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At the same time, many Afghans, even those who otherwise welcome Indian aid, fear that an overtly assertive India will lead to further instability and violence. Several Indian doctors were killed in February 2010 bombings at two guesthouses in Kabul that were widely attributed to insurgents working at the behest of Pakistan. And although India does not have troops in Afghanistan, Afghans worry that proposals for the Indian army to train local security forces would be a dangerous provocation to Pakistan. Islamabad, Rocketi says, "will see it as a threat and could react negatively." Musharraf, a retired general, echoes the sentiment of the Pakistani military. "India is trying to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan," he says. "Afghanistan is under the influence of India."
A potentially potent means of Indian influence is education. More than 1,000 Afghan students go to India every year on scholarships provided by the Indian government; this year, that program was expanded to include 300 postgraduate fellowships in agriculture. Writers and artists benefit from the India-Afghanistan Foundation, a cultural and academic exchange program that gives small grants. This and other educational programs help India cultivate ties with the elite of every Afghan ethnic group. With Afghan President Hamid Karzai's position increasingly tenuous, such initiatives help India shore up political alternatives to the Taliban.
India, however, must also decide how it will deal with the Taliban itself. It had no relations with the Taliban regime in the 1990s and still holds the Taliban responsible for a 1999 humiliation, in which Pakistan-backed jihadis hijacked an Indian airliner and, through Taliban mediation, successfully obtained the release of three prisoners held in India, including one of the alleged planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. If the Taliban, which is widely believed to have ties to elements of Pakistan's security apparatus, returns to power, "Where does that leave Indian strategy?" asks Amitabh Mattoo, a director of the India-Afghanistan Foundation. "All this investment could vaporize quite fast."
One measure of India's urgent search for options is that it seeks dialogue with ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban's base. "We don't have contact with [the Taliban], but without labeling them, we are ready to talk to anyone who is willing to talk to us," says a senior Indian official. Some analysts interpret this shift as opening the door to changing India's long-standing policy of refusing to deal with the Taliban. The London Conference in January 2010, in which the U.S. and NATO resolved to include the Taliban in any political solution, has partly forced India's hand. Says Suba Chandran, deputy director at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi: "If there is a future crisis involving Kabul, as happened 10 years ago after the hijacking of [the] Indian Airlines flight, New Delhi will be left stranded with no linkages within the government."
India has other reasons to be on good terms with whoever controls Afghanistan. The source of India's status as an emerging power is economic growth, for which it needs affordable energy. A stable, friendly Afghanistan would be a vital link between Central Asia's huge natural-gas reserves, through Iran, to Indian markets. India has already funded a 218-km road reaching from central Afghanistan to the Iranian border; it is now investing in improvements to the Iranian port at Chabahar. (C&C is already using Iran's Chabahar and Bandar Abbas ports to transport its heavy equipment to Afghanistan.) "Trade, transit and energy" are as important to India as security, says Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India's ambassador to Afghanistan.
As India tries a lighter touch in Afghanistan, it may extend a heavier hand elsewhere. "Looking at the American military cooperation with India," said South Asia expert Stephen P. Cohen in a recent Brookings Institution speech, "we see the most fruitful arena to be at sea." India plans to commission its first nuclear submarine, the I.N.S. Arihant, or "Destroyer of Enemies," sometime next year, and the U.S. is keen to sell India some of its military technology, not least to forestall China's growing might.
In other words, India may have the option of lowering its profile in Afghanistan for the chance to dominate, with U.S. backing, the Indian Ocean. China has already made its move, funding the expansion of the Pakistani port of Gwadar into a deep-sea facility and naval base, and of a new port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, a country that has traditionally been much closer to India. Kanti Bajpai, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, puts it this way: "Wherever the Great Game is, you can't afford to not be a player."
with reporting by Aryn Baker / Kabul And Madhur Singh / Mumbai