India-Afghanistan Relations at present is standing on a crossroads. In April 2020, the United Nations Secretariat held a “6+2+1” group meeting to support peace in Afghanistan which included China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and global players like the US and Russia besides Afghanistan itself. However, India was absent form the meeting even though it has historical and cultural ties with the nation. And this was not the first time that India has remained absent.
India-Afghanistan relations is a matter of serious concern for strategic policy makers in New Delhi. Geographical proximity of Afghanistan makes it a critical chapter in India’s foreign policy. India’s legitimate strategic interest in the country includes its geographical intactness, expansion of economy, and securing the connectivity between India and energy rich Central Asian countries. This article comprehensively analyses the significance of Afghanistan and India’s contribution towards rebuilding and restoring the war-torn state as the embodiment of soft power diplomacy with a long-term goal.
In December 2001, as an instance, the Indian group headed by special envoy Satinder Lambah reached Germany’s Petersberg resort near Bonn, where the renowned Bonn Agreement (officially the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions) was organised, but surprisingly there were no reservations were made for India at the official venue. Back in January 2010, India was invited to attend the “London Conference” on Afghanistan, however, India stepped out of the room in the midst of a critical meeting which decided on opening dialogues with Taliban.
In 2020, the reason cited for keeping India away from regional discussions on Afghanistan was apparently that it does not hold “boundary” with Afghanistan. However, the fact behind keeping India out was that New Delhi never directly declared its support for the U.S – Taliban peace talks. Notwithstanding, given the constructive role played by New Delhi in reconstructing Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted from the country in 2001-2002 after 9/11, Mr. Ashraf Ghani, the present President of Afghanistan, should have had battled for India’s inclusion in the meeting called by the UN. Indeed, if all his fine words of India’s importance to Afghanistan were actually true, he would have lobbied and ensured India’s participation.
India-Afghanistan relations is strengthened by historical and cultural ties. The genesis of this relation goes back to the period of the ‘Great Silk Route’. The Silk Route was a set of interconnected trade routes linking Europe and Asia from the ancient period. The Silk Route not only played a vital role in enhancing trade relations among the nations and the regions but also gradually developed cultural interaction among people. The route had derived its name from the first item of transit trade-Chinese silk. Thereafter the route had ben extensively utilized by great empires such as Kushan Empire, Roman Empire and Mughal Empire.
Since 19th century, Afghanistan has remained at the centre in the global power politics. It is predominantly because of its geo-strategic location and abundance of mineral resources that Afghanistan has been of focal point in the global political agenda of the superpowers. It is a landlocked country situated at the convergence of Central, South and West Asian region – one of the prime geographical junctures of the world. Afghanistan holds a distinctive geo-strategic position in South Asia, which is a significant aspect that helps to shape its history, ethnic diversity, economy and political situation in the region. However, apart from the geo-strategic significance and abundant natural resources, there are several other factors that attracts nation like India and Pakistan to strengthen their relationship with Afghanistan. A stable Afghan government is vital for regional & domestic stability and security for both India and Pakistan.
Historical Significance of Afghanistan in India’s Foreign Policy
India-Afghanistan relations is old as well as comprehensive. While the pre-colonial era was marked by a means of trade link enhancing cultural-historical connections, post-colonial globalized era induce the region to renovate their connections in a new manner by looking for collaboration of strategic equation to fulfil their own national interests; be it economic, geostrategic, political or military.
India’s security interest in Afghanistan originated after Indian flight ‘IC-184’ was hijacked by Pakistani terrorists and taken to Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan in 1999. Post hijack investigations found that it was the Talibans who had funded and trained these terrorists. Subsequently, the first Indian overseas airbase – Ayni in Tajikistan, was established by the Indian government to defend its commercial flights to Europe. India also experienced several security threats during the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan in context of rising Islamic militant groups in Kashmir valley that persuaded India to provide aid in the form of intelligence input to US-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan. The collapse of the Taliban government led India to actively participate in rebuilding efforts of Afghanistan.
There are two aspect in modern sense that have played significant part in India’s rising interest in Afghanistan and its neighbouring region. The first and the foremost being the security & stability of Afghanistan that directly concerns India’s internal security, linking with Pakistan factor and India’s diplomacy to Central Asian policy. India has been suffering from Pakistan sponsored terrorism and Pakistan’s pursuit for a favourable heartland in Afghanistan expandable to Central Asia covering radical Islamist groups. In order to counter, India started to invest in development projects for bringing a change and enhancing the Afghan economy. Since 2001, not less than hundred Indian companies have made huge investments in the Afghan markets. The sectors range from construction to industrial development to pharmacy, health services etc. New Delhi and Kabul have also signed preferential trade agreements for increasing trade and investment in between the two nations. India is the second largest trade partner with respect to export destination of Afghan commodities. Though the trade quantity is below the level, the two nations are attempting to ease the impediments between them. The major obstacles in this regard being the landlock nature of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s transit denial to India.
Secondly, Afghanistan gives the crucial access to energy rich markets of Central Asia, Iran and Russia. India heavily depends on the Gulf countries for imports of crude oil. Additionally, India has also invested and entered trade agreements for sharing energy with two major energy rich nations of Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan being the largest producer of uranium remains one of the most important partners of India among the countries of Central Asia. Moreover, an agreement on development of TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) pipeline project was signed by India. This pipeline will carry energy from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, the project carries significance furthering cooperation, peace and development in the region. As security situations in Afghanistan stands as the major impediment, a secure and stable Afghanistan is vital and foremost requirement for development of the project as well as for the region.
War on Terrorism and India’s Role in Afghanistan
Post 9/11 attacks and war led by the US in Afghanistan an opportunity came to New Delhi to rebuild its ties with Kabul which had collapsed during the Taliban regime between 1996-2001. Since then, India has been significantly contributing towards restoration and rebuilding war torn Afghanistan. It has been actively participating in the process of economic and societal development of common citizens that will bring stability and prosperity in the country as well as in the region at large. New Delhi intends to enhance partnership with the Afghan government by providing assistance in building indigenous institutions and capacity encompassing all potential sectors that are necessary in daily life of common people. In October 2011, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited India, a Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed between the two nations. This agreement reflects New Delhi’s support towards reconstruction of Afghanistan. The agreement is primarily based on multi-faceted relation between India and Afghanistan for cooperation in various spheres including economic, geostrategic and security as well. It further indicates New Delhi’s commitment towards establishing peace, prosperity and stability in Afghanistan during its crucial government transition era. Among the various sectors identified by the Afghan government, India’s assistance widely covers capacity developmental projects, infrastructural projects and community development project.
In order to acquire a substantial image globally and achieve regional hegemony, New Delhi believes that it is crucial to exert influence in South Asia. For long, India has extended and exercised its influence through art & culture, films, music etc. In case of Afghanistan, India’s soft power diplomacy particularly involves winning “hearts & minds” apart from strengthening its political and cultural relations with Afghanistan. Though it might seem that ulterior motive of New Delhi is becoming global power or gaining regional hegemony, it cannot be completely repudiated that focusing on soft power technique has substantially benefitted India in Afghanistan and is backing in building trust and support in the nation.
As a part of construction related projects, India completed building of Afghanistan’s Parliament in Kabul which also includes a library inside the complex; the Salma Dam in Herat province which is presently known as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam; restoration of Stor palace in Kabul; Construction of Zanranj-Delaram road that will help connecting Afghanistan with Chabahar port of Iran. These are a few but very important construction activities led by India in Afghan soil. In addition to these, India have also supplied buses, aircraft and other vehicles and apart from construction and restoration of hospitals, schools, colleges, universities, bore-wells, cold storage warehouse, water reservoirs, toilet & sanitation etc. as part of development projects. Two significant projects on education and health sector includes (i) rebuilding the Habiba High School in Kabul – a more than 1 million USD project and (ii) a provision of 5 million USD for the Afghan Red Crescent Society Programme to treat congenital heart disease in children. These comparatively liberal policies of India in terms of healthcare and education have further attracted the Afghans and widened the relationship between the two nations.
In the field of capacity development projects, scholarships are provided by Indian government to nearly 1000 Afghan students who intends to study in Indian universities. Likewise, India is also providing fellowships to the citizens of Afghanistan for enhancing their knowledge in the field of agriculture and training and scholarships to civil servants and doctors of Afghanistan. In the sector of connectivity and communication, India has set up projects to link 11 provincial capitals with television and telecommunication networks. Further, India also established a electricity transmission line between Pul-e-Khumri and Kabul (a 462 km transmission line between Uzbekistan and Kabul, of which the last 202 km was constructed by Power Grid Corporation of India).
In the field of sports, India has substantially contributed towards development of cricket in Afghanistan. In 2018, Indo-Afghanistan Friendship series was hosted by India in Bengaluru. The series was a milestone for Afghan cricket. Following this series, the Greater Noida Stadium was declared by India as the Afghan team’s official training facility. Later on, the Dehradun International Cricket Stadium and Ekana Stadium in Lucknow was listed as the adopted home ground for the Afghan cricket team. In addition to declaring adopted home grounds for cricket in India, as a part of soft power diplomacy, Indian government also constructed a cricket stadium at Kandahar in Afghanistan beside providing other training and technical facilities.
In addition to above, even Bollywood has also significantly helped India government in its ‘soft power diplomacy’. For a long time, Bollywood has been maintaining a good relationship with the Afghan government and its citizens. It is the Bollywood industry that have played a crucial role in creating people-to people bond which yielded far greater result than any governmental efforts. As a society which has been oppressed with the Taliban’s rules, the Afghans love & cherish Bollywood movies that exhibit exaggerated pictures of Bollywood hero’s and revolve around battling injustice. These films enable themselves to engross into Bollywood’s fantasies and delight in the lifestyle portrayed in the films. Stories like the Kabuliwala by Rabindranath Tagore, portray the cultural links between the two countries, further increasing the bond between the nations.
The films develop a sense of friendship between the Afghans and remind them about the kinship with India. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said that the impact of Bollywood in Afghanistan is much more than even a billion dollars could do. This reveals the depth of soft power influence of Bollywood contributed to in Afghanistan by winning hearts and minds of the citizens.
As India aspires to step into Central Asia through various strategic policies that includes energy, military and economic support, India’s contribution towards a stable and secure Afghan democracy has been benefiting both the regions. As both the nations share common concerns and interest in the region, this has further strengthened the diplomatic relations between the two governments. Moreover, India happens to be a member of several regional forums and dialogues in Afghanistan. One such regional dialogue on Afghanistan is ‘Heart of Asia Process’ , also known as Istanbul Process, which includes India, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. Several western countries including the UN are also defender of this process. This process sets into action counter-narcotics and counterterrorism besides dealing with economic development, natural disasters and regional infrastructure. Apart from these SAARC, SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) etc. are other regional organization where these two nations share podium with other regional countries.
The present Indian policy on Afghanistan is reflective of its rising involvement with countries of Central Asia and Iran. In this regard, an important facet to consider remains regional stability connected with Pakistan factor. Moreover, the current scenario of security and stability in Afghanistan remains very fragile. A crisis is presently prevailing in the country as transition of power is on its way. The continuous terrorist attacks of Taliban, emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US from Taliban as the latter has been rising again has threatened and made security issues complicated in Afghanistan. Considering this scenario, India not participating in the “6+2+1” group meeting and still not being invited to major meetings and deals undermines India’s developmental efforts in Afghanistan. India has used enough soft power to build Afghanistan and now must cash-in the yields or would end up losing similar to what it lost in Iran!