“Winning hearts and minds”: Assessing India’s soft power diplomacy in Afghanistan

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


Months before India threatened Pakistan to repeal Indus Water Treaty, nations heads of both India and Afghanistan inaugurated the Salma Dam built in cooperation with India, in the Herat province of Afghanistan. In the subsequent days of the “inauguration” diplomats, strategic and foreign relations experts “hailed” the joint initiative as a symbol of “extensive cooperation and coordination” between India and Afghanistan. This joint initiative to build Salma Dam would change the “draught” ridden topography into an industrial hub. While giving his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Modi praised the intense “cooperation and coordination” between the two countries while stating that this “long friendship was our honour and your dreams our duty”.

The rapid decline of Taliban in 2001 and the systematic withdrawal of NATO and allied troops of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forced Kabul to ensure the domestic and external security of Afghanistan while seeking international cooperation from “friendly countries” in an effort to keep “wheels of socio-economic development initiatives” running. India’s external relations with Afghanistan was largely limited to its “soft power diplomacy” mainly focussing on humanitarian aid and socio-economic development rather than militaristic assistance, making India, the fifth largest assistance provider to Afghanistan. The approach of soft power diplomacy further reinforces India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan, which is largely driven by two major perspectives.

Firstly, the presence of rich mineral bases in Afghanistan along with its strategic “topography”, making it a “vital” link between India and nations in Central Asia, fulfilling India’s economic ambitions.

Second is, countering the threat posed by the nexus between Taliban and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which looks for “opportunities” to compromise India and Afghanistan’s national security while further compromising the regional stability and security of nations in South Asia while seriously hampering India’s “ambition” for regional hegemony. In the light of aforementioned statements, India’s “soft” power diplomacy aims particularly in strengthening India’s cultural and political relations with Afghanistan while spreading a message of “liberty and harmony” and reinforcing the nation building processes with effective educational reforms, strengthening political stability through positive media “bites”. This further provides opportunities for New Delhi to extensively interact with different communities, especially the Pashtuns which retains a “buffer” between India and Pakistan within the context of “influence”.

Hence, a dedicated policy on “socio-economic” and “cultural exchanges” has defined new contexts of diplomacy for policy makers in New Delhi while projecting India’s “political” strength more efficient and effective than its military engagements, in an effort to strengthen multi-cultural, ethnic society cherished by Indo-Afghan relations.

The power of Bollywood: An actor of soft power approach

During the recent visit to India, President Ghani “stated” the determination of security forces to eliminate Taliban factions in Afghanistan while acknowledging India’s “active” cooperation with Afghan security forces and reviving “once lost hope” of Afghan nationals for peace and security in the region.

Remembering India’s “nationalist” poet Rabindranath Tagore and his famous “classic” novel Kabuliwala, the Afghan President said, “Kabuliwala has done more to give us a brand which we could not buy with a billion dollars of investment,”. This statement “highlights” the extensive “influence” of Bollywood in “strengthening and rebuilding” people to people connection surpassing all government initiatives. However, initiatives taken by policy makers and state officials in gaining public support for the foreign policy drafted by the state, is essential for the policy to succeed.

In the same context, India and Afghanistan signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in 2011, which continues to stand as the principle framework of India’s external relations with Afghanistan. Credited as the first “agreement” ratified between Afghanistan and first strategic agreement ratified between any South Asian country with India, the derivative of this Strategic Partnership Agreement between India and Afghanistan retains the Joseph Nye’s principle of “cooperative power” derived through “cultural and ideological significance” and the foreign policy drafted particularly with respect to the sheer concept of “international cooperation and support”.

However, the Security Partnership Agreements focusses majorly on “security cooperation” while effectively highlighting India’s assistance in “maximising capacity and training, development programs for Afghan National Security personnel,”, it, however, does not mention the deployment of Indian troops Afghanistan. Instead, the major focus remains on “soft” power approaches, primarily on strengthening “cultural exchanges” and “socio-economic” development. The effective “strategic” cooperation and coordination between the two nations, “will rebuild and strengthen institutional development in an effort to further reinforce Afghanistan capacity building initiatives particularly in the domains of socio-economic development, employment activities, educational institutions while strengthening people to people connection”. Under Security Partnership Agreement, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) leads India’s capacity development initiatives by granting over 10,000 scholarships to Afghan students and professionals and opening their doors for a “better future” through educational opportunities in India. This display of “progressive” approach coupled with “determined” political leadership on both the sides further reinforces educational opportunities for Afghan nationals while strengthening its socio-economic development initiatives by actively spearheading such programs, India’s “cultural diplomacy” has created a perception of sheer “progress and positivity” among the Afghan nationals by simply taking care of their needs.

Today, Afghanistan continues to suffer from in effective educational initiatives short sighted policies particularly in education which is then coupled with inadequate infrastructure, sheer insecurity and rampant gender biasness. The major benefit of this “aggressive” cooperation comes from “positive” people to people connection limiting not just to government interaction. It is more than just “influencing” government initiatives or policies, but majorly it strengthens the bond between people while creating an aura of “mutual acceptance” and “mutual progress”. Although it is difficult to “extensively” elaborate the nation’s progress with soft power diplomacy approaches, the nation’s policy initiatives can best be judged/assessed through public opinions, as they will “highlight” the “inside” effect on the partnered government’s “nation building initiatives”. Responses to India’s development initiatives in Afghanistan are evident through direct and indirect means. Dr. Shah Massoud, a prominent expert on Afghanistan appreciated the commitment shown by Indian policy makers when it established first “women-centric” skill development, training centres in the provinces of Herat, Kabul and Kandahar, while hoping for more “extensive” relationship between India and Afghanistan particularly in the field of women centred initiatives. This not only instigated massive support for women empowerment within provinces especially in the country where women thrived to work outside their homes, which would not only alleviate the nation’s GDP but also “empower” the women “socially”.

In an effort to further strengthen people to people contact, New Delhi further liberalised its visa policies for Afghan nationals. This would assist in “extensive” movements of Afghan nationals which would not only forge deeper ties towards “democratic understanding” and “cultural unity”, but also a vivid experience for both civic societies to interact with each other, who are “largely absent” from traditional concept of diplomacy. Although, the concept of public diplomacy is not limited to people to people interaction, it is roughly covers frequent interaction with governments and their officials while streamlining transmission of innovation through lucrative policies through their frequent interaction. This extensive “cultural interaction” between the two countries coupled with Strategic Partnership Agreement have yielded successful desirable outcomes which have further strengthened the Indo-Afghan relations while enabling India to further strengthen the bond by assisting Afghanistan in a “blood-less” transition to democracy while subsequently severing its “not-so-happy” relationship with its immediate neighbour, a “rogue” state, Pakistan. The construction of Parliament in Afghanistan, which is yet another gift of “democracy” from India, remains the single most “promising” and “capitulating” example of New Delhi’s support to a liberal and democratic Afghanistan.

Within this context, the economic assistance provided by India also generates “significant” workforce and capital which supports democracy over radical Islamic ideologies. The aid provided by India also fulfils the former’s economic expectations since Afghanistan has a rich resource “connecting” India with Central Asia.

Afghanistan is rich in copper and iron followed by a significant presence of gold and lithium, “enormous” potential to strengthen Afghan economy. Although, in the light of growing Taliban “aggression” coupled with intense clashes between the NATO forces, the roads of Afghanistan are rigged with “improvised explosive devices”, popularly known as “roadside bombs” threatening the safety of transporting such valuable resources, while preventing the nation from becoming a valuable “mineral hub”. Inspite of some recent “major” incidents, Kabul continues to welcome international partners particularly India to strengthen its energy and agricultural sector. In reply, India, on numerous accounts continues to “effectively” address the needs of afghan people.

Beginning its construction in 1976, the Salma dam, which was inaugurated in 2014, was renamed as Afghan-India Friendship Dam by Afghan leadership. This hydro project has been subjected to many Taliban attacks in an effort to “de-rail the development and re-construction initiatives in Afghanistan”, however, the major Tajik speaking population of Herat province “praised” the project and “celebrated” once the joint initiative was complete, praising the efforts taken by the Indian authorities and its “soft” power policy. In an effort to connect to Central Asian markets, leaders from India, Afghanistan and Iran ratified the “trilateral transit agreement”. In an effort to strengthen its relationship with Tehran, India extended its financial support for development of Chahbahar port on the Southern coast of Iran, which remains a vital link for both India and Afghanistan and Central Asia. “Playing passive”, Islamabad denied India’s repeated efforts to connect to Afghanistan via land, an apprehensive step in the light of growing Indo-Afghanistan friendship. Although, this trilateral agreement not only isolated Pakistan within Central and Western Asia but also denied “probable” economic benefits from the agreement. According to the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), economic partnership between the two nations will further reinforce the long-standing relationship between the two nations, while isolating Pakistan.

Furthermore, New Delhi “complete support” to grant Afghanistan membership of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) would further result in “freely movement of goods” through the borders administered under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). It is important to note that, SAARC membership of Afghanistan would further reinforce the concept of “free and open market economy”, while ensuring “political” security in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Bamiyan Declaration was the cultural capital for SAARC between 2015-16 which was specifically chosen to “remember” what was “once lost” rich “decimated” Buddhist sites in an effort to promote tourism and economic growth while initiating employment opportunities in the region.

It is also important to note that, Afghanistan’s “unconditional” support and acknowledgement of India’s efforts to combat Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) trained elements, was clear from the incidents post Uri attack. Kabul’s boycott of 2016 SAARC Summit which took place in Islamabad, was seen by many security experts as an example of “unconditional” support, moreover, it also became the first South Asian nation to advocate for a “diplomatically isolating” Pakistan. This was another success of India’s “soft power” external policy within South East Asia.

Out of any surprise, Pakistan’s apprehensions against Indo-Afghanistan friendship sent a “shiver” to Islamabad particularly when they continue to lose “political” dominance in the region. In the past, Islamabad was sceptical particularly of Kabul’s extensive dependency on New Delhi but with India’s growing “cultural” interaction and rigorous people to people contact, Islamabad choses alternative “violent” ways to seek attention. The concept of “zero-sum” policy, or Islamabad’s policy to completely disrupt “peaceful” tri-lateral partnership remains in play. Today, Islamabad continues to accuse New Delhi of “fuelling and encouraging” violence and “terror” within Baluchistan along with parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in an effort to undermine the political security by Islamabad, continues to instigate “fear” within Islamabad.

On the contrary, India’s “soft power” foreign policy with Afghanistan is not only limited to “de-root” Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan, although New Delhi “understands” the threats posed by Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, the ability to “strengthen” its vital strategic interests remain a priority for New Delhi. Moreover, the Pashtun community, which principally resides on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, continues to witness a “significant” presence of Taliban fighters especially trained by “selected” officers from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). As New Delhi continues to strengthen its relationship with the Pashtun communities, Pakistan, on the other hand uses violent terror Islamic radical factions to prevent it from happening. In the light of such “systematic roadblocks”, Kabul continues to believe in Islamabad promise to bring Taliban on the negotiating table. Amid few extensive interactions between India and Afghanistan, Kabul was initially received massive diplomatic pressure from New Delhi. This resulted in India maintaining a “low profile” at the Heart of Asia Conference of 2014 while “temporary” halting its financial assistance for the development of Chahbahar port in Iran. Then, New Delhi refused to hold or redraw the policy frameworks of Strategic Partnership Agreement or hold any meetings of Strategic Partnership Council.

India’s “soft power” approach in foreign policy has been largely “reinforced” since the change of leadership in India. Prime Minister Modi continues to enhance India’s external relations with Afghanistan particularly where “Afghanistan no longer remains a competing ground of national interests nor a zero sum game in reference to India’s reconstruction and rehabilitation programs for Afghan masses”. On the contrary, Islamabad continues to retain its policy of “zero sum” game in Afghanistan in an effort to influence the leadership in Kabul while “taking two steps ahead and one step backward” in an effort to seal a “strategic win” in Afghanistan. However, the chances of success remain dim for a “hopeful” Islamabad since it can only be achieved if it becomes successful in systematically “cutting of” essential regions of India’s security and denying any access to regions of strategic importance. Although, in the light of a complete withdrawal of NATO forces and its allies, New Delhi will be forced to secure regions with strategical importance. It can be possible by systematically dismantling Pakistan-Taliban alliance from further interfering in India’s soft power policy initiatives.

Looking for an outcome: A stable Afghanistan?

In the light of recent entanglements, it is clear that, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot enter into an agreement particularly on their “mutual” development, benefitting them. This is also “difficult” from their “entangled” foreign policies. As stated above, India’s foreign policy with Afghanistan, relies largely on the threat possessed by Pakistan which is further reinforced by Pakistan’s foreign policy with Afghanistan which is largely centric on India, specifically drafted to minimise New Delhi’s influence on Kabul. For Afghanistan, it is none less than a tug of war between New Delhi and Islamabad which is moments away from a “fist fight” in an effort to secure regions of “strategic importance”. However, India and Afghanistan are largely benefitting from their bilateral agreements, their relentless efforts have made significance progress in socio-economics and culture majorly in infrastructure development, sports and healthcare sectors.

It is also important to note that, the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) has strengthened India’s commitment towards building a politically stable Afghanistan while showcasing the “effectiveness” of Nye’s concept of “soft power” approach in foreign policy while praising Afghanistan’s commitment and dedication in employing “progressive” measures while initiating successful “infrastructure” and “rehabilitation” programs for the Afghan masses while relying on a partnership with a “progressive” nation. This also enables India in achieving its strategic objectives. Since, New Delhi will never deploy Indian boots on Afghan ground, but by providing adequate training to the young “military graduates”, Afghanistan can secure its borders through India’s assistance. This would also ensure “safe borders” on the Afghan-Pakistan side while denying Pakistan to play its “cards of influence”.

This agreement further reinforces India to achieve its objectives through a “soft power” approach by strengthening an “ally” which sees Pakistan no more than a “threat”, while engaging the Afghan masses through “active participation” and “people to people connection”, in an effort to deny Islamabad any chances of “reviving friendship” with Kabul. Although, in the light of recent entanglements, New Delhi’s partnership with Islamabad has largely been severed and what’s left of the “friendship” is heavily plagued with “mistrusts”, on the contrary, New Delhi and Kabul’s relationship are majorly on “goodwill” and Indian initiatives, on most occasions, receive positive “feedback” from the local masses.

One such initiative was the Heart of Asia Conference which took place in Chandigarh, specially addressing the challenges faced by Afghan national security forces along with other key issues on “politico-economic security” faced by Kabul.

It was the “signature” event for both India and Afghanistan, when, they deliberated on issues pertaining to security concerns on “one table” for the “first time”, while parallelly addressing “strengthening cooperation” and “development mechanisms”. However, policy makers must understand that, India’s strategic assistance to Afghanistan, in a hope to ensure its stability can only be achieved through an “effective” combination of both hard and soft power.



  1. ICCR provides just 1,000 scholarships for Afghan students to study in Indian Universities and colleges, not 10,000 scholarships.

Comments are closed.