New Delhi: What is India’s real interest in Afghanistan? Does it pertain to the domestic affairs of Afghanistan or the external ramifications of the ongoing civil war? Or is a mixture of both and more? Unless these questions are answered, India will blunder along in Afghanistan. India has for the first time decided to send two non-officials to a Taliban-centred Afghan conclave in Russia. Unless New Delhi is clear as to what it desires from Afghanistan, it can never be sure about what it seeks.

India does not share a land border with Afghanistan like Pakistan does. The rise of Islamism in Afghanistan, however, has affected Jammu and Kashmir security. In the days when Pakistan and Afghanistan shared Islamist ideals and the mujahideen and subsequently the Taliban were beholden to Pakistan for ideological training, weapons supplies and logistical support, the indirect impact of such radical union was felt in J and K. Insurgents and terrorists infesting Kashmir could always be safely trained on Afghan soil providing Pakistan deniability. There was the further notorious example of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane landing at Kandahar compelling the release of terrorists like Masood Azhar from Indian jails in days.

Subsequently, India deployed a forward policy for Afghanistan seeking to contain Afghan damage to Kashmir without getting involved in the civil war. Since Pakistan is involved in the Kashmir troubles, options arose to create trouble for Pakistan from Afghanistan. These options were in the nature of covert activities which could neither be confirmed nor denied. However, India did openly support the Northern Alliance during its short life which assisted the US to oust the Taliban from power post 9/11.

The US occupation of Afghanistan since has confused the Indian approach in the war-ravaged country. Partly, this has to do with the earlier US-Pakistan alliance to contain Taliban violence. Despite Pakistani perfidies in assisting the Taliban on the sly, the US felt constrained to continue the partnership in the absence of another suitable local ally. India lost. Washington is no longer ready to forgive Islamabad’s treachery. There is Afghan pushback into Pakistan and US and Western forces have stiffened Afghan central resistance to an extent. All this nevertheless affords little play for an Indian hand which is restricted to infrastructure and humanitarian activities, police training and minimum military hardware support. US forces in the main have held Afghanistan together and kept the Taliban down. It is not clear how long the United States can continue in this fashion without winning the war.

Except for the Northern Alliance phase, India has not exhibited an Afghan strategy. It is fooling itself that food supplies, a parliament building, roads and hospitals, etc, would get it permanent foothold in Afghanistan. Important as these contributions are and much cherished by Afghans, they cannot substitute for active protection of Indian interests. In plain terms, important as democracy is, and welcome if it takes root in Afghanistan, it is far more significant to gain levers to prevent another Kandahar hijack and the export of Afghan Islamism to Kashmir. India’s Afghanistan engagement has not been considered in these stark terms since at least 2002. India must ask itself searching questions as to what it wants from Afghanistan and how, indeed, it must approach the Taliban-centric conclave in Russia. Sending non-officials marks a definite step. But do strategy and thinking back that decision?

This writer has no desire to second-guess the Indian government’s strategy going forward. But India’s intents in Afghanistan must be made clear: Forces opposed to Indian interests, whether they are the Taliban or the Islamic State, will be fought. If the Pakistan ISI is found queering the pitch for India in Afghanistan, countermeasures will follow. The Taliban should get the message that India is indifferent to its prospects in Afghanistan as long as it desists from harming India. Unless there is clarity in India’s strategy for Afghanistan, it will stumble on the ground.