NEW DELHI, India — As 2014 approaches, the Obama administration is busy trying to keep its promise of extracting most US troops from Afghanistan.
So far, the United States looks set to bungle the negotiations, ceding ground to the Taliban to facilitate a quick exit.
That could push hostilities into a new phase, in which neighboring adversaries India and Pakistan would vie for influence over the mountainous, landlocked nation.
In a worst-case scenario, experts say, if the US were to truly botch the delicate deal-making, the rivalry between the two South Asian nuclear powers could fuel ongoing violence — or even devolve into a proxy war.
From New Delhi’s perspective, the options are hardly appealing. India could increase its involvement in Afghanistan and risk getting sucked into a bloody quagmire, or watch its fragile neighbor become a vassal state of Pakistan.
India and Pakistan’s jostling in Kabul dates back to the Cold War and before.
When war broke out after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan supported rival anti-communist factions. India sided with rebels opposed to Islamic extremism; Pakistan backed the group that eventually became the Taliban.
Since the Bush administration’s 2001 invasion, however, the US has pressured India to limit its Afghanistan role, to prevent Pakistan from withdrawing support for the war and cutting vital US supply lines.
With the US now ready to bring its soldiers home, India and Pakistan are again wrangling for control. Both foresee disaster if the other were to gain the upper hand.
Islamabad fears that India would use Afghanistan to aid insurgents in Pakistan’s nearby Baluchistan province, where rebellion has simmered since the 1970s. Pakistan also regards control over Kabul as vital to its military doctrine of “strategic depth” — under which Afghanistan would serve as a refuge where its leaders could lead a counterattack in the event of an Indian invasion.
For its part, India fears that resurgent Islamic militancy in Afghanistan will stoke violence in Indian-administered Kashmir, by providing a safe haven and training ground for militants like Lashkar-e-Taiba, perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
So far, India looks to be losing the struggle.
New Delhi has earmarked nearly $2 billion for infrastructure projects and humanitarian initiatives in Afghanistan since the US invasion. The most recent survey on the subject, a 2009 BBC/ABC News/ARD poll, found that 74 percent of Afghans hold favorable opinions toward India and only 8 percent feel the same about Pakistan. Yet Pakistan's proxies seem poised to take over.
Meanwhile, India is loath to bolster its economic engagement with boots on the ground.
“We have to be very cautious because we don't want to begin to bear the burden of supporting the new Afghan government against the combination of the Taliban and Pakistan by offering security support,” former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal told GlobalPost. “Their needs will keep increasing.”
Consistent with that thinking, earlier this month New Delhi formally rejected Afghan President Hamid Karzai's request for weapons to help his regime fight the Taliban. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid obliquely parroted a refrain commonly spoken by US officials: “It is a fragile area, there are stakeholders, there are other people. We don't want to become part of the problem."
Or part of the solution, others contend.
“India's decision not to make weaponry available to Karzai is fundamentally foolish and cowardly,” Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly told GlobalPost. “Instead of whining about being cut out [of planning for Afghanistan's future], the Indians should act.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan has a head start in the latent battle for Afghanistan.
Already, Pakistan’s Taliban allies control most of Afghanistan's southern countryside. President Karzai — who is perhaps more friendly toward New Delhi than he is toward Washington — faces a likely defeat in national elections next year.
The Obama administration has perhaps unwittingly helped Islamabad as well. By signaling its openness to negotiate with the Taliban in June and leaking the possibility of a complete withdrawal of US troops — the so-called “zero option” — earlier this month, America has further bolstered Pakistan's hopes of regaining control over the war-torn country.
“The Taliban are rubbing their hands with glee, as are the Pakistanis, as are the folks in Rawalpindi [Pakistan's military headquarters],” Indian University’s Ganguly argues. He adds that talk of the “zero option” encourages these forces to simply wait America out.
In June, US Secretary of State John Kerry had to do some fast talking to reassure Karzai and leaders in New Delhi after the Taliban opened an office in Qatar under the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" — the title it used before its ouster by US-led forces in 2001.
The so-called red lines Kerry proposed for negotiating with the Taliban included renouncing violence and severing ties with Al Qaeda. But the impression left with observers in New Delhi, Kabul and Islamabad was that the US was looking for a deal to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. And when, in July, The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama was now seriously contemplating a rapid and dramatic withdrawal that would leave no US troops at all in Afghanistan after 2014, some began to wonder if Washington was willing to make that deal regardless the cost.
“It's a source of concern to us about the degree to which US would be willing to buy Pakistan support for a post-2014 structure in Afghanistan,” former Indian Foreign Secretary Sibal said.
Even if the US leaves a few thousand soldiers in Afghanistan, it will be difficult for anyone to cobble together the country's various feuding ethnicities to form a government next year. But if Washington affords Pakistani General Ashfaq Kayani a crucial role in the current peace negotiations and allows the Taliban to enter the fray, rehabilitated as a political party, Indians fear that Islamabad's influence will increase dramatically.
“In that fluid situation [if] you introduce a highly organized, externally supported body like the Taliban, what is the time span during which the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, would keep increasing their hold over Afghanistan?” Sibal said.
Worse still, that might leave Afghanistan looking a lot like it did before Sept. 11, 2001.