Recalibrating India’s Role in Afghanistan

India has been an important player in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of conflict-ridden Afghanistan, which continues to rile under an uncertain security scenario amidst the international drawdown. However, despite being one of the largest bilateral aid donors to Afghanistan in the civilian sector, there seems to be no consensus in New Delhi on what could impart greater strategic heft to its role there. Despite New Delhi’s unwavering support for a stable and secure Afghanistan, the specifics of the strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan have often been found wanting.

Given India’s adversarial relationship with China and Pakistan, Kabul’s recent ploys with Beijing and Islamabad have been closely watched in New Delhi. After coming to power in September 2014, President Ashraf Ghani initially made efforts to reinvigorate relations with Islamabad and Beijing at the cost of undermining India-Afghanistan ties. Ghani undertook his first state visit to China in October 2014, where the emphasis was on cooperation in the strategic, economic, and technical domains. Immediately after, Ghani visited Pakistan, where he met with the military and civilian authorities to enhance security cooperation—with some emphasis on improvement of economic ties between the two countries. Moreover, with the new government’s interest in rekindling talks with the Taliban, efforts were geared towards nudging China and Pakistan to do more by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Following Track II talks in Doha, Dubai, Oslo, and Urumqi, the Murree talks were the first direct talks between a Taliban delegation and representatives of the Afghan government and High Peace Council, with China and the United States as observers and Pakistan as guarantor. However, after the announcement of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death, the Taliban called off the second round of talks. As the number of attacks in Afghanistan increased, questions were raised on Pakistan’s ability and willingness to rein in the violent extremism that was paralyzing Afghanistan’s peace and security. Pakistan’s claims of “some influence” over the Taliban culminated in a deteriorating state of Kabul-Islamabad dynamics.

Meanwhile, Ghani began to turn over a new leaf in his approach to India. Since CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s visit in February 2015, followed by Ghani’s trip in April, ties between the two countries have moved ahead in a favorable manner. The priority that is accorded to the relationship can be observed through events like the high profile visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Afghanistan in December 2015 and June 2016. During his visits, Narendra Modi inaugurated two highly visible India-funded projects, namely the Afghan Parliament and the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam. In May 2016, India and Afghanistan also signed a trilateral transit and trade corridor agreement, or the Chabahar Port Agreement, along with Iran. Additionally, an initial investment agreement has been reached for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which is supposed to be completed by December 2019. Recently, the Indian government has also pledged another $25 million in aid to Afghanistan towards the implementation of micro-development projects.

Despite India being perceived as a sustainable and reliable donor for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, opinions in India regarding what lies ahead in the relationship differ. While New Delhi’s policy of non-interference can be seen as a positive that has led to general goodwill towards India in Afghanistan, India’s absence from the political dialogue for the future of Afghanistan makes it a secondary player in terms of shaping things to come. New Delhi’s aversion to talks with the Taliban has often been read as a principle cast in stone.

However, Beijing’s inclusion in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which also includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States and hopes to bring meaningful talks with the Taliban, portends the shifting sand of external players’ involvement in Afghanistan. In this context, creating various fora that include space for India have been proposed, such as the QCG along with India, Iran, and the Central Asian states or the QCG members along with India, Iran, and Russia. A forum made up of India, Russia, China, the European Union, Japan, and the United States has been identified as integral to guide the economic aspects of Afghanistan’s transformation.

One of the most contentious yet critical elements of the India-Afghanistan relationship remains the scope of defense cooperation. Recently, India transferred three Mi-25 attack helicopters to Kabul. In addition, the India is to provide training to Afghan security institutions to enhance the latter’s limited capabilities. With India’s large-scale projects already completed or nearing completion, India’s soft power approach has hit a ceiling, thus necessitating a ‘smart power’ approach. India must scale up its military equipment transfers to Afghanistan with the final goal of strengthening the Afghan government’s authority and legitimacy. In fact, at the United Nations Security Council debate on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recently, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin said: “Afghanistan has our full support for strengthening its defense capabilities.”

Additionally, the potential of India-Afghanistan trade has been seriously constrained by Pakistan’s refusal to allow the use of its territory for transit. In this context, the Chabahar Port Agreement, which seeks to circumvent the Pakistani land barrier, is significant. However, India’s desire for inclusion in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) has received stimulus with the agreement between Kabul and Islamabad to revise APPTA, which will allow Afghan trucks to carry goods up to Wagah, and unlike the present state of affairs, to carry goods from India and Pakistan back to Afghanistan. Though this is conditioned on Pakistan gaining access to Central Asia through Tajikistan. India has shown its readiness to join APTTA during the Heart of Asia meeting, an inclusion which will ensure cost effective and mutually beneficial transit of goods between Afghanistan and India via Pakistan. However, the revision of the Agreement awaits fruition.

Afghanistan, recipient of the largest program of Indian assistance, has also been a learning curve for donor India. In the realm of development assistance, India’s dedicated involvement and understanding of the priorities of a recipient country like Afghanistan has been commendable. However, issues like cost overruns, inadequate allocations, and overall delays have to be mitigated to amplify the impact of India’s development assistance projects. This will serve to strengthen the favorable image that Afghans have of India, finally culminating in a narrative that supports India’s presence.

In the speech following the inauguration of the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, Prime Minister Modi stated that “India will not forget or turn away.” This statement clearly implies the priority that New Delhi accords to the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership and emphasizes that it will stay the course. However, in the midst of uncertainties and the crowded theater that Afghanistan has become for a number of stakeholders, New Delhi faces the challenge of figuring out what it wants in Afghanistan and what it is willing to do.

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Image 1: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr

Image 2: Mir Ahmad Firooz-Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Policy, Politics, Strategic Culture, Trade, Treaty

Monish Tourangbam

Monish Tourangbam

Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka, India. He is also the Coordinator of the North East Studies Centre, Manipal University. Previously, he was Associate Fellow at the Centre for International Relations, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He has a Ph. D. from the Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). He has also worked on the U.S. role in Afghanistan as a part of a Net Assessment Project between ORF and the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), and was a participant at the Asia Foundation’s 2016 South Asia workshop on Asian Views of America's Role in Asia.

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Nandita Palrecha

Nandita Palrecha

Nandita Palrecha is an independent strategic analyst based in Mumbai, India. She completed her M.A in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal University. Her masters dissertation attempted to study the linkages between security and development in Afghanistan. She was an intern at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. She has a B.A. in Economics from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. Her interests lie in studying peace and conflict resolution, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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2 thoughts on “Recalibrating India’s Role in Afghanistan

  1. Interesting. But till the time perceptional gap between India and Pakistan is not bridged, which exists due to unresolved disputes like Kashmir, Delhi’s influence in Kabul would be viewed with deep skepticism by Islamabad. This schism over territorial disputes would pose a persistent dilemma for the regional stability.

    Therefore, under this environment of mistrust Afghanistan would become as a lucrative launching pad for India to intensify its proxy war inside troubled areas of Pakistan. Peace and stability are likely to resonate only as buzz word under the fear of nuclear exchange till the time New Delhi doesn’t respond warmly to Islamabad’s proposal of bilateral dialogue for resolution of disputes on one pretext or another.

  2. The QCG is like a showpiece constructed by Pakistan to thrust its vision on Afghanistan with the help of friends. China was never a player of influence in Afghanistan but being forcefully thrust into that role. The real influential players in Afghanistan have been Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India. By keeping three of the four influential players out of the loop, we can confidently say nothing will be achieved except purchase of some breathing time. Why China has been drawn into this game of ping pong, remains uncertain.

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