2014 will not only remain a landmark year for Afghanistan, it is turning out to be extremely crucial year for other regional and global powers with stakes in the country. Afghans are gearing up for the third Presidential elections since 2001 under the backdrop of the imminent withdrawal of NATO led Western military forces by December 2014. Dealing with situation unfolding there and its ramifications present a formidable challenge for a country like India. Besides historical relationship, Afghanistan has bearing on India’s security and economic interest. Additionally post 2001, it provided India an opportunity to underscore its role as a regional power. Having invested significant resources over the last decade and being aware of the security challenge an unstable Afghanistan can pose, India is resetting its Afghan policies and exploring avenues of regional cooperation.
The thirteenth visit to India by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his fifth in the last three years alone, is crucial in underlining the importance of this bilateral relations holds for both the countries. India has time and again reiterated about its stakes in Afghanistan. Afghan deputy chief of mission in New Delhi Ashraf Hydari acknowledged that in a statement to Reuters “Indian investment in Afghanistan, be it in the security or development sectors, is an investment in the security and development of India”.
India has much to consider. An unstable Afghanistan could revert to becoming a safe haven for terrorists and the brunt of escalating terror­ism will be borne by India, which already has been described as “the sponge that protects” the West. US has primarily focused on dismantling Al-Qaida networks, other terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen which have been India’s major concerns have been relatively less addressed. The ongoing negotiations with Taliban is likely to result in the release of large numbers of Taliban leaders, revival of trans-national terrorist activities and spread of Salafi ideology and groups. These changed circumstances would be conducive for launching a fresh round of trying to hurt India through a thousand cuts, emboldened by their ability to “defeat” two superpowers. Indian strategists also envisage restrictions on energy security, drug trafficking and Pakistan’s expanded role in post 2014 Afghanistan.
From the very beginning India adopted a “soft power” approach aimed at striking cord with ordinary Afghans through developmental initiatives. There was a general consensus in India that it should not send troops and it would not be directly engaged in security operations—a stance that increasingly became harder to sustain. Clause 05  i.e ‘Political and Security Cooperation’ of the Strategic Partnership Agreement(SPA) signed in 2011  stated that “India agrees to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programs for Afghan National Security Forces.”
The single largest batch of 58 Afghan General Cadets (GCs) was commissioned in 2012. Another 96 Afghan GCs are currently undergoing training at Indian Military Academy and will be commissioned by 2014. India has also trained 160 Afghan officers at the Officers Training Academy at Chennai, so far. India will train up to 1000 Afghan army officers annually in its military academies and war colleges. Additionally India also has decided to give a set of three military transport chopper in 2014 to the Afghan security forces, which will be the first tranche of defence equipments. In the latest round of talks during Karzai’s visit to New Delhi, the two leaders further agreed on deepening defence and security cooperation, including through enhancement in training and meeting the equipment and infrastructure needs of Afghanistan National Security and Defense Forces that would increase their operational capabilities and mobility.
Considering the delicate geopolitical situation of the region neither Delhi nor Kabul would be inclined to push the envelope of defence cooperation and tread on Pakistani sensitivities. Friendship and cooperation with India creates diplomatic space for Karzai to negotiate with Pakistan, therefore it has always been a delicate 3-way diplomatic pirouette of great sophistication, which bystanders and observers do not easily grasp.
Post 2014 denomination of Afghanistan depends to a large extent on its relation with United States. Probably the relationship has gone through more downs than ups, of the latest point of disputation being Bilateral Security Pact (BSP) aiming to keep some US forces in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of 2014. Washington, however, insists on retaining legal jurisdiction over the troops that will remain on site, which would give them immunity from Afghan law. The failure to reach an agreement could drive the US to withdraw all its troops (the so-called "zero option") by the end of 2014. The BSP is part of the decade-long security transition process carried out by the ISAF, which was launched by NATO in 2001. Prior to Karzai’s India visit in December 2013, Washington expressed the hope that the Indian leadership would persuade Karzai in favour of signing the BSP. However India has distanced itself from direct involvement expressed that it shares Karzai’s wish to have the BSA, but will not be “prescriptive”, “intrusive” or be “judgmental.”India also recognizes the need to coordinate more closely with states such as Russia and Iran with which it shared convergent interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Undoubtedly India wants continued commitment by the international community to the stabilization of the Afghan situation and is not averse to US involvement in Afghan security, however it does not share Washington vision that without the US and NATO to guide the Afghan nation, the country has no future.
India has to address three major challenges in near future. First, to ensure sovereignty and integrity of Afghanistan by strengthening institutions both civilian and military and facilitate a smooth political transition. Second, to prevent militant groups and external forces from subverting the country's progress towards stability. Third, to integrate Afghanistan into the regional economic framework for a sustainable economic development. India’s interests are best served if Afghanistan’s neutrality is somehow restored. But for this to happen, India needs a leap of faith as regards its turf war with Pakistan. India realizes that there is no alter­native to direct talks with Pakistan if a regional so­lution to the Afghanistan conundrum is to be found. Although negotiations with Pakistan remain hugely un­popular at home, the Indian government has decided to move ahead with them. India hopes that by doing so, it will be viewed as a more productive player at stabilizing Afghanistan. Internally, its time that India addresses the issues of Afghan refugees in India. It still does not have a refugee policy and have been dealing with them in an adhoc basis. A significant population flow from Afghanistan is currently underway and a significant number of them are seeking refuge in India. Talking about the plight of Afghans would hardly make sense if Indian government chooses to turn a blind eye to the plight of Afghans currently inside India.
The fate of Afghanistan as always is in the hands of its many leaders as well as some foreign actors. Security and stability of Afghanistan is far too important for India’s long-term interests and vital concerns and it cannot afford to view the emergent paradigm in the post-2014 period in zero sum terms.  As Washington and Kabul turn a new page in the Afghanistan saga, New Delhi’s main target would be to weigh its options carefully and engage in fresh thinking to attune Indian policies to the imperatives of the post-2014 scenario.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.