The big news to emerge from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to New Delhi this week isn’t the $1-billion in aid India will be giving its northern ally, nor the diplomatic agreements it signed with India. Instead, it is this: India’s repeated promises over the years that it will back Afghanistan’s war against jihadist terror could soon be put to to the test.
In a speech to the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis in New Delhi, President Ghani described Pakistan as a “revisionist state” trapped in its own fantasies. “Every one of its defeats is celebrated as a victory,” he noted, “and every single one of its intelligence failure as confirmation of conspiracy theories.” He wryly noted how the Afghan National Army’s Helmand corps commander, on a visit to Quetta, offered to show his counterpart exactly where the Taliban were conducting recruitment.
Early in his tenure, President Ghani irked his public by sending officers to train in Pakistan, and his spies to collaborate with the Inter-Services Intelligence — all in the hope Pakistan would deliver peace. That effort failed spectacularly, undermining his domestic legitimacy. The battered president has turned to India for help.
President Ghani’s military wish list from India is, for now, a modest one: More attack helicopters, in addition to those India has already supplied, mobility and engineering equipment, and training. There is a high degree of probability New Delhi will meet these, either directly or by purchasing them from suppliers.
India isn’t the only non-Western country pitching in: China and Russia have also made small investments in Afghanistan’s army. India’s support, though, is critically important, because a long war lies ahead — and the West may well weary.
In recent months, the news out of the country hasn’t been good: District after district has fallen to the Taliban, with Afghanistan’s 352,000-strong army proving unable to hold ground and stage offensive operations at the same time. The basic balance of force will not change in a hurry. In a country six times as large as Kashmir — and far worse terrain and transport infrastructure — Afghanistan faces a far worse insurgency, but with only as many troops as India deploys.
Given that the West seems unwilling, or unable, to coerce Pakistan into acting against the Taliban, a war of attrition is inevitable. India opens itself up to risks by siding with Afghanistan. However, allowing Afghanistan to be overrun by Islamist warlords would impose terrible costs, too. Either way, India appears to be at the cusp of its most significant overseas engagement since Sri Lanka. Each step forward must be measured.