international analysis and commentary

The price of friends: India’s calculations on Afghanistan


In the 1892 short story “Kabuliwala” (the man from Kabul) by Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a dry fruit vendor from the capital of Afghanistan develops a tender friendship with a little girl in Calcutta. The vendor is then imprisoned unjustly for murder. Years later when he is released, he returns to meet the girl one last time before he leaves for Kabul. However, she is an adult and cannot recognize her old playmate.

US President Donald Trump should ponder over this story as he asks India to “do more” in Afghanistan: India likely already feels it does enough for Afghanistan (it has given $3 billion since the Taliban were removed from power in Kabul), and anything more would entirely depend on how far Trump pushes the one country that both India and Afghanistan (though not the Taliban in Afghanistan) consider a thorn in their flesh: Pakistan.

There has been speculation, including from a former Indian junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, that Trump’s mention of how much money India makes from trading with the US ($24 billion more than what the US made in 2016) and connecting that with India’s role in Afghanistan, is petty and cheap. Sources inside the Indian Prime Minister’s office, though, suggest that Narendra Modi, himself from the Gujarati mercantile clan in India, welcomes such accounting. It allows India to tally in detail the amount of military aid the US gives Pakistan: $33 billion since 2002 for the country where Osama bin Laden was found hiding. Such a record would be an insurmountable hurdle – one reason earlier presidents were circumspect about demanding on-ground commitment from India – had it not been for the Trump administration putting $255 million in new military assistance to Pakistan in an escrow account that the country infamous for sheltering terror networks (many of whom are used to staging attacks in Afghanistan and India) can access only if some of these terror havens are dismantled.

The Modi government has presented evidence, it says, to the US that its military aid has been used, time and again, by Pakistan to fuel trouble in the neighborhood including on the Indian side of the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir. It wanted a moratorium on such payments, but for now is willing to see the escrow deal as a step forward in reigning in Pakistan.

Afghanistan is India’s most extensive arena of military training and aid but Modi, and his predecessors, were clear that India does not have the money or the might to fight a war in Afghanistan. It has always been a staunch friend of Afghanistan – a position ironically unchanged from the time of the Soviet occupation to the present American war. But Modi’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is said to believe that the moment Indian troops hit the ground in Afghanistan, all that would immediately transform and it would become a case of “Afghanistan and Pakistan together fighting a jihad against Hindu India,” – never mind the 180 Muslim citizens in India. There is no doubt that Doval discussed India’s concerns during his meeting with his US counterpart  H. C. McMaster in April of this year soon after the US dropped “the mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan that killed 95 militants. McMaster – a retired Liuetenant-General – was also the first representative of the Trump government to meet Modi.

The Modi government has nightmares about such a scenario, not least because it is convinced that a conflict with Pakistan in Afghanistan would be fueled in cash and kind by China, with whom relations are highly fraught now that troops from the two countries are facing off on a plateau in Bhutan.

Despite the bonhomie between former US president Barack Obama (Modi was fond of referring to him as his friend “Barack”), it eyed with distaste Obama’s timelines for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. India is, therefore, enthused by the fact that Trump has reneged on such timelines and committed more troops in a show of strength in Afghanistan. The first Pentagon report under the Trump administration also recognizes India as “Afghanistan’s most reliable regional partner” and points to the support for terrorists operating in the country as having support from “elements of the Pakistani government”. Cheered by all this, India is trying to step up to Trump’s demands – it has provided Afghanistan not only training for its troops but also eight MI 25 helicopters.

The Modi government has also noticed with significant interest that Pakistan’s biggest bank, Habib Bank, was kicked out of the US for routing terror money. This had been a longstanding complaint of India that had failed to convey urgency, until now. The recent decision gives India hope that even though Modi and Trump may give the same impression of personal chemistry as Modi and Obama, Trump is more inclined to listen where it counts the most.

There has been mention of Trump trying to treat India like an ATM to fund future expenses in Pakistan. To this, one Modi minister quipped – but he has forgotten that every ATM transaction has a transaction charge. If the charge is not paid, it would not take time for India to forget Kabul, and “Kabuiwala”, as in the fiction.