Assessing India’s strategic partnership with Afghanistan: Regional Interests and Future implications

Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurate the Salma dam by pressing. Image credit : Dawn

by Anant Mishra  4/2/2018

In the era of post-World War II, the terror attack on September 11, 2001 instigated a series of “large scale” events that created a dynamic shift in the security initiatives at the international forum. With a sole purpose to “counter and subsequently eliminate” elements of terror, Washington deployed troops in Afghanistan. The extensive “presence” of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan not only raise the issue of “instability and state sponsored terror” in the limelight but Washington’s deployment of dedicated resources in Afghanistan attracted many “regional and global powers” to fulfil their own strategic interests. The attack of 9/11 changed the future of not just Afghanistan, but all essential stakeholders in the region, dramatically. From a regional “largely-ignored” covered in the media, 9/11 brought the world to the helm of its affairs. With the US massive deployment of troops in Afghanistan, India took this initiative to “showcase” its “soft-power” diplomacy in the world, especially when the “helm of affairs” had not just historical but cultural deep root connections with the latter. India’s strategic interest was not just coupled with a strengthened foreign policy but the “geographical connection” was a vital for New Delhi particularly in a time when the latter was looking for avenues for strengthening economic ties with the Central Asian countries. In an effort to restore “stability and security” in Afghanistan, New Delhi began undertaking numerous “infrastructure development initiatives” during post-Taliban years and since then, continues to support development of Afghanistan through peacebuilding, confidence development initiatives. This article will highlight initiatives taken by New Delhi followed by the issues that continues to challenge its “relentless” peace-building efforts and “policy-focused” engagement in Afghanistan, elevating “friendship” between India-Afghanistan to a strategic partnership. The later part of the article will analyse the “future” of “motivated” strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan.

Introduction

Since the early 19th century, Afghanistan has been at “centre” of power politics in Central Asia. It’s vital “strategic geography” has retained its importance at the global level. Geographically, Afghanistan is “landlocked”. The Afghan border touches the Central Asia through the province of Xining in China, whereas on the West, it borders with Iran and share borders with immediate neighbour Pakistan in the South West.

Afghanistan holds a significant “geo-strategic” importance in the South Asian politics, which has been a “principle” factor in shaping a diverse history, political economy, ethnicity and regional politics. The “segment of economy” has never played a vital role in regional politics; although, credit goes to its vital strategic topography that retains its vital importance in South Asian politics. New Delhi’s partnership with Kabul is “pragmatic”. In the last decade, New Delhi overshadowed its “strategic” interest by implementing “peacebuilding and rehabilitation, infrastructure development” in the region. India, extensively demonstrated its “soft power foreign policy approach” in Afghanistan while receiving criticism for “cloaking strategic interests and hiding behind development initiatives”. Over a decade of “partnership”, New Delhi has established a “multi-dimensional” approach on Afghanistan, implementing an “extensive peacebuilding-focussed development approach” to become the biggest “stakeholder” in Afghanistan, and fifth biggest partner in “institutional development and infrastructure” – while opening “bilateral” economic partnership, strengthening people-to-people connections and providing opportunities to entrepreneurs on both sides. India continues to identify new opportunities in an effort to further “strengthen and reinforce” its commitments towards a “stable and prosper” Afghanistan. Not limiting to economic partnership, India’s Afghan policy comprises of numerous strategic initiatives, making it an “appropriate” subject of “assessment” during the discussion of Afghanistan’s future prospects.

From “friendship” to “partnership”

In an effort to better assess India’s partnership with Afghanistan it is imperative to “review” certain events of “regional-political” importance. Afghanistan shared “intense” external relations when Post-independence India was struggling from partition. However, inspite being an extended neighbour of newly independent India, their “intense interaction” was largely based on “historical ties and cultural links” which, with passage of time, grew more intense and mature.

Afghanistan under the rule of the then King Zahir Shah, putting aside the brief period of 1965 Indo-Pak war, India and Afghanistan enjoyed “brilliant understanding”. As a matter of fact, even during the period of his ousting followed by successive communist regimes which resulted in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, India managed to afloat its relations. India became the first and the only economy in South Asia which gave legal recognition to the rule of the then People ‘s Democratic Party of Afghanistan coupled with presence of Soviet forces, while assisting the regime of the then President Najibullah with necessary aid.

The fall of Soviet backed regime of President Najibullah followed by growing domestic turmoil, limited India’s influence in Afghanistan. Throughout the rule of Primer Rabbani, India had limited influence in the region. With Rabbani’s fall subsequent rise of Taliban in the region, India was “virtually out of bonds with Afghanistan”.

However, Taliban’s growing closeness with Islamabad, its profound hatred with marginal, regional communities, strictly imposition of Sharia rule and “religion based” instigation of Jihad along with acute hostility towards India were key factors that resulted in the breakdown of Indo-Afghan relationship. During this period, India grew closeness with the then Northern Alliance led by a Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in an effort to counter Taliban.

With the coming of American backed Karzai government in power and the subsequent fall of Taliban, India nurtured “new and strong” relationship with Afghanistan. President Karzai who received a significant portion of his education in India, was seen as a pillar of “strength and cooperation” coupled relationship between the two countries. His personal “hatred” towards Pakistan particularly when his father was assassinated by the Taliban in Pakistani city of Quetta, was known within Indian diplomacy. With the downfall of Taliban, Indo-Afghanistan relationship “emerged with strength”. New Delhi’s priority was to strengthen rehabilitation and infrastructure development while initiating peacebuilding process in an effort to “strengthen political stability and security” highlighted in the Bonn agreement. President Karzai initiated new chapters in the history of Indo-Afghanistan relations by elevating India from a “friend” to a “strategic partner”. This partnership was not just unique but a new chapter which was bestowed by Kabul to New Delhi. The agreement highlighted “training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)” in India as the then POTUS had initiated a deadline for US forces withdrawal.

Under the strategic partnership, New Delhi stepped up its relations by promising to support Kabul “with all necessary assistance”, beginning with training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and welcomed the withdrawal of US forces from the region. The agreement also “opened previous closed doors” when India highlighted economic partnership and agreements at “socio-economic development levels”.

Without any considerable doubt, India, which is fifth largest donor country to Afghanistan, has “successfully played the role of a neighbour and a partner in development”. New Delhi’s assistance to Afghanistan has not just been limited to strategic but also education, infrastructure development, peacebuilding and rehabilitation initiatives, education, but also involves “people to people connection” coupled with a rich cultural history between the two nations. India, world’s largest democracy has successfully built its parliament and continues to train Afghan legislators even today. India’s national agency, the Border Roads Organization (BRO) successfully constructed the 218KM highway connecting the town of Zaranj bordering with Iran to the city of Delaram despite facing “multiple attacks” from Taliban. It successfully built transmission lines connecting Kabul while completing the hydro-electric Salma Dam in Herat province with an estimated cost of over $180 million.

With reference to humanitarian assistance initiatives and education programs, India’s dedication is profound. Every year an estimated 1,000 Afghan students visit Indian universities to pursue their dreams on scholarship, whereas Afghan bureaucrats visit Indian institutes for training and career development. Furthermore, New Delhi through its “mid-day” meal initiatives provide free lunch programmes to over 2 million Afghan school children. Additionally, India continues to provide “free-medical” aid while constructing local “field hospitals” and children hospitals. Moreover, India continues to provide food aid, rottenly hosts team of medical practitioners while hosting treatment camps of conflict ridden masses. Besides actively participating in Afghan development, India has aggressively participated in strengthening Afghan security establishment. New Delhi besides training Afghan special forces troops, provided technical equipment and assistance on high altitude warfare to special forces (HAHO and HALO), while sharing senior military advisors course and necessary relevant training to senior military officers at National Defence College, New Delhi and Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. In addition to this, New Delhi tasked Indian Air Force to provide relevant helicopter training technical courses to Afghan Air Force officers. New Delhi also tasked relevant military intelligence and counter terrorism organization to train Afghan officers on intelligence gathering, collection and clandestine operations.

New Delhi further carried a “balanced” interaction with multiple ethnic tribal communities in Afghanistan. The aforementioned “balance” was largely biased towards Tajik dominated Northern Alliance in an effort to counter Taliban which were essentially Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence trained-radical Islamic-Pashtun factions. New Delhi, under Karzai leadership openly advocated its support to his leadership, in an effort to stabilise its relationship with the Pashtun communities.

In accordance with its “open-door policy” towards Afghanistan, India invited the former to become a member of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in an effort to provide viable platform for Afghanistan to deliberate on Free Trade Agreements, trade-focussed economic opportunities, providing socio-economic development opportunities for Afghan citizens from such initiatives.

Also, with Afghanistan as member of SAARC, South and East Asia could easily access the routes and trading points with the West. Coupled with internal conflict, neighbour sponsored intervention in domestic turbulence had drastically resulted in poor trade and economic benefits, as a result, its ratification of South Asian Free Trade Agreement resulted in the trade of over $2 billion out of which over $770 million directly benefitted Afghanistan.

In the light of India’s “cooperation and coordination” initiatives in Afghanistan developments, New Delhi continues to receive “warm hospitality and positive response” from the masses. Today, Afghan communities acknowledge the presence of Indians with “warm greetings and affection”. Bollywood is extremely popular among Afghan communities and popular songs can be heard during local celebrations. India is a “favourite-hot spot” destination for Afghans. Although, Afghanistan’s socio-economic condition continues to rise, its dependence on foreign aid remains an issue among the Afghan elites. It is imperative for President Ghani to develop lucrative initiatives in an effort to “strengthen domestic economy”. To begin with, India’s “economic target” is to assist Kabul in establishing “sustainable economic model”.

Where does India’s interest lay?

As stated in the aforementioned arguments, Afghanistan geographical position puts it at the centre of Middle East, Central Asia and South West Asia. It is evident from its history, Afghanistan was never acknowledged as a country rather than a “buffer state in a foreign policy”, isolated and separated by many global powers including the then Prussia, British East India and erstwhile USSR.

Today, Afghanistan plays the role of a “bridge”, connecting the West with the East. At the helm of major security challenges (radical Islamic fundamentalism to drug trafficking, women smuggling and trafficking of illicit weapons) affecting the borders of regional and extended neighbours. Moreover, the Afghanistan’s immediate and extended neighbours such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, China, continue to interfere in the former’s domestic policy and regional affairs. For India, Afghanistan was not an option but a choice, particularly because of the former’s deteriorating China on the one hand and constant threat of Pakistani hostility on the relations with China and frequent border skirmishes with Pakistan, Afghanistan became precedence in India’s foreign policy, initiating series of massive developments within India’s Afghan policy. Thus, a politically stable and socio-economic vibrant Afghanistan is a priority for New Delhi, not only as a responsible regional power but also a neighbour extended or not. In the light of changing global political dynamics, key factors that highlights India’s strategic partnership with Afghanistan are mentioned below:

  1. Isolating Pakistan

It is a widely accepted fact that, India’s approach to Afghanistan was largely linked to its foreign policy on Pakistan. It is vital for India to prevent Pakistan’s “interference in all forms” in Afghanistan and counter Islamabad’s motives to establish a strong hold or influence Kabul through any means. Also, historically, it is evident that India has played all counter moves to prevent Pakistan’s occupation of Afghanistan. New Delhi would take all necessary steps to minimise Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan’s regional affairs while ensuring that Taliban or any segment linking to the former do not rise again. Islamabad, on the other hand, uses all available means to outmanoeuvre India’s “partnership” with Afghanistan. Friendly relations between India and Afghanistan is conceived as a “security threat” perception by Pakistan as the latter is geographically flanked by the former states. For Islamabad, Kabul is a natural ally, much needed to release the pressure induced through regular borders skirmishes on the Indian side, a potential strategic dilemma particularly with a nation ten times its size on the west and an irritant country which continues to express control over Pashtun territories within the Pakistani side of Durand Line. Highlighting its Pashtun cultural connection, Islamabad considers it an “edge”. In an effort to undermine India, Pakistan induces rigorous methods, policies to influence Kabul. It is no less than the case of “traditional security-dilemma” especially with respect to India and Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Any aggression induced by Pakistan and a violent response from Inia could potentially jeopardise regional stability and security in the country, resulting a “possible” deterioration which could pave the way for Taliban to re-appear.

  1. Keeping an “eye” on Beijing

India, within its capacity of an emerging economy, continues to provide significant proportions of aid to Afghanistan. However, the reasons behind the aid do highlight political signature. All major actors in the region, traditionally hegemons play a “signature move” to showcase there “presence/dominance” in the region; India is playing the card in Afghanistan. India and China are in race to become regional hegemon. China is also an emerging economy; India’s rigorous development initiatives in Afghanistan will keep China at bay. However, Beijing has an “eye” for natural resources which remains “unharnessed” in the region. New Delhi has initiated numerous infrastructure development projects in Afghanistan, in effort to keep a “vigil” on Chinese activities. After Washington’s deployment of troops under Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and its subsequent end in 2014, New Delhi continues to enhance its foreign policy initiatives in an effort to establish its “hegemony” in the region.

  1. Combatting radical Islamic fundamentalism

Another important “aspect” in New Delhi’s strategic partnership in Afghanistan is, “countering radical Islamic particularly Wahhabi militancy” in the region. This initiative is coupled by New Delhi’s immediate concern of rising “Islamic religion-centred” violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A rapid increase in Islamic radical Wahhabi militancy poses a direct threat to India’s domestic and external security, which also points to an increase “border incursion” of Lashkar and Hizbul militants in Kashmir. It is “absolutely imperative” for both Kabul and New Delhi to prevent Afghanistan in becoming a “hideout for radical Islamic militancy”. For Islamabad, a radical and Islamic militant centred Afghanistan is vital, particularly when the latter is increasingly “losing ground” in Kashmir. India’s aggressive “military response” in Kashmir has severed “traditional communication routes and severely compromised” militants to operate in the region. The militants, who continue to inspire from the “tales of Mujahid fighters repelling Soviet forces” while receiving “technical means and materials” from Islamabad sponsored violent non-state actors, continue to receive major “crackdown” from Indian forces lately. During the fight against Soviet forces, significant percentage of Kashmiri youths volunteered to confront the Soviet invasion. They then returned “trained in sophisticated weaponry” and “armed with the version of Islam which declared all non-Muslims “infidels” along with “hands on experience” in Guerrilla warfare techniques.

New Delhi’s “assessment” of rapid call for “Jihad against the Soviet forces” was correct particularly when military and intelligence officers predicted the “changing global dynamics with respect to rise of fundamentalism in Afghanistan” which undoubtedly played a “vital” role in shifting the traditional concept of international relations “coupled with religion” which drastically altered the future of South Asia and the Middle East.

  1. “Power” player in regional politics

A principle reason behind India’s “aggressive” development assistance program in Afghanistan is to “establish” itself as a “prominent actor” in regional politics, in accordance with an “emerging economy and strong modern military”. New Delhi is “taking all measures” to establish an image of a regional power which is not only a responsible neighbour but cares deeply for its “regional allies”. By “stepping up as a major assistance provider in Afghanistan”, New Delhi continues to take “vital” initiatives in showcasing the world that “in the hour of need, India can stand up and assist all neighbouring economies” in the region. However, experts interpret India’s “aggressive assistance initiatives in Afghanistan” as a mean to “replace US in the region” if Washington calls all “available resources” back. However, the aforementioned argument made by various experts “remains inconclusive” especially when New Delhi supported America’s “War on terror” which continues to remain a “vital element” in “security centred procedures” implemented by Washington. However, New Delhi’s interest will be well served if Washington’s “security and stability” led approaches in Afghanistan bear “positive” outcomes, New Delhi will be forced to make difficult choices particularly in the light of a new “irrational and unpredictable” President at the Oval Office. However, President Trump on numerous accounts expressed “deploying more troops in Afghanistan”, however, if the White House recalls its decision, India will be forced face a “security threat” which could not only challenge its national security but would force New Delhi to formulate and strengthen its counter-terrorism policies with Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Today, New Delhi and Kabul enjoys “vast cultural-historical relationship”. To expand its economy, India needs Afghanistan is “vital”. Considering its “strategic importance and topography”, Afghanistan is the door to Central Asian economies. Smooth and cordial external relations could phenomenally boost India’s steel industry because of large “unexplored” reserves in Afghanistan. Furthermore, a stable and secure Afghanistan would mean an “energy secure India”, which opens the door to energy rich Central Asian economies. The much-discussed Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline, could replenish India’s energy deficiency. The future of Afghanistan holds the “future” of many present socio-economic initiatives and rise of Taliban in any part could cripple the initiatives. The two nations have discussed reviving the traditional Silk Trade Routes, which historically connected India with Central Asian economies. India has invested “extensively” in Afghanistan, making its partnership “vital” for India’s strategic and economic objectives. Pillars of India’s national security architecture includes “maintaining internal security, safeguarding borders in an effort defend territorial integrity and sovereignty” of the state. It also extends to “protecting and defending geo-strategic objectives in South Asia” potential targets capable of hampering India’s strategic and economic objectives. The “volatile” domestic political security in Afghanistan continues to pose challenges to India’s policymakers. It is imperative for policy makers to understand that, India’s national security architecture comprises domestic security and border management which remains paramount, hence “too much involvement in a state” could potentially hamper India’s domestic and national security initiatives. Keepings “principle elements responsible for de-stabilizing Afghanistan”, India joined the group of leading economies to rebuild a “stable and secure” Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban in 2001, however, in the light of “extensive” involvement and “emotional” connection with Afghans, policy makers should not “ignore” its implications on domestic security. New Delhi’s “remarkable commitment towards Afghanistan” in restructuring-building and strengthening regional and national institutions, is being commended by many political leadership at various international forums. However, New Delhi must formulate an “ inward development approach” while coupling it with peace-building programs and initiatives in Afghanistan, in an effort to establish peace, stability and security in the region.

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