Dialogue April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4
Indo-Afghan Relations in the Contemporary Strategic Environment
Arpita Basu Roy*
The decade following the international intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 facilitated Indian presence in Afghanistan in the form of “effective” aid and assistance which resulted in remarkable goodwill and high appreciation for India and Indian democracy. India’s engagement was also gradually accepted by the international community for the role that she could play in Afghan reconstruction and as a provider of regional stability.1 As a stakeholder, therefore, India’s engagement is supposed to remain crucial even beyond 2014, as India being a rising regional power, would naturally want to make its presence felt through her development initiative and exercise her capabilities, willingness and legitimacy for a long-term engagement in Afghanistan. With the signing of a first-ever agreement on Strategic Partnership in New Delhi on October 4, 2011, Afghanistan and India had entered a ‘scaling up’ in their relationship. However, the extent to which India can actually scale up its partnership with Afghanistan will depend to a great extent on the complex variables affecting Afghanistan, both internally and externally. Afghan President Ghani is on his first official visit to India (April 28/29, 2015) reiterated the need for Indian support in his peace initiatives in the region and underscoring his vision of Afghanistan becoming “a platform for global cooperation, not a place of contentions… (or) a battlefield for proxy wars.”2 India is conscious of the imperative need of the bilateral relationship to contribute positively to peace, stability and development in the region too. This article aims to look into some of the issues that hinge the contemporary bilateral relationship as New Delhi responds to a strategic environment shaped by other actors in the region.
Shared History and Congenial Post-independence Relationship
Afghanistan and India have been linked together through strong bonds of history, culture, civilization and mutuality of interests. Our relations have multiple dimensions and this relationship is not confined to governments only. It is anchored in bonds that exist between our peoples since a very long time.3 The ties are historical and civilizational, dating back even to pre-history. The links helped in the spread of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE and promoted trade ties through the Silk Road.4 The Indian epic Mahabharata mentions many places, rivers and names of tribes and their leaders who took part in the epic battle. Asoka edicts were found there, too, and it is historically true that Afghanistan was the vehicle for the spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and beyond. Apart from the Maurya Empire, which included Afghanistan, and later the Kushans, did much in the spread of Buddhism.5 The advent of Islam created linkages through invasions and conquests which have left indelible mark on our cultural, linguistic, social and religious landscape.6 So there is a shared history, not always a very happy one, as the repeated invasions from the North-West affirm, but shared enough to have created strong bonds of culture.
In the contemporary period, political developments, economic changes and social transformation within Afghanistan remain vital for India. A stable Afghanistan relates to India’s immediate foreign policy objectives of a peaceful periphery, good relations with neighbours, transformation of relations with the major powers and cooperation with the international community on a host of issues, besides being an access hub to central Asia. India has long shared friendly ties with Afghanistan and this has been an unswerving source of concern for the common neighbour, Pakistan.7 Bilateral relations between the Republic of India and the Islamic State of Afghanistan have been traditionally strong and friendly. After the creation of the Pakistani State in August 1947, India’s geographical contiguity with Afghanistan was disrupted, although India always considered Afghanistan to be its neighbour.8 This is because the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Kashmir which borders Wakhan,9 although under Pakistani control, is claimed by India as a border between the nations. In the four decades of King Zahir Shah’s rule (1933-73) and later on when Najibullah’s government (1987-92) was in power in Afghanistan till the advent of Taliban (1996-2001), India had major presence there, providing assistance in fields of education, medical, engineering and defence. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE, India never recognized Taliban’s assumption of power in 1996. With the removal of the Taliban from power in 2001, following the American military intervention, India got the opportunity to re-establish its linkages fairly well. Since then India is engaged in building the partnership through various infrastructure initiatives including the building of human capital. Indian engagement often is subject to attack by forces inimical to Indian presence in the country viz. Pakistan and is negatively perceived to be an attempt to destabilise and encircle Pakistan.
India’s Interests and the Pakistan Factor
Interests and engagement in Afghanistan are influenced not only by its security interests but also by its age old ties and a strategic vision to make it a hub of trade and connectivity. The security interests of India are: not to allow Afghan territory to be used for the destabilization of India. In the past Afghan territory was used to train groups operating in Kashmir. Second objective is to see that radical ideologies do not threaten regional stability; Third, Afghanistan does not emerge as a major theatre for geo-political contest. India rather prefers a consensual approach by the countries in the region to ensure that Afghanistan emerges as a country with a strong central power which is representative and governs independently without outside interference.
On the other hand, Pakistan has always remained concerned that India’s economic and political linkages in the post-2001 are meant to destalize Pakistan. India’s commitment to Afghanistan stands more than 2 billion dollars as of now. Indian projects cover all parts of Afghanistan, in a wide range of sectors, identified by the Afghanistan as priority areas for reconstruction and development. All the projects are undertaken in partnership with the Afghan government, in total alignment with the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, and with focus on local ownership of assets. India’s assistance and development partnership are in 4 broad areas: humanitarian assistance, major infrastructure projects, small and community-based development projects, education and capacity development.
Yet it is widely believed in Pakistan that the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar have been covertly supporting Balochi insurgents against Pakistan. The Indian consulates and embassy in Kabul have been targeted in a number of attacks by Pakistani-linked militant groups. Indian government’s sustained support for perceptibly “anti-Pakistani” forces in Afghanistan is interpreted as “strategic encirclement” by Pakistan. Since early 2010, efforts to lay the groundwork for Afghanistan’s political future have focused increasingly on reconciliation between the Karzai government and some elements of the Taliban.10 Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan all have their own definitions of reconciliation. Having given shelter to Taliban, Pakistan clearly intends to put itself at the center of any reconciliation process. And with Ghani’s coming to power, China is currently being put into a new role of a mediator between the Taliban on the one hand and Afghan government on the other. And for India, any form of rapprochement between the Taliban and the Afghan government though desirable can be troublesome, if its terms are vague.
Under these circumstances, India is primarily and rightly concerned that its engagement and investment in reconstruction activities in Afghanistan may collapse. India is rethinking how best to protect its strategic stake in preventing an upsurge of Islamic extremism and enhancing its economic and political connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, Afghanistan has generally had difficult relations with Pakistan, and it would be unrealistic to expect that this rivalry will not surface time and again but President Ghani is attempting to improve its relations particularly with Pakistan and its army. Considering then leverage with the Taliban. Although it would be in everybody’s interests that regional rivalries should end to give way for connectivity and economic gain, India has is its capacity to help the Afghan economy through both export markets and reconstruction.
Perception of China and Pakistan
China and Pakistan are visibly not happy with Indian role in Afghanistan as they have their suspicions about Indian activities. Since the late 1950s India-China relations have been marked by mutual suspicion, rivalry, and at times overt hostility. But in recent times, both countries seem to handle their relationship pragmatically, giving priority to economic growth and postponing contentious issues such as border disputes. Due to their status as emerging non-Western economies, both countries have common interests vis-à-vis established powers.11 Nevertheless, China remains suspicious about the growing Indo-US proximity and fears encirclement, just as India fears encirclement by a hostile China-Pakistan entente. Both will not easily consent to an extension of Indian influence to the outskirts of Central Asia. At the same time China's interest in a stable Afghanistan will help control Islamic terrorism in its Western province of Xinxiang.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is deeply suspicious of Indian influence across its western border. For much of its history, Pakistan has pursued a policy of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by training, funding, and arming groups that can act as proxies for Pakistani interests. Pakistan is concerned that India’s economic and political linkages are building up Indian capacity to destabilize Pakistan. It is widely believed in Pakistan that the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar are covertly supporting Balochi insurgents against Pakistan. The Indian consulates and embassy in Kabul have been targeted in a number of attacks by Pakistani-linked militant groups. Indian engagement in Afghanistan is interpreted as “strategic encirclement” by Pakistan.12 All this indicates that “security externalities are far more extensive, compelling, and durable” among Afghanistan, Pakistan and India than between them and other countries.
Pakistan, and perhaps to a certain extent China, there is a reluctant acceptance of India’s role which is largely due to a transformation in the relationship between the US and India towards a strategic partnership since the end of the Cold War. Japan, too, is comfortable with Indian engagement. Russian-Indian ties have always been friendly, with India being an important consumer for Russian military exports. As long as India does not have a military presence deep into the Russian sphere of influence—and until now India has been cautious and pragmatic not to make any advance militarily—Russia is likely not to have problems with an Indian role Afghanistan to Central Asia. The same applies to Iran, with which India has enjoyed non-adversorial relationship. So apart from Pakistan and to a certain extent China, no other important state actor perceives India’s role in Afghanistan to be threatening.
Pakistan and China’s Role
At a time of the international drawdown of troops combined with President Ghani’s increasing engagement with Pakistan and China, a crucial question before India seems to be whether India can maintain its relevance in the new emerging power and security calculus in Kabul in the post-2014 phase. Apprehensions started when Ghani made Beijing his first foreign port of call and has since tried to position Pakistan and China as a key strategic actors in Kabul’s attempt at a rapprochement with the Taliban. Thus marked a break from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Ghani in his early foreign policy pronouncements listed five critical “circles” critical for peace in his country of which the first most important circle consisted of immediate neighbours including Pakistan and China. Ghani has also inked a key transit pact with Pakistan, visited Islamabad and has hosted Pakistan’s intelligence and army chiefs on more than one occasion. Also Pakistan–China cooperation on Afghanistan has stepped up. China has reiterated a big role for Pakistan in Afghanistan and said that Pakistan has special leverage and irreplaceable role in resolving the issue of Afghanistan. They said that they are looking for a broad-based national reconciliation with various political forces including the Taliban. Ghani’s visit to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China and his March 2015 visit to the United States has further been interpreted by analysts in New Delhi as India’s declining influence in Kabul or an altered role till President Ghani’s efforts to cultivate. Although Ghani maintains that he is cautiously optimistic about his relations with Pakistan. Following the Taliban attacks on the army school in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistan is looking at expanding their counter-terrorism cooperation with Afghanistan, with the latter’s support forming a critical part of Islamabad’s strategy to eliminate the threat from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)..13 The other parameters of Afghan-Pakistan cooperation are the training of Afghan cadets in Pakistan’s Military Academy (PMA) in Abbottabad. In February 2015, the first batch of six Afghan cadets arrived at PMA to undergo an 18-month long course. Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister and its army chief have visited Kabul carrying what were described as messages of support and cooperation. The army offered to help train Afghan soldiers and provide equipment for an entire infantry brigade.14 In addition, seen as a move to allay Pakistani anxiety of increased Indian involvement in the security sector, Ghani had put aside his predecessor’s military aid requests from India.
Ceasefire and Immunity
The Afghan government is all poised to begin peace talks with the Taliban aimed at violent insurgency. Afghan officials are optimistic over Pakistan’s powerful military’s backing for talks and its intention to force Afghan Taliban leaders and foot soldiers from their safe havens in Pakistan if they resist talking with Kabul. Over the past decade, Kabul has consistently blamed Islamabad for being the principal foreign backer of the Taliban and has asked for its support in direct talks. Now, despite the likely start of formal peace negotiations, Afghanistan’s unity government will have to haggle hard with the Taliban to reach a lasting settlement. The first major test of the peace process will be for both sides to halt hostilities. Currently, most of the Taliban’s propaganda is focused on calls to inflict damage on Afghan forces, who in turn pride themselves on eliminating the Taliban. The resolve of the two sides will be tested in spring, when traditional fighting season begins in Afghanistan. For example, hundreds of Taliban fighters have attacked police and army checkpoints around Kunduz city in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz on April 27, 2015, which has seen several Taliban attacks.15 So insurgent attacks continue to threaten Afghanistan’s political and security landscape making it one of the most dangerous terrain to be in.
Even after years of international intervention, Afghanistan still remains at the vortex of security implications for the region and beyond and is undergoing a “triple transition”- political, security and economic. The question of the survival of the fragile political arrangement in Afghanistan or the possibilities of the return of the Taliban leading to another round of ethnic mobilization, the uncontrollable drug trade, the illegal economy and proxy war fuelled by Afghanistan’s neighbours are other major concerns. Due to Afghanistan’s security situation, India remains uncertain about a 10 billion U.S. dollar project in an iron-ore and steel project in Hajigak The government remains rife with corruption and ethno political tensions among its major factions are ever present. Its recent elections have been marred by allegations of vast fraud and resulting post-election political crises
Afghanistan is undergoing inteqal – the Dari and Pashtu word for transition – the process by which the lead responsibility for security in Afghanistan was gradually transitioned from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Launched in 2011, the transition process was completed by the end of 2014, when ISAF completed its mission. Following the end of ISAF’s mission, support for the further development of the ANSF is continuing under a new, smaller non-combat NATO-led mission (“Resolute Support”). A volatile Afghanistan confronting the uncertainties of an international troop withdrawal, economic crisis and apprehensions of internal power struggle poses risks to various regional and extra-regional actors.
US Strategy: Delaying Withdrawal
With the prospect of a tough spring fighting season on the horizon, Islamic State militants trying to recruit on Afghan soil and other security concerns, the US will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. The White House announced during President Ghani’s visit to the USA that the US will keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan throughout 2015, delaying plans for a gradual withdrawal.16 But despite ongoing security issues there, Mr Obama has promised to end America’s longest war by the end of his term. The toxic relationship between Presidents Obama and Karzai has been replaced by something much warmer with Ashraf Ghani. The White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, earlier had told reporters that there continues to be around 10,000 US military personnel in Afghanistan, fulfilling two important functions, viz. counterterrorism operations where necessary, and to train, advise and equip ANSF.
Recent developments including the suspension of a request by the new government made for heavy weaponry by former President Hamid Karzai from India, followed by India’s rejection of an Iranian demand to increase investment on the trilateral transport infrastructure project with Iran and Afghanistan raised eyebrows in the policy and academic circles. Some analysts feel that India is being marginalised and considers this as an apparent effort by Kabul to soothe the feelings of Pakistan. Ashraf Ghani’s visit has however tried to dispel the chill in the relationship where he has emphasized that the relationship is marked by “thousand ties and millions of memories.”17 Ghani tried to drum up investments and commerce and India has given reciprocal support for the Afghan peace process.18
India has developed stakes in Afghanistan over the past decade. India’s attempt to influence the course in Afghanistan is informed by its core interests as a multi-religious and multi-ethnic State to modulate and contain extremist polarization on religious or ethnic lines. Specifically that means denying political legitimacy and military space to extremists; pitting New Delhi against Rawalpindi. New Delhi has deployed a range of strategies to secure its interests: unveiling its biggest aid program (US $2 billion), qualified softening of its stand on negotiating with the Taliban, warming up to Tehran, rekindling dialogue with Pakistan and keeping intact its Northern card. New Delhi’s high stakes are underscored in the inking of the Strategic Partnership Agreement.
The options for India will be to make common cause with other outside powers whose goals in Afghanistan are close to India’s. Russia, Central Asia and Iran fall into this category. So does the United States. Only if the international community remains engaged in Afghanistan, will India’s engagement and reconstruction activities remain meaningful and effective in the long run. As part of the Istanbul Process and the New Silk Road other Chinese initiatives, India should proactively participate in all the projects linked to Afghanistan’s stability, economic prosperity and reconstruction. India would want to see that the landscape of destruction should change and that Afghanistan should not be a battleground for competing national interests.
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Cooperation and Afghanistan’s
Cooperative Advantage”, 16th Sapru House lecture at the Indian Council of World Affairs, 28 April, 2015.
Remarks by Ambassador Rajiv K. Bhatia, Director General, ICWA at Sixteenth Sapru
House Lecture by
H.E. Mr. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at Sapru House, New Delhi
28 April, 2015.
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The author in conversation with Ambassador IP Kholsla, Former Indian Ambassador
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is an area in far north-eastern Afghanistan which forms a land link or
“corridor” between Afghanistan and
China. The Corridor is a long and slender panhandle or salient, roughly 220 km long and between 16 and 64 km
wide. It separates Tajikistan in the north from Pakistan in the south.
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14. “Ashraf Ghani visit may mark new chapter in Afghan-Pakistan relations”, The Guardian, 14 November, 2014.
15. “Afghan troops attacked by Taliban insurgents around northern city of Kunduz”, Deutsche Welle, 2015.
Ghani visit: US to slow Afghan troops withdrawal”, BBC News, March 24, 2015.
M Reyaz, “Afghanistan Prez’s visit: Ghani dispels India’s concern over his
govt’s pro-Pakistan tilt”, Firstpost,
April 29, 2015.
18. Sean Mclain, “Ashraf Ghani Finds Challenge on India Visit”, The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2015.
*Ms. Arpita Basu Roy, is a Fellow with the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), Kolkata.