Taking a stock of the situation, as Afghanistan goes for polls next month
Anthony Mathew Jacob | March 28, 2014
Afghanistan is preparing for its presidential election slated for 5 April, this election is very crucial for the country as well as its neighbours including Pakistan, Iran and India. Any development in Afghanistan will be directly linked to its neighbours. One of the biggest challenges to Afghanistan remains the threat from terrorist elements both within and from neighbouring Pakistan. According to Afghan media, the Taliban have threatened to attack the elections. The previous presidential elections held in 2009, witnessed deadly violence where the militants killed election workers, candidates and even voters thereby claiming around 60 lives. The Taliban have warned that anyone who goes near electoral offices and booths or participates in rallies and campaigns is risking his life. Despite these threats, the Afghan government is working towards conducting successful elections as scheduled.
Some of the front-runners of this election include Abdullah Abdullah, who came second 2009, Zalmai Rassoul, former foreign minister and Ashraf Ghani, former World Bank economist.
New Delhi’s economic, political, and strategic investments and interests in Kabul make it an important player in the political developments of the region. India is the ‘fifth largest’ bilateral donor country, and has pledged US$ 2 billion and invested in diverse areas that include education, healthcare, infrastructure, social welfare schemes, providing training to the police, bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians. New Delhi also plays a central role in institution and capacity building in Kabul. Since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, India has been very active in Afghanistan. This interest is partly to do with its energy and trade interests in Central Asia.
Afghanistan’s connection with the energy rich Central Asia is very essential for India’s increasing energy requirements. India has been pursuing better relations with many countries in the Central Asia that include Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, etc. India has provided US$ 17 million grant to Tajikistan for Hydro power plant modernisation. Similarly, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed among governments of India, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2008 to connect Turkmenistan’s natural gas fields to the South Asia. Another important focus of India's economic and energy requirements was the development of a southern trade corridor connecting New Delhi with Tehran, Kabul, Central Asia and Moscow. The Chabahar Free Zone Authority (CFZA) between Kabul and Tehran are considered important achievements for the southern trade corridor.
Apart from economy and trade, security plays a fundamental role for the entire region. One of the major concerns for India is the security situation after the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan. So far India has actively supported Karzai’s efforts to bring the Taliban and tribal groups to the negotiation table. Until now Karzai has been reluctant in signing the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the United States that would ensure the presence of 8,000 to 10,000 western forces after 2014. The excesses committed by the western forces in Afghanistan which included burning of the Holy Quran and the civilian causalities in the so called ‘night raids’ lend legitimacy to Karzai’s reluctance in signing the BSA. Whatever the outcome, a lot needs to be done to ensure the stability of Afghanistan and neighbours like Iran, Pakistan and India need to have a coordinated effort in attaining the security goals of the region.
Tehran has constantly backed the government in Kabul and helped it survive through regular monetary support and over the last decade given 500 million dollars in aid. It has funded schools, educational institutions, libraries, clinics, roads and railway lines. Iran shares a 900 km common border with Afghanistan, which is often used by smugglers as the main conduit for smuggling Afghan drugs to narcotics kingpins in Europe. It has spent millions of dollars to seal its borders and prevent the flow of narcotics and in the process has lost thousands of security personnel. Tehran also hosts a large number of Afghan refugees, according to the Iranian Bureau for Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs, the total number of refugees registered with the authorities stood at some 882,659, which includes 840,158 Afghans. Like India, Iran is considered to be a trusted ally of Afghanistan sharing strong cultural, economic and political ties. Since more than a decade, Iran and India have been working together on developing a new trade corridor connecting Afghanistan’s major highways to the southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar, thereby reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for access to the sea.
Kabul doesn’t share the same relationship with Islamabad as it does with Tehran and New Delhi. In fact, many Afghan leaders have accused Pakistan of trying to destabilise their government and bring back the Taliban. There have been many incidents of clashes at the border between Kabul and Islamabad where each one ends up accusing the other. India and Afghanistan’s growing security partnerships are certainly a bone of contention for Islamabad. The current regime of Nawaz Sharif has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Taliban activities. The recent abduction of Iranian border guards into Pakistan is one such example. With India being seen as a bête noir of Pakistan, generous Saudi support over these years has made Pakistan and Iranian relationship more or less the same. This has in turn taken a toll over the equations between Kabul and Islamabad. Today, Pakistan views its relationship with Afghanistan in the background of its closeness with India and Iran.
Therefore, it becomes extremely important for India and Iran to forge new pathways through Afghanistan and work towards stability and development of the entire region. In the aftermath of the US lifting of sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme both India and Iran have showed willingness to increase their bilateral trade, especially Indian imports of Iranian crude oil.
With India and Iran emerging as major powers in the region, it is the need of the hour for New Delhi, Tehran and Kabul to work together in all sectors like security, intelligence, education, technology and trade in an environment of mutual benefit and co-operation. In this way they will be in a strong position to counter the challenges posed by terrorism and keep a check on states that support such activities.
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