By Nida Afaque
Will India decide to play a central role in Afghanistan after 2014?
As the Afghan war winds down, the focus of attention has diversified to include regional powers which will bear the partial burden of restoring stability to their Afghan neighbor. India, for one, has increased its presence in Afghanistan in social, economic and most recently, in political spheres. Under the umbrella of the War on Terror, India has had the opportunity to widen its wings into Afghanistan that had previously been restricted due to the Taliban rule. The more pressing concern is whether it will continue with the same fervor once NATO forces withdraw in 2014.
India’s foreign policy and nationalistic goals can provide a better understanding about its interests in Afghanistan. India hopes to develop into an self-sufficient nation not only capable of protecting its national interest and managing its own economy but also one that drives other economies. Furthermore, it wants to be recognized as a leading member in regional matters. Equipped with the world’s largest democracy, an expanding economy and developed military forces, India has set its eye on becoming the unrelinquished power in Asia.
With this goal in mind, it has ventured into the troubled lands of Afghanistan. Since its experience with the Taliban have not been very pleasant, India has played safe by directing majority of its involvement in the developmental sector. In the past decade, it has provided aid worth approximately $ 2 billion, thereby becoming Afghanistan’s fifth largest donor. It has made generous contributions to healthcare, food supplies and rural developmental projects. It has set up the largest children’s hospital in Kabul. Thousands of Afghan students are enrolled in Indian universities on scholarships.
To facilitate foreign return on investments, it has initiated infrastructural projects in Afghanistan. Just last month, the Indian government organized a summit to encourage local entrepreneurs to invest in Afghanistan. Up till now, Indian companies have successfully built the Delaram-Zaranj highway connecting Iran with major cities of Afghanistan and provided Kabul with non-stop supply of electricity through power lines originating from Uzbekistan. They are also constructing a government building in Kabul and the Salma hydro-electric power dam in Herat. In addition, India is making headway into the mining sector. Work has begun at the Hajigak iron-ore mines in Bamiyan and it hopes to extend it scope to the copper and gold mines too.
India has also been importing fruits from Kandahar where locals have expressed a desire for India to set up storage and processing facilities. The Preferential Trade Agreement signed in 2003 has helped to consolidate trade relations between the two nations. India hopes that one day Afghanistan would allow it to extend trade to Central Asian Republics through its territory. Greater regional associations would help in countering the vast influence of China especially in technology and manufactured goods.
India must be commended for such a well-conceived strategy of involvement for it ensured that it had the support of the government but more importantly that of the people. Recent polls have shown India’s unparalleled popularity amongst the locals (71%). This widespread support has paved the way for India to engage in political and security matters of Afghanistan with great ease. It signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in October 2011 where India pledged to enhance Afghanistan’s economic and political assets. Although India was against any involvement with the Afghan Security Forces, it has now agreed to train them on its own soil. Afghan officers receive training in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations at various regimental centers in India. So far approximately 2500 soldiers have been trained. Together with its other projects, this move shows India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s capacity building plans. At the same time, this strategic position in Afghan politics allows India to prevent Pakistan from developing an overwhelming influence in Afghanistan.
By securing a say in Afghan defense plans, India also has the chance to address its fear of radical Islamic militants, especially those who have links to the Afghan Taliban. Some of these groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-e-Taliban use Pakistan as a safe haven. Some reports even claim that the ISI has befriended these groups to carry out its dirty work. If the Afghan Taliban patch up relations between Pakistani forces and terrorist organizations residing in Pakistan, it could result in a renewed and even more forceful attack on India specifically in Kashmir. For this reason, India may choose to build assets in Afghanistan to counter Pakistani militants. Already, there are suspicions that Afghanistan’s intelligence agencies are helping India in fueling anti-Pakistani sentiments through the Baluch rebels hiding in Afghanistan.
Over and above these incentives for engagement in Afghanistan, is the pressure from United States which is urging India to take up a greater role in the endgame. The US has tried to work with Pakistan. However, Bin Laden’s sanctuary in Abbottabad and the failure of the Pakistan army to wipe out terrorist networks in Waziristan has cracked US confidence in Pakistan. China is mostly interested in mineral extraction and Russian has generally disapproved excessive American presence in the region. The conflict over Iran’s right to a nuclear bomb rules out Iran as an ally. That leaves India.
The US is wooing India by recalling their close knit collaboration in defense and warfare. In the last 10 years, arms worth $8 billion have been sold by US to India. Furthermore, US has shown favors towards India in terms of nuclear non-proliferation. While it censured North Korea and Iran on their nuclear weapons, India launched it long range missile without any resistance.
Indian authorities have resisted adopting the position of a leader for the rehabilitation of Afghanistan with open arms. The geographical disadvantage it encounters actually gives Pakistan an edge over it. Not only does the latter share a border with Afghanistan, its citizens also share a common religion and culture with the Afghans. Thus, the materialization of India’s plans for its Afghan neighbors with a hostile Pakistan in between poses a great challenge.
As with the rest of the world, India has been affected by the global financial crisis. The rupee has declined against the dollar and investments have fallen by 41% causing deficits to increase. State institutions are plagued by corruption, the caste system is still prevalent and inequalities in income continue to rise while welfare services remain meagre causing 350 million people to be living below the poverty line. Due to these reasons, the Indian public is uncertain about the cost effectiveness of investing in Afghanistan.
India’s advancement in its relations with US could cost them regional peace. Pakistan is already antsy with India’s growing presence in Afghanistan, one wonders what it might do if India decides takes over the reins. As recent as April 2012, Pakistan launched a missile soon after India conducted a missile test. Similarly, India doesn’t want to pick a fight with China by openly aligning itself with the US. Iran is a significant supplier of India’s petroleum demands; too much allegiance to America would harm India’s economy.
In a nutshell, domestic and foreign pressures are urging India to play an active role in Afghanistan. Out of the coalition partners, only US will be retaining some training brigades after 2014. Regional powers have to step in or risk the spread of insecurity to their nations. Pakistan’s relations with America tend to oscillate whereas India has proven to be more consistent and helpful. Another point to consider is that out of all the regional powers, India has strong resources to achieve its objectives and is probably at the best possible terms with both the Afghans and the coalition partners. Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian Republics , China and Russia all carry some serious differences with either coalition partners ( mainly the US) and/or the Afghans. Although the situation with Taliban is tricky, recently the militants have warmed up to Indians and even praised their government for not buckling under US pressure. India too has relaxed its stiff stance against the Taliban when it showed willingness for an Afghan-led reconciliation process. In other words, India can easily be expected to assume a dominant role, if not command, the rehabilitation process.
Rather than showing tantrums over India, Pakistan must act reasonably. An unstable Afghanistan would be detrimental to both nations. Pakistan and India should treat this as an opportunity to set aside their differences. Afghanistan can provide trade routes to facilitate investment activities beyond South Asia. Projects like the TAPI gas pipeline project can promote interdependence and harmony in this region. If transparency and boundaries of engagement are properly designed for these projects, there is no reason for concern for the two rivals.
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