The US Congress this past week slashed the development aid for Afghanistan for the fiscal year 2014 by 50 percent. Although US officials have stated that they are working out mechanisms by which the overall civilian assistance to Afghanistan is not significantly hurt, it has long been feared that the international military drawdown from Afghanistan will also have an impact on international aid. The US aid of $1.12 billion is likely to reduce even further from 2015 onwards. It is against a backdrop of such looming future uncertainties that President Hamid Karzai is doing what he can to shore up external support for Afghanistan before he vacates his office in April this year. In the last 12 months itself he visited India and Iran twice and China once.
Iran and India have contributed substantially towards the reconstruction of Afghanistan over the past decade or so, and China has invested in two large projects – Mes Aynak Copper mines in Logar province and the Amu Darya River Basin in the north. It is natural that Afghanistan is expecting these countries to continue, if not expand, their level of engagement with Afghanistan in the future. However, at this stage, it seems highly unlikely that any of these countries will be able to even sustain their engagement with Afghanistan post-2014, let alone increase it any further. Iran and Indian involvement in Afghanistan has been possible only as a result of the security provided by foreign forces. Post-2014 and in the absence of adequate security it is going to be difficult for them to continue their reconstruction efforts. India has already begun to scale-down the allocation of monetary and human resources to Afghanistan, and is finding it difficult to even complete some ongoing projects. India’s project at the Hajigak iron-ore mines is also said to have been delayed on account of such future uncertainties.
In China’s case, its contribution towards the country’s reconstruction has been quite small even with the presence of foreign troops. Although its two flagship projects, if and when completed, will be huge sources of revenue for Afghanistan, work on both has been far from satisfactory. While the oil extraction at Amu Darya was stopped in August 2013, China has been reluctant to even start work on the copper mines preferring to assess the security situation in the region post-2014. Apart from this China’s investments in Afghanistan have been miniscule – during Karzai’s visit to Beijing in 2013, China pledged only US$ 32 million as aid – and it is highly doubtful that it would increase its engagement substantially post-2014.
This problem is compounded by the fact that none of these countries are going to contribute towards enhancing security in Afghanistan. China’s security engagement with Afghanistan has been restricted to the provision of limited training to the Afghan National Police and as yet there are no indications to suggest that it will do anything more.
Similarly, Iran has not provided any military aid to the ANSF nor has Kabul made any requests to this effect. The complexity of Iran-US relations is likely to deter Afghanistan from seeking closer military ties with Iran even though Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West has not prevented the two from enjoying strong socio-economic ties. Military aid from Tehran may be the red line for Washington with respect to Afghanistan-Iran relations.
Opposition to Iran playing a larger role in the military sector is likely to come from within Afghanistan as well. Iran’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, as it is, have been met with a great degree of suspicion. Its attempts to co-opt Afghan educational, religious and media institutions to further its interests in Afghanistan have been seen as being tantamount to interference in the country’s internal affairs. Moreover, Iran’s links with the Taliban and its alleged involvement in sabotaging the construction of dams in western Afghanistan are now being seen as a serious threat to Afghan security. There have been growing calls to limit the spread of Iranian influence in the country.
Finally, the possibility of India filling the security vacuum in Afghanistan is very limited. The idea of sending troops into Afghanistan is a non-starter. India has restricted itself to the training of ANSF personnel and the provision of equipment. However, on both counts, India’s contribution is wanting. The total troops trained by India is extremely small, especially given its own capacity to provide training and that the envisioned end strength of the ANSF is 350,000. India, up till recently, had shown no signs of fulfilling Hamid Karzai’s request for lethal weapons. However, recent media reports suggest that India and Russia may cooperate in providing the equipment on the president’s ‘wish list’. The details of this plan are still unclear and how much military aid this will translate into remains to be seen.
President Karzai cannot be blamed for seeking support from regional countries at this crucial juncture. However, as critical as support from these countries may be for Afghanistan, it cannot and should not be seen as an alternative to US assistance. The durability of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the sustainability of the ANSF are contingent to a large degree on prolonged US support for the cause. China, Iran and India are capable of complementing such efforts but are definitely not in a position to lead them.