By Shakti Sinha
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Kabul on December 25th to jointly inaugurate the parliament building built by the Indian government with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. His visit was a big hit in the Afghan media, especially on social media. The government of Afghanistan decided to name one of the blocks of the building after former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had offered to build this powerful symbol of democracy as a sign of Afghanistan-India friendship and partnership. It was in Vajpayee’s time that India re-engaged with Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US intervention that dislodged the Taliban in late 2001. The pace of engagement accelerated almost immediately, and despite fatal attacks on Indian targets including diplomats, development staff and projects, has maintained its momentum.
- That India has emerged as a major development partner, arguably the fifth-largest bilateral donor over the 14 year period, to Afghanistan should not have come as a surprise to analysts who have worked on Afghanistan on the ground. India’s development partnership with Afghanistan goes back to the 1950s, and till transit trade through Pakistan was not an issue, India was Afghanistan’s largest export market for dry fruits. The civil war (1992–96) and subsequent Taliban rule caused a break, however, India did extend humanitarian assistance through UN agencies.India’s total commitment for the reconstruction of Afghanistan is US $2 billion, with more than half disbursed. It has funded/co-funded three very important infrastructure projects: the construction of the 218 km road from Delaram to Zaranj which gives Afghanistan access to an alternate port, Chahbahar in Iran; it has reconstructed and expanded the Salma Dam which would produce 42 MW of power and irrigate 75,000 hectares of land when fully commissioned by mid-2016. India has co-funded and built transmission towers over the Hindu Kush as part of the Northern Electric Power System (NEPS) that has brought electricity to Kabul and other areas. Some of the key Indian projects are the following: –
- Food assistance to primary school children and construction and rehabilitation of Schools ($321 million disbursed),
- Supply of 250,000 tonnes of wheat,
- Construction of a power line from Pul – i – Khumri to Kabul ($120 million),
- Annual scholarships to study in India – higher education (initially 500 per year, increased to 675 and then to 1000),
- Construction of Delaram-Zaranj road ($150 million),
- Construction of the Salma Dam Power Project (US $200 million),
- Construction of the parliament building ($27 million disbursed; budget $178 million), and
- Small Development Projects, initially in the South East, and then extended all over the country (final budget would be over US $130 million)
This is just a sample of India’s development partnership with the Afghan people and government. Yet, when the Afghan peace process has resumed at Islamabad, besides Afghanistan, the other three nations involved are Pakistan, the US and China. Predictably, many Indian observers are upset that this Quad has been created instead of a Pentagon to include India. Others may even fantasise a Quad with India but minus Pakistan. The question that arises is—has India lost the plot in Afghanistan? Has the commitment of US $2 billion in development assistance and actual expenditure of a little less than US $1.5 billion been a waste? Has the Modi government been totally outmanoeuvred by Pakistan insofar as Afghanistan is concerned?
The answer is an unequivocal ‘no’ and there is no need for Indians to get disheartened by the developments on the Afghan front. Both India and Afghanistan are victims of Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism, which while manageable in India’s case, is an existential threat to Pakistan. An unintended fall-out of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was to allow Pakistan to become the key arbiter in Afghan affairs. The US actively supported by Saudi Arabia and China armed different Afghan jihadi groups to take on the Russians; they also accepted Pakistan’s condition that all arms and support would flow to its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) who would decide on what to give to the different groups. Post-Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan was unable to install its favourite, the Hizbul-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as Afghanistan’s pre-eminent leader. It then shifted its substantial support to the rising jihadi group from Kandahar, the Taliban. The ouster of the Taliban in 2001 was huge setback to Pakistan’s plans in the region, but it was able to convince the Americans about its utility in the war on Terrorism and in the bargain, in the bargain it recreated the Taliban on its soil and went about destabilising Afghanistan.
There are three more factors, which must be factored in to better understand the objective circumstances of India’s Afghan policy. Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group, around 40% of the population, but there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, with strong cross-border social and economic links joining them. Two, millions of Afghans, predominantly Pashtuns, took refuge in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion and the civil war, and while most have returned, millions have stayed back. This further blurs national boundaries and sovereignty. Three, Afghanistan is a land-locked country and the two countries not only share a long border. These historical, social, cultural, economic and geographical factors limit India’s ability to work with the Afghan State as it seeks to stabilise and develop Afghanistan.
Ashraf Ghani, when he became President, made it his policy to engage Pakistan as he understood that the road to peace in Afghanistan went through Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistan army. They had to be on board, either way. He, therefore, approached China, which is the only country to have leverage over the Pakistan army, and then went directly to Rawalpindi. He also kept on hold his predecessor’s request for security assistance from India. The resultant Pakistan-led peace process came to nought once it was clear that the Taliban negotiators had no locus standi with Mullah Omar who has been dead for two years. Pakistan’s perfidy stood exposed, and became worse with the stepped up violence in Afghanistan that costs many civilian lives.
At this juncture Ghani approached India for security assistance. Modi to his credit responded positively though many analysts had raised doubts about Ghani’s motivations. Was he approaching India out of conviction or in desperation? India rightly ignored this question since it was immaterial. In any case unknown to the public since the media does not report positive developments, the Modi government had reviewed in detail the pace of progress of India’s development projects in Afghanistan. The parliament building and the reconstruction/expansion of the Salma dam came up short. Bureaucratic snafus were sorted out, updated project reports were prepared and adequate financial sources were provided for. But for these steps, both the projects would have continued to drag on to the utter embarrassment of those Afghans who see India as a reliable friend.
Detailed inter-government talks were held in November–December 2015 with the visits of the Afghan National Security Advisor (Hanif Atmar) and the Deputy Foreign Minister (Hekmat Karzai), and India’s positive response led to the Afghan invitation to the Prime Minister Modi to inaugurate their Parliament building. The significance of this was not lost on the Afghans and their neighbours— for a democratic country, its Parliament is not just a building but is an institution that embodies the spirit of the nations as it is here that its elected representatives decide the course of the nation. To invite a foreigner to jointly inaugurate it with their president is the highest honour that a country can bestow.
On the occasion of the visit, India also handed over to Afghanistan four Mi 25 helicopter gunships, known as ‘flying tank’ that would give the Afghan National Security Forces much needed firepower to confront the Taliban.
India also demonstrated that it was a reliable friend of Afghanistan when it deputed External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the Heart of Asia Summit in Islamabad, the Afghanistan-centred Istanbul Process where India has the lead on capacity development and building synergies between national chambers of commerce. This had the ‘bonus’ advantage of allowing leaders of India and Pakistan to meet on the sidelines of this multilateral summit. This was nimble-footed diplomacy that was as much substantial as it was optics—both essential components of international affairs.
One must also understand the current peace initiative, or Quad. Afghanistan is heavily dependent on the US for its security and financial requirements, and cannot afford to go against express American advice. Unfortunately, for Afghanistan the US’s default option is to outsource its Afghan policy to Pakistan, which represents to them a systemically far more important country. The US’s priorities are clear—roll-back ISIS and manage China’s rise. The developing Saudi-Iran spat could spiral out of control, leaving US policy in the region in tatters. Afghanistan is a distraction it can do without. Hence, they leaned on Ghani, not directly but through David Cameron. For Ghani, it was an offer he could not refuse.
For the region, China is the dark horse whose attitude and actions could be decisive, in addition to that of the US. It remains committed to Pakistan, despite occasional doubts that its fears the latter’s jihadi infection could drag down Xinjiang. This hope that China would rein in Pakistan is over-emphasised. China’s response to the Pathankot attack is instructive; it condemned the attack and hoped that it would not derail the India-Pakistan dialogue. It, pointedly, did not ask Pakistan to take action against the groups behind the attack or to act on India’s handing over evidence.
Looking forward, one must understand that India has very substantial goodwill in Afghanistan. Public pressure in Afghanistan led to the government renaming it as the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam. This project is seen as hugely liberating western Afghanistan from dependence on foreign supply, will ensure reliable and consistent electric supply and has the potential to economically transform the region. Similarly, the naming of one of the blocks of the new parliament building as Atal block in honour of former Indian prime minister is symbolic in a country where symbols are very important. A photo tweet showing the parliament building as India’s gift and another photo showing the destroyed Dar-ul -Aman palace in Kabul as Pakistan’s gift went viral in the Afghan social media. Over 10,000 Afghan youths have come to India’s on scholarship for higher education, and around the same number, using their own money. More than 7,000 have gone back to their country after studying in India. It must be remembered that India is the largest regional development partner; by contrast China’s support till date has been only US $125 million. The present writer can speak from personal experience that quite often India is seen as a role model in Afghanistan, both for firmly establishing democracy and for its economic achievements.
Soft power is important but it has its limitations. It cannot substitute for hard power, and is most effective in conjunction with the latter, not in lieu of it. However, it must be remembered that fundamentally, Afghan goals and that of Pakistan are irreconcilable. The Pakistani army, which calls the shots insofar as that country’s policies on India, Afghanistan and nuclear weapons are concerned, cannot settle for anything less than client state in Afghanistan. Its professed fear of an India-Afghanistan axis is a smokescreen for that. Worse, a plural, democratic Afghanistan at peace with itself is an existential threat for the garrison state that Pakistan has become. With two plural, peace-loving democracies on its eastern and western borders would question the whole rationale for the Pakistani army’s hegemony over domestic policies and recourses. Pakistan’s willingness, and ability, to rein in its jihadis who carry out terrorists attacks in India and destabilise Afghanistan is highly suspect.
Throughout this period, especially when Ghani seemed to have relied excessively on the Pakistani army to deliver, even given up almost all his cards, India acted with model restraint, as it did not want to be made a scapegoat in case things went wrong, which it had to. And in case, Pakistan could deliver peace in Afghanistan, this was to be welcomed. Going ahead, India must continue to display such mature reactions, not get carried away by unnecessary fears of being marginalised, and continue to support the legitimate Afghan government’s efforts to bring peace, stability and development to its people.
(The author is former Jt. Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, Power & Finance Secretary Govt. Of Delhi, Advisor to the Government of Afghanistan)