India’s Position on the New Afghanistan Policy
The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of United States of America has brought about a fundamental shift in US foreign policy outlook. As far as US policy towards Afghanistan is concerned, an official document by the state department is yet to come. There is a presence of ambiguity regarding Trump’s administration towards the violence and instability in Afghanistan, except few provisions. First, the withdrawal of the US troops in the Afghanistan is announced, but the deadline for the same has not been given. Second, the US is seeking a larger role to be played by India. Trump acknowledges India’s importance and its significant role in stabilizing Afghanistan, but wants it to do more. Last, it identifies Pakistan as a state which provides safe sanctuaries to terrorist networks. US will focus much more on the safe havens that Pakistan has been providing to terrorists who cause mayhem inside Afghanistan and slip away. These encompass not only the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, but also the Lashkar-e- Toiba and the Haqqani Network, which specifically target Indian assets in that country (Malhotra, 2017).
In the recent visit to New Delhi, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani highlighted the causes of global uncertainty, the regional security context, the New US Strategy in South Asia and its ties with India. According to him, the South Asia Strategy announced by President Trump is a Game Changer and has singled out India for engagement especially in economic and development assistance. He hoped that the new context would bring a new perspective in Pakistan.
We need to understand India’s interests in the region and the challenges it faces. But, first let us look at the role it has played till now and its unwavering commitment to help Afghanistan re-build itself.
India’s engagement in Afghanistan has mainly been centered on civilian contribution, economic development and reconstruction (Ahmad, 2017). It is the fifth largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan, $3 billion being India’s financial commitment to the country, highest development assistance committed by India in any country so far. The contributions made so far are –
Humanitarian Assistance – Daily supply of food to tide over the food crisis, free medical consultations and medicines through 5 Indian Medical Missions, reconstruction of Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul, providing scholarships, gifting of civilian and military vehicles used by Afghan National Army, providing US$8 million worth high-altitude warfare equipment, sharing high-ranking military advertisers and helicopter technicians from Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), etc.
Major Infrastructure Projects – Construction of roads to improve connectivity, construction and commissioning of Salma Dam Power Project in Herat province, construction of Afghanistan Parliament, expansion of the national TV network and so on.
Small Development Projects – Such projects have been started with focus on local ownership and management and extending to agriculture, education, health, vocational training, and solar energy having a direct impact on community life.
Economic Assistance – India is one of the major trading partners of Afghanistan and its fifth largest source of imports. The two countries have signed several Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) and formal agreements to remove obstacles and increase mutual trade and commerce. For example– International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Air Freight Corridor, etc. In fact, to deepen economic ties between the two countries, the Afghanistan Embassy in Delhi has frequently engaged with the national and local chambers of commerce and industries of India (Haidari, 2015).
Diplomatic Assistance – India initiated and supported Afghanistan’s SAARC membership in 2007. In 2015, India joined Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a security mechanism in Central Asia. It is also playing a lead role in the Istanbul Process: Heart of Asia Conference, aiming to mobilize resources for reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.
India’s Core Interests –
Since 2001, Afghanistan has allowed New Delhi an opportunity to underscore its role as a regional power. India has growing stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan and also in various other aspects (Pant, 2012). India’s interests in Afghanistan are strategic, political and economic in nature.
Security and strategic interests –
India wants Afghanistan to develop into a stable and peaceful country with a democratic government, capable of formulating its own security, domestic and foreign policies. This will enhance India’s larger security and economic interests in the North West region. India also needs to maintain influence in any potential future political establishment to gain some strategic importance that China and Pakistan continuously try to deprive it of. Countering Pakistan in its efforts to establish a weak government in Afghanistan and using it as a launch pad for terror attacks is one of the main objective for India (Bajpai, 2017). Political instability and growth of terrorism in Afghanistan also has cascading effects in entire Central Asia region. Achieving peace and security in Afghanistan is a pre-requisite to achieving peace and political stability in the region and building a continental Asia.
Economic interests and regional connectivity –
Promoting mutually beneficial trade and investment in mining and development partnerships is need of the hour. Bilateral trade stands at US $368 billion and could potentially be double of that in five years according to FICCI (Ganie, 2016). The recent discovery of mining resources in Afghanistan has attracted Indian companies, but there is a strong competition from China. Several MoUs have been signed by both the countries. The trilateral engagement between Iran, Afghanistan and India is an important agreement which is expected to expand and enhance opportunities of trade for India with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia through the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) (Dutta, 2017). The Indian exports to Afghanistan have steadily grown in terms of value, but still far below its potential. Post reconstruction, the market in Afghanistan has offered huge export opportunities. The opening of a new air freight corridor from New Delhi to Kabul has boosted the trade and commerce relations between the two nations. Its materialisation aims at boosting India-Afghan trade to the tune of US $1 billion in three years (Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam, 2017). It is off great significance to consider promoting the air cargo for transporting of goods and products between India and Pakistan.
Energy Security –
Energy Security continues to be a major aim of India’s foreign policy. While India engages in oil exploration, it has signed Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline agreement to bring natural gas from Tajikistan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, for the energy sources from Central Asia to reach India they have to pass through Afghanistan.
While looking at all these interests, India faces a number of challenges –
The zero sum game-
India’s interests in Afghanistan have been viewed as the prism of Indo-Pak rivalry where Afghanistan has been plotted as a field for display of influence. (Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam, 2017) India and Pakistan have approached Afghanistan as a zero sum dynamic where loss for one side implies gain for the other. Thus, both the sides try to restrict each other.
Pakistan is in constant paranoia of being trapped in the middle if India gains political and military influence in Afghanistan policy making. Pakistan alleged that India’s main motive in contributing towards the reconstruction process in the war worn country was in fact to stir unrest in Pakistan and that India’s lavish diplomatic presence in Afghanistan was aimed at supporting insurgent activities in Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan’s interventionist policy towards Afghanistan seems at least in part, driven by India’s growing presence in Afghanistan.
Extremism and Terrorism-
The US’ plan to gradually withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan would result in India becoming vulnerable to attacks from Pakistana’s security establishment and its carried proxies. The arrival of Taliban in 1996 had resulted in complete rupture in Indo-Afghan relations as it shared close liaison with Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment. Frequent attacks on the Indian embassy and consulates show Taliban still has an upper hand in the peace making process. Thus, India’s policy should aim at mitigating the possibility of Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary of extremist outfits which can lead to strategic setback. Under the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed between India and Afghanistan in 2011, India provides defense equipment and trains Afghan National Army officials to strengthen their military base.
India has adopted a ‘Soft Power Approach’ sticking to civilian issues rather than military interests. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, while launching Afghanistan – Pakistan strategy in 2009 remarked,
“India is a very important player not only in the region, but also internationally and throughout the globe. They have a legitimate role to play in the search for stability in the region, and a legitimate need to be fully informed about what we are doing” (Bajpai, 2017).
But, India was deliberately excluded from playing any meaningful role in the security matters which was mostly because the US and European powers were concerned with Pakistan’s sensitivity to India’s increasing political and strategic role in Afghanistan. Pakistan was considered a vital ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban and its cooperation was highly valued. US and NATO respected Pakistan’s sensitivities on security issues and thus, sometimes restricting and even sidelining India’s foray into Afghanistan while having to accommodate Pakistan’s indiscretions like active support to Afghanistan militant networks on Pakistani soil. But with the Trump government things have changed. Trump says,
“In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner…But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace.” (Malhotra, 2017).
H.E. Salahuddin Rabbani, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, delivering a talk at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) at New Delhi, expressed satisfaction with the progress India and Afghanistan are jointly making in key areas of bilateral cooperation such as political, security, trade & commerce, environment, and human resource development.
India has to strike a proper balance in its Afghan policy that simultaneously aims at sustaining the momentum of the reconstruction process and also seeks to benefit from the position it has been able to achieve so as to secure its vital interests in the region without arousing hostility in other neighbors, especially Pakistan and take advantage changing US perception.
Ahmad, D. S. (2017). Pakistan's Policy towards Afghanistan: Challenges from India. World Focus, 70.
Bajpai, D. A. (2017). Afghanistan and Pakistan: India's Strategic Concerns. World Focus, 46.
Dutta, P. M. (2017). India Afghanistan Economic Trade Connectivity: Gauging the success of Air Freight Corridor. World Focus, 22.
Ganie, S. A. (2016). India’s Interests in Afghanistan Since 9/11. International Journal for Research in Business, Management and Accounting .
Haidari, M. A. (2015, September 16). India and Afghanistan: A Growing Partnership. The Diplomat.
Malhotra, J. (2017, August 22). President Donald Trump moves from ‘AfPak’ to ‘AfPakIndia’. The Indian Express.
Pant, H. V. (2012). India's Changing Afghanistan Policy: Regional and Global Implications. Strategic Studies Institute.
Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam, D. R. (2017). US, India as Factors on Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations post-9/11. World Focus, 13-20.
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