A New Dawn for India and Afghanistan

For years now, India has been heralded as the next rising Asian giant after China. Yet the country's growth in both international stature and economic size, while certainly substantial, has failed to live up to those grand expectations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to office promising a more robust role for India in Asia, and so far he has been living up to that commitment. He has been re-invigorating India's "Look East" policy, strengthening military ties with Japan, Australia, the U.S., and ASEAN. Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan has argued that the endgame of the nascent "Modi doctrine" is to re-establish India's strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific region. With China's economy slowing and experts predicting growth for the Indian economy under Modi, 2015 may be the year in which India finally begins its rise in earnest. Yet, if Modi is to fulfill his ambitions to his east, he must not forget about his north, where a country in flux demands attention.

Many of us see New Year's Day as the start of a new era -- a day to start exercising more, reading more, or watching less Netflix. For the leaders of Afghanistan and its neighbors, however, January 1, 2015, brought much more than a commitment to a new health regime. It marked a sea change in the power dynamics of the region, as the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formally transferred responsibility for Afghanistan's security to the Afghans themselves. From an American perspective, this event is of course momentous, marking as it does the end of America's longest foreign war.

Yet, as important as ISAF's end is to America, it is of course still more consequential to the Afghans and to their neighbors. Even after 13 years of fighting, ISAF has failed to stamp out a resurgent Taliban, as well as other terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network and LeT. With ISAF gone, most experts doubt that the government in Afghanistan has the capacity to maintain security without substantial international assistance. India has more than enough reason to ensure that it provides a large share of that assistance. India and Pakistan, India's inveterate rival, have been waging what some have called a proxy war in Afghanistan since before the U.S. even arrived. In order to counter Pakistani influence as well as to extend its influence into Central Asia, India has provided $2 billion in development aid to Afghanistan since 2001, more than it has to any other country. Although this aid has largely been confined to non-military projects for fear of provoking Pakistan, in 2014 India announced a deal whereby it will pay Russia to provide arms to Afghanistan. These supplies are expected to start as small arms, but could progress to much more significant items, even tanks and helicopters, in time.

Continued and improved assistance to Afghanistan must form a crucial part of Modi's efforts to lead India forward. If Afghanistan devolves into chaos, it could threaten Indian security by providing a safe haven for terrorist groups hoping to target India, as LeT did in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In addition, insecurity in Afghanistan could jeopardize the actions that Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have taken towards a possible rapprochement between their two rival countries. In the past, the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, has taken advantage of a weak Afghan government to covertly fund and direct terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The ISI is quite independent, and even if Sharif wants better relations with India, it is unclear whether he would be able to put an end to ISI funding of armed groups in Afghanistan. If, however, India helps to build a strong and stable Afghanistan, the Afghan government could put pressure on terrorist groups, effectively eliminating this option for the ISI and improving prospects for Indo-Pakistani relations. In short, an unstable Afghanistan could cause significant security and diplomatic problems for India, problems that would force resources away from India's efforts to the east. It is therefore essential for India to commit resources to Afghanistan now so that it does not face the necessity to focus far greater resources on the country later.

Luckily, efforts to stabilize India do not detract from India's broader ambitions -- in fact, they can be situated squarely within India's quest to increase its stature on the global and regional stages. Being seen as responsible for improvements in Afghanistan would give India legitimate claim to a greater role in multilateral institutions. Being a leading contributor to Afghan success would cement India's status as a net provider of security to its neighbors, a distinction that it long has sought. This improved image would help India claim a larger role in regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit, where it often competes for influence with countries like China. Finally, contributing to Afghan security would give India a stronger argument for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, a long-time goal for the country but one that has often seemed out of reach.

As 2015 dawns, Narendra Modi is looking at a regional situation full of opportunities for India. In order to take advantage of these opportunities, he must treat an Indian role in Afghanistan as a building block towards the success of his larger strategy to secure a more prominent role for India in Asia and in the world. If he can successfully do so, 2015 may be a year in which India takes important steps towards its long-anticipated role as a rising power.