ie. as K Sub says, “Smash the opium trade”. Not hard to see why he refrains from indicating that India get actively involved in doing so.

    Having said all this, I am generally in favor of a wider Indian military presence in Afghanistan as other reasons may override that point.

    As an aside, of all the countries in the subcontinent, maybe Afghanistan is the only country where India has “an enormous store of goodwill” both at the governmental as well as populace levels.

    Makes one wonder how all this world works…

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