Dialogue  April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4


Afghanistan : India’s Gateway to Central Asia

Nirmala Joshi*



India’s neighbourhood in its western part is in a state of flux. A new geopolitical situation is emerging in the wake of withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan, whose contours are not clear. Whatever be its shape, it will have ramifications on security, strategic, political and economic interests of India and other stake holders in the region’s stability and peace. Afghanistan has undergone political transition with President Ashraf Ghani assuming the Presidency. Hopefully the power sharing deal between President Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah is in the interest of the country’s political future, and if not disrupted by forces inimical to democracy. All the stake holders in peace and stability in Afghanistan should support President Ghani’s efforts to consolidate democracy.  At the same time insurgency has provrd to be a resilient force. The recent violent events in Kabul and elsewhere indicate that insurgency is alive and active. If past experience is anything to go by, it is not easy to wipe out insurgency, unless their financial and other supports are plugged. The future role of residual International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is still not clear. In short, the region is heading towards uncertainty

    By the turn of the century, India’s ‘strategic vision’ broadened considerably, and went beyond its South Asia centric focus. The wider Asian region is part of this strategic vision. India’s increasing multifaceted interests in Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) were part of this broadening strategic vision. In Indian perception, Afghanistan and the CARs belonged to the same geopolitical space. Consequently, Indian core interests were a stable independent, democratic and a modern Afghanistan, that would exert positive and similar impulses on the CARs, who are still in their transformation process.

       Besides, being perceived as a ‘rising power’, India wants to actively participate in the trend towards globalization. Trade, investments and people to people contacts have gathered momentum. In this changing scenario, transport and energy corridors have assumed tremendous significance. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 the vast Eusrasian space rich in natural reosurces, minerals etc. was opened up. The countries in this vast space are landlocked, and hence overland corridors have become absolutely necessary to reach out to them. Moreover, sea commerce was getting congested as well as risky. The overland routes offered an alternative to sea commerce. Linked with this trend is also another momentous one; the tendency towards regionalism and free trading blocs. As a consequence, economic factors have also become an integral component of India’s vision. In the light of India’s growing interests in the region, a brief analysis of these interests would be in order.


Indian Interests

After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 by the USA led ISAF, India was not only able to restore its traditional ties of friendship and cordiality with Afghanistan, but also its involvement in Afghan reconstruction effort increased phenomenally. It was involved in developmental activity

and capacity building efforts such as infrastructure projects, education, health care facilities, small and medium scale community development projects. A substantial number of Afghan security personnel were being trained in India. A debate ensued among Indian academic and strategic community, journalists and others about the future of India’s role in the post 2014 scenario. The issue at hand was; should India enhance its role in Afghanistan or should it keep its domestic situation in mind, and not increase its profile there? Pakistan’s stubborn resistance to any Indian role in Afghanistan remains an abiding strategic factor.

      In view of the evolving situation, India’s core interest of stability, independence, democracy and security of Afghanistan necessitates an   increased engagement with Afghanistan. It should not be forgotten that the first terror attack was on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008, in which several Indians were killed including two high ranking officials. In October 2009, another terror attack was carried out. These are pointers that India would continue to be targeted by terrorists. India would have to counter this challenge to its interests in an appropriate manner or remain a silent bystander. Simply put it implied an active and an enhanced role for India, though military action was ruled out.

       Inextricably linked with peace and stability in Afghanistan are India’s deep and abiding interests in the CARs also. The CARs are part of India’s extended/strategic neighbourhood. The Strategic Partnership Agreements with Afghanistan in 2011, Kazakhstan in 2009, Uzbekistan in 2011 and Tajikistan in 2012 are an eloquent testimony to India’s growing interests in the region. The Three Central Asian States share boundaries with Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Since Afghanistan and the CARs are part of the same geopolitical space, any destabilization of Central Asia would be detrimental to Indian interests. In essence, it is an ideological struggle; a struggle between the notion of a ‘strategic integrated region’ oriented towards religion and an open and democratic polities on the other hand. India’s economic interest have also grown substantially. Accessing the natural resources of Central Asia, especially its energy resources and Afghanistan’s mineral wealth have become important factors in India’s engagement with the region. Besides the region could fast emerge as a vast market for Indian goods, technology and investments. With the possibility of India signing the agreement with the Customs Union in which Russia is the leading member, India can give substance and content to its Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with the CARs. On the other hand the CARs have also reached a stage in their development where they could benefit with their engagement with India. It would add substance to the southern vector of their foreign policies.

       Another compelling factor is the growing China-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is apparent, that, a subtle competition for presence and influence between China and India is emerging in the region. Aware that Pakistan could play a pivotal role in its ambitions, China has turned a ‘Nelson Eye ‘to its links with the insurgents groups located on its territory. Projected as major powers in Asia, a competitive element is now part of India-China relationship. Given Pakistan’s troubled relations with India, their divergent perspectives on Afghanistan, border disputes between India and Pakistan and India and China, Chinese cooperation with Pakistan in all spheres can be interpreted as a part of this competition.

    However, Indian engagement is stymied due to absence of direct land connectivity with the region. The prospect of linking Central Asia with South Asia through Afghanistan provides excellent opportunities to all sides to increase their engagement with each other. In this context Afghanistan’s emergence as the ‘land bridge’ linking Central Asia with South Asia could be of critical significance.


The Ancient Trade Route

In the past, the ancient trade route from the Indian subcontinent passed through Afghanistan. At that time also Afghanistan was the hub of trade and transit routes. From Afghanistan one branch went westwards via present day Turkmenistan to the Black sea; one branch went in the southern direction towards Persia, again through Turkmenistan and one went northwards towards Central Asia. This ancient trade route carried prized items from the Indian subcontinent such as; gems, ivory , Kashmiri Shawls and spices. The trade route brought peace and prosperity to the region. Apart from prosperity it also led to mingling of cultures enriching them in the process. In today’s context a trade and transit, and transport and energy corridors can bring significant profits to the countries in the region in terms of transit revenues. The Istanbul Process or the ‘Heart of Asia ‘Conference of November 2011 recognised this fact and envisages Afghanistan’s emergence as the land bridge to Euraisa. Afghanistan located in the centre of Asia could bring about interconnectedness between regions. A stable Afghanistan has the potential to emerge as a prosperous and economically developed country, and from that perspective its emergence as the ‘land bridge to Euraisa’ is possible, as well as imperative. For India, this transport corridor depends on Pakistan’s concurrence to allow Indian goods to pass through its territory. Pakistan’s policy has been exclusive, that is, to exclude India from the transport network.

       Nevertheless, the recognition of Afghanistan as the land bridge  to Eurasia  is indeed significant, as it would dispel centuries old notion of perceiving Afghanistan as a “Buffer ‘or an intermediate zone. Today it is being viewed as a connector, linking neighbouring regions; the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. For India, Afghanistan is the key to reach out to Central Asia and beyond. Since Pakistan’s obstructionist policy has denied India access to Afghanistan and beyond, what are the other opions for India to reach to the region? Evidently, strategic considerations, for the time being seem to overshadow socio-economic imperatives. 


What are India’s Other Options?

In the prevailing situation, the best option for India is to reach out to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Iran.  Located on the Persian Gulf, Iran has two good natural ports; one at Bandar Abbas and the other one at Chah Bahar. This is not the first time that India and Iran have cooperated on the issue of a transport route to Central Asia; for  instance the Tripartite Agreement between India, Iran and Turkmenistan was signed in 1997. For reasons not clear, this corridor did not take off, although Iran and Turkmenistan have carried out several road and railway projects, some of which are already operational. Connecting the two countries, in 2003 during Iranian President Khatami’s visit to India, the two countries signed an agreement to allow Indian goods bound for Afghanistan and Central Asia a preferential treatment and tariff reductions at the newly constructed Iranian port of Chah Bahar on the Makran coast in the Sistan province in Southeastern Iran. Chah Bahar faces the Indian Ocean, and is a deep water port. A road link of about 600 kms connects Chah Bahar with Zahidan on the Iran-Afghan Border. Iran is planning in addition a rail link from Chah Bahar to Zahidan, and later to extend the rail link to its northern city of Meshhad. Such a rail link once completed will ensure faster and bulk transportation of cargo. Probably a rail link from Meshhad to Herat exists. The Indian Border Road Organistaion has constructed a 215 km road link from Zaranj on the Afghan side of the border with Zahidan. From there it will connect to Delaram  on Afghanistan’s Ring Road; its main transport artery that links all the main cities of the country. From Delaram goods are transported to Herat by road, then to Mazar-I Sharif, and then to the nearby rail terminal to Naibabad on the border with Uzbekistan. From Naibabad the road crosses into Uzbek city of Khayraton. A couple of years ago the coalition forces built a railway line of 75 km, connecting Khayraton with Naibabad. This was done to facilitate the logistical supply to the coalition forces, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The coalition forces urgently needed an alternate route, as often the Khyber pass would be closed either by the insurgents or by the Pakistani authorities as it happened in 2011. India is proposing to extend the corridor connecting Mazar-I Sharif with Kunduz. This would facilitate in reaching out to Tajikistan, especially now that three important bridges have been built across the Pyanj river and two more would be built in due course.  India is involved in upgrading the Afghan Ring road.  If Afghanistan is to emerge as the Land bridge to Eurasia, as well as a stable and a prosperous country, then the infrastructure condition in the provinces merits serious attention and improvement. Presently out of 4958 km of national highways planned, only sixty per cent have been completed, whereas it has 9600 km of provincial roads and 17,000 km of rural roads. It is necessary that India pays attention to this aspect as well.

    The Chah Bahar-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan/Tajikistan route is being modernized and upgraded.  In May 2013, India pledged USD 100 million, though a conservative figure, for the upgradation of the Chah Bahar port. However, there are some economic issues between India and Iran, that need to be sorted out for a smooth running of the connectivity corridor. India has also pledged a similar amount to projects that will enhance India’s connectivity to the region. Reports suggest that there has been tardy implementation on the part of India, probably the issue of operational aspect of the port has yet to be resolved. Incidentally, in March 2012 India received its first consignment of tweny containers carrying Afghan dry fruits through the Chah Bahar port. 

       Currently Chah Bahar has a capacity to handle 2.5 million tonnes of cargo per year and, Iran would like to raise it to 12.5 million tonnes. In this connection, Iran has established a Free Trade Industrial Zone near the port city. The Chah Bahar port will be upgraded in five stages stretching up to 2021. There would be berthing facilities, oil terminals and multi purpose berths.1  Besides Iran has initiated other road/railway projects linking Iran with Central Asia  through Afghanistan, for instance plans are afoot to link Zahidan with Termez via Herat, Mazar-I Sharif and then into Uzbekistan. Iranian activity to reconnect with Central Asia is also in India’s interest. 

       An impetus to the India-Iran-Afghanistan transport corridor received a major boost, when the leaders of the three countries met in Tehran on the sidelines of the Non Aligned Summit in August 2012. The leaders emphasized the importance of this transport route for the three countries, and in this context set up a group to coordinate the activities, explore and expand the trade and transit corridor. The significance of this transport corridor has gone up enormously, after it was estimated that Afghanistan is home to over USD one trillion worth of raw materials, minerals etc. Since then China has been keen to invest in this route as well. Recent US-Iranian compact on nuclear energy may in due course enhance the feasibility of Iranian route to Afghanistan and CARs.  

    Other projects that envisage passage to Central Asia through Afghanistan are the earlier concept of ‘Greater Central Asia’ that sought to connect Central Asia with South Asia through Pakistan. The ‘New Silk Road Strategy was initiated by the U S in 2011, however, not much progress has been made on this initiative, because of Pakistan’s intransigence, and its reluctance to include India, and partly because the US accords higher priority to Pakistan in its strategy to stabilize Afghanistan. The Istanbul Process is another initiative in this direction. Another laudable initiative is the CASA 1000 project aimed at providing Tajik electricity to Pakistan via Afghanistan. In a trilateral cooperation between India, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, India was able to transmit Uzbek electricity to Kabul. More such areas need to be explored further.  The Trade and Transit Agreement of 2010 allows Afghan goods to reach the Wagah border (the land border crossing point between India and Pakistan), but Indian goods, however are not allowed to go through Pakistani territory. A Report in Dawn a Pakistani newspaper noted that, Afghan transit trade dropped by 54 per cent in 2012-2013 partly due to the Chah Bahar port.

      Energy is another vital area where Afghanistan can play a crucial role in transporting Turkmen natural gas to India and Pakistan. Mention must be made of the much talked about Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI), a 1510 km gas pipeline is backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Though the TAPI project is backed by the ADB, a consortium is still not in place. Probably the uncertain situation in Afghanistan and the turmoil in Pakistan could have deterred prospective major companies from coming forward. The TAPI project thus is inching slowly, but surely. In fact TAPI is a win-win situation for all countries, as transit revenues would flow in. Once TAPI comes on stream, its possible that Kazakhstan could be associated with it. It would give these Central Asian States the much needed thrust to the southern vector of their foreign policies by helping them to diversify their markets.

      Since Chah Bahar is only about 1000 km from the Gujarat port of Kandla, a direct shipping line could be considered to bypass the congested Dubai port. Such a possibility will give a powerful boost to trade and transit to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond. Apart from the economic benefits, it will also bring geopolitical advantages. Now that a nuclear deal between Iran, and the US and others have been signed and sanctions would be lifted, it is an opportunity for India to revitalize its ties with Iran, and pay particular attention to the development of the Chah Bahar port. It was reported on 4 April 2015 that a delegation led by the Commerce Secretary Shri Rajeev Kher is leaving for Iran. On the agenda is settlement of the debt that India owes.  Indian plans to develop the port through a joint venture of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Kandla Port Trust (KPT) and, if required a local Iranian partner and Indian private company are also part of the delegations agenda.2


Concluding Observations

In view of Pakistan’s intransigence on allowing access to India for trade, transit, and transport through its territory, the prospects of the revival of the ancient trade route appear distant at this juncture. Another factor is growing Chinese economic influence and interest in the Region, which would discourage the expansion of the US and Indian interests in the area. The Iranian option for India is the best one. It would be in India’s interest to fast track its negotiations with Iran particularly on the further development of the Chah Bahar port. Now that A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear programme has been signed and the sanctions would be lifted in a phased manner, Indian attempt should also be to build enduring ties with Iran. On the other hand it is also in Iran’s interest to give priority to cooperation with India on the Chah Bahar port. In the light of the growing importance of this region for India, it should also make efforts for multiple options to reach its destination.










1.Aryaman Bhatnagar and Divya John, “Accessing Afghanistan and
   Central Asia: Importance of Chah Bahar to India, Observer Research
   Foundation, Special Report , October 2013, Issue #3

2. Business Standard, 4 April 2015

*Prof. (Retd.), Nirmala Joshi earlier taught in JNU, New Delhi and is currently Research Advisor, United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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