India's Afghan engagement: on a strong footing

Modi inherits strong India-Afghan ties but one of his immediate concerns would be to address ISI-backed proxy war in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal will also spur a scramble between India and Pakistan for strategic influence.

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | June 4, 2014



India’s engagement with Afghanistan has a significant historical context. To institutionalise and foster this relationship post-independence, India signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Afghanistan in 1950. It has had strong diplomatic relations interrupted only during the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, when India shut its consulates in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad. The IC-814 hijack was perhaps the lowest point in this relationship.
Even at other times, India has had to engage in some diplomatic tightrope walking. One such occasion was during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and India’s support of the Northern Alliance (a group of non-Pashtun ethnicities led by Ahmad Shah Masoud) against the Taliban (consisting mainly of Pashtuns) regime. The second occasion was when India maintained relations with the Soviet Union, much to the irritation of the US, while sticking to its non-aligned foreign policy. The end of the Cold War, of course, ameliorated the situation much with the release of considerable space for policy manoeuvring with Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, India had to work towards regaining the confidence of the Pashtuns.

After Taliban’s fall, Indian engagement has been further consolidated through substantive exchanges in several sectors, including security. India’s committed assistance to Afghanistan stands at $2 billion in the nature of medium and large infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, capacity building initiatives and small development projects. Some of the major projects that have been completed by India are a 218-km road in Nimroz province to facilitate free movement of goods to the Iran border, the construction of a 220-KV transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul (along with a substation in Chimtala to bring power to Kabul), upgrade of telephone exchanges in 11 provinces and expansion of the Afghan national TV network connecting the 34 provincial capitals.

Two ongoing multimillion-dollar projects are the construction of Salma Dam in Herat province, expected to be completed by 2015 and the construction of the new Afghan parliament building.

India also offers 675 long-term Indian council of cultural relations (ICCR) scholarships, apart from 675 short-term Indian technical and economic cooperation vocational training slots. The overwhelming popularity of the courses has led to India-Afghan vocational training centre for training 3,000 Afghans. India’s contribution is the most significant among the non-traditional donor countries in Afghanistan.

India does not have a military presence in Afghanistan. The gradual withdrawal of Nato forces will have greater consequences for India, in terms of its implications for terrorist activities in J&K, than the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. Even though India trained 1,200 Afghan national army troops in India (the largest number outside Afghanistan), it needs a much larger investment in the military apparatus of Afghanistan.

According to a recent report, there is enough evidence to show that Pakistan is training a new breed of pro-Taliban, Pakistan-based insurgents to infiltrate in Afghanistan once the Nato troops leave. Apart from that, the usual Pakistani surrogates of the Haqqani network, Hizb-e-Islami, are waiting to be active on the borders, which will provide much ‘strategic depth’ to the Pakistani army against India.

China has so far maintained a low-key presence in the political affairs of Afghanistan, as is its wont in foreign policy outreach, but might want to review its stance, given the heightened threat from Uighur militants. New Delhi would do good to focus on the India-China-Afghanistan trilateral forum. India’s geo-strategic disadvantage also makes it imperative to increase its Iran engagement. The Iranian Chabahar port construction has to be undertaken with much greater commitment. The recently announced Central Asia Connect policy 2013 is a good start in deepening engagement with Central Asia.
Pakistan’s concerns that Afghan territory will be used by India against it also need to be addressed. India has to ratchet up its diplomatic efforts though multilaterals and increase its security cooperation and political consensus-building with regard to Afghanistan.

India, in its Afghanistan policy, perhaps needs to go back to the first principles of security diplomacy and seek to create a multilateral security system for the entire continent. The India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership signed during Karzai’s visit in October 2011, which formalised a framework for multifaceted cooperation, is a very important step. But India should be equally committed to working with the Heart of Asia countries, which are again scheduled to meet soon in Beijing.

Prime minister Narendra Modi inherits strong India-Afghan ties but one of his immediate concerns would be to address the ISI-backed proxy war in Afghanistan. The American withdrawal will also spur a scramble between India and Pakistan for strategic influence in the region. Under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was used as a training ground for militants to attack parts of India, particularly Kashmir. The likely future president of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, will most probably carry on the path of India-Afghanistan friendship. Abdullah was closely linked to the Northern Alliance, which was supported by India during the Taliban regime.

The attack on the Indian consulate at Herat on May 23, was handled well by both Karzai and Modi. Moreover, Karzai attended the swearing-in ceremony of prime minister Modi, which augurs well for diplomatic implicatiions of both the countries. India’s relations with Pakistan will depend not so much by internal factors but by the geopolitical dynamics of the region after the American withdrawal in 2014.

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