National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster will head to Afghanistan, and reportedly Pakistan and India as well, this weekend. In the wake of Thursday’s Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb drop in Afghanistan, targeting Islamic State cave-and-tunnel hideouts on the border with Pakistan, McMaster will have much to discuss with his Afghan interlocutors on the security front.
The Donald J. Trump administration will need to reach a decision soon about the size of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Worrying trends in Afghanistan, like the fall of Sangin to the Taliban just weeks ago, underscore the need for a reassessment. The presence in Pakistan of internationally-proscribed terrorist groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network undermine efforts to secure Afghanistan. Challenges to political stability, governance, and economic growth make it harder for Afghanistan to deliver opportunities for its citizens. The country could use assistance from all its partners on its economic growth and prosperity agenda.
Once he arrives in New Delhi, McMaster should have in-depth discussions with his Indian interlocutors on regional stability. He will likely find that Indian officials view the situation very similarly to American officials, but may have different prescriptions due to their regional position and difficulties with neighbor Pakistan. He should use the opportunity to discuss how India—the fifth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan, and a power with deep expertise on governance, development, infrastructure, and commerce—could be a larger part of the international efforts to assist Afghanistan.
I have argued previously that India can bring to the table some special strengths in addition to the infrastructure work it has carried out in Afghanistan. India could play a more active diplomatic role with the politically-delicate Afghan government—a unity government that the International Crisis Group has called “shaky.” International observers worry that the possible collapse of the Afghan government could risk its progress on security and development. New Delhi has an opportunity to use its good offices and ties with both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to help.
As the region’s economic vortex, India and its successful private sector companies can continue to assist Afghan enterprises with markets for their goods and training to manage their businesses. India’s chambers of commerce have been active on this front for years. Last summer’s Made in Afghanistan trade fair in New Delhi marks just one example. Of course, enabling trade across the South Asian region would bring a commercial boon to Afghan producers, and here Pakistan has a chance to take advantage of its location and enable region-wide trade, not block it as it has continued to do.
India’s expertise in the arena of civilian security has been largely overlooked, but the country has capabilities—especially in training and skill development—which could be helpful to Afghanistan. Greater budget support for the Afghan National Security Forces would be welcome. In addition, the kind of training capacity on issues like countering improvised explosive devices, or security support functions like literacy training, logistics and supply-chain management, or military medicine, to name just a few, present possibilities for Indian expertise to help the Afghan security forces.
For a more detailed description of how India could help Afghanistan in the civilian security areas, take a look at my Policy Innovation Memorandum on the subject, published in 2015 but (sadly) still relevant to the region today.