India has feature role in Trump's new Afghan plan
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In unveiling his long-awaited Afghanistan policy, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE chided Pakistan for serving as a poster child for terrorism, but he openly embraced India, Pakistan’s enemy, as a partner to take on a larger role in Afghanistan.

Setting off alarms bells in Pakistan, Trump’s move drew a clear distinction between America’s friends and foes, a marked departure from past U.S. policies. 

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Unlike Pakistan, India has played a positive role in Afghanistan since 2001. As its largest regional donor, New Delhi enjoys a friendly relationship with Kabul and has provided the Kabul government with over $3 billion in economic assistance.

 

India has built roads, dams and the parliament building, gives over a thousand scholarships to Afghan students every year and has even provided modest military hardware and training support to Afghan forces. New Delhi has accepted political inclusivity in Afghanistan and has often extended its diplomatic support to Kabul.

These gestures have cultivated close ties between the Indian and Afghan leaders and have afforded New Delhi significant goodwill among the Afghan people. Afghan leaders have welcomed Trump’s call for India’s help in Afghanistan that extends beyond economic aid.

Although the scope of possibilities for India’s support to Kabul are vast, India’s assistance can prove indispensable in two critical areas:

The first is strengthening Afghanistan’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. India is negotiating with the United States the potential acquisition of non-lethal guardian surveillance drones. 

The purchase of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is expected to bolster the maritime surveillance capabilities of the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean region. In 2016, India acquired four additional Poseidon-8I Neptune long-range maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft from Boeing, which conducts electronic support measures and operate in conjunction with UAVs for maritime surveillance.

Washington and New Delhi could potentially partner in using similar acquisitions to enhance cooperation with Kabul to bolster Afghan ISR capabilities, a key component of the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign.

Under this arrangement, India could train Afghan operators, alongside U.S. forces, in order to expand Afghan abilities to run recon missions, conduct military patrols, improve intelligence collection and increase the security partnership between the two countries.

While these are nonlethal systems, the arrangement could potentially pave the way for lethal systems downstream to be used in intelligence-driven operations. 

The second area where India can support Afghanistan is air space surveillance. India is one of the leading actors in air space and satellite technology, and it possesses some of the most advanced space sensors, such as the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which could provide all-weather coverage.

While most of India’s assets are geared toward developmental purposes, New Delhi has been playing an increasing role in the application of some of its technology for achieving its security objectives.

Some of India’s impressive array of space assets, such as the SAR radar system, could potentially be used, or leased, to expand Afghanistan’s control over its air space, improve aerial surveillance and boost the Afghan government’s ISR functions.

Washington could employ private contractors, many of whom have either pioneered or have used these air space surveillance technology, to take a leading role in this engagement with India.

India’s support to Kabul could also include the provision of military hardware, including artillery, armored vehicles and tactical communication equipment, training of Afghan intelligence personnel in signals and imagery intelligence and deploying advisory teams to train the technical and maintenance staff of the Afghan air force.

Building on its significant investments in Afghanistan's development, India can consider providing technical assistance in sectors like mining, agriculture and information technology that could grow employment and foreign investments. India is uniquely placed to provide such support.

Its modernized military is the world’s fourth-largest and has extraordinary experience in training missions. The India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in October 2011, provides the framework for an increased military cooperation with Afghanistan.

However, in the past, India has dithered to put its military personnel in Kabul, and all training of Afghan forces were conducted inside India. After a series of attacks on Indian facilities in Afghanistan, India deployed a small contingent of paramilitary forces to guard its diplomats and aid workers on the ground, but those troops are not engaged in any combat or training missions. India can potentially repurpose these troops to support Afghan forces in the above areas. 

But there will be obstacles. For one, it would add further to Pakistan’s imaginary fears about India’s role in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s army is already troubled by Trump’s embrace of India and has publicly rejected U.S. demands to shut down terrorist sanctuaries.

Pakistan could expand its role as "the godfather of militancy" by increasing its support to militant groups aimed at Afghanistan and India, and Islamabad can torpedo future peace negotiations with the Taliban.

But even though India’s assistance will go through the Kabul government and not through any Afghan factions, Pakistan’s suspicions would be triggered regardless of who India is working with. Instead, Pakistan can consider matching India’s positive support for Kabul, rather than hedging on one faction or the insurgency.

India’s role in Afghanistan is encouraging, and New Delhi has a willing partner in Kabul. Indian leaders are aware of the Afghan security landscape, and while it seems there is no official to-do list from Washington for India, there is much the two countries can partner in on Afghanistan.

India has been a victim of Pakistan-directed terrorism in the past, and a terrorist resurgence in Afghanistan could again harm India. However, India should not approach its relations with Kabul purely from a Pakistan angle.

Because regional stability is inherently in its interests, India should not acquiesce to Pakistan’s unfounded insecurities and instead embrace Trump’s offer and augment its security ties with Afghanistan.

Javid Ahmad, a non-resident fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council (On Twitter: @ahmadjavid). Bharath Gopalaswamy is director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.