Insights into Editorial: The message from Amritsar
Since the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001, India and Afghanistan have witnessed a significant strengthening of their bilateral ties. As Afghanistan’s stability is important for India’s own, India has readily supported the growth of democracy in its neighbour, battered as it is by many years of conflict and instability.
- Upcoming Heart of Asia (HoA) conference is one such attempt by India. India is hosting the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference this week in Amritsar. It is aimed at speeding up reconstruction in war-torn Afghanistan and bringing peace and normalcy to the nation.
- It will see participation from 14 states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates.
India’s assistance to Afghanistan:
India has sought to show its support for a stable and democratic Afghanistan with significant investments and financial assistance. Playing a major role in Afghanistan’s social and economic development, India has provided extensive development assistance amounting to some $2 billion since 2001. Much of this assistance has been focused on infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, community-based development projects, and education and humanitarian needs.
- India has also contributed in the strengthening of the Afghan army by providing military equipment such as helicopters and training to officers and soldiers. The building of the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam) and the Zaranj-Delaram highway demonstrates India’s commitment in assisting Afghan development and connecting the country to Iran and other parts of Central Asia.
- Very recently in June 2016, PM Modi visited Afghanistan to inaugurate the $290-million Salma Dam project. Designed to irrigate fields in 640 villages, this dam may well be a symbol of India’s long-term commitment to the region.
- The Iran-India-Afghanistan trilateral trade and transit corridor agreement on the Chabahar port was also recently signed.
Why is India important for Afghanistan?
- India’s bilateral trade with Afghanistan stood at $684.47 million in 2014-15, an increase of 0.20% over $683.10 million a year earlier, and 20.41% higher than $568.44 million in 2010-11. India’s exports to Afghanistan in 2014-15 stood at $ 422.56 million, while its imports from that country were worth $261.91 million. Despite the lack of direct land access, India is the second-largest destination for Afghan exports.
- For many Afghans, India is among the few places that accords them respect and dignity, unlike many others which treat them as unwanted, backward, terrorists or drug-dealers.
- Both India and Afghanistan are also the main victims of Rawalpindi’s use of terrorism to pursue its regional ambition and inherent insecurity.
- Also, for Afghanistan’s nascent democracy, development and its state-building process, India is an inspiration and a model. India has had success in managing its diverse communities, building its state institutions, nurturing an indigenous democracy, women’s empowerment and transitioning from an agrarian society into a developing nation. Afghanistan can learn a great deal from India.
- Besides, “Indian Islam” is a living manifestation of “Khurasani Islam”, which was once the prevailing flavour in Afghanistan: A humane, peaceful, tolerant, ethical and civic Islam.
- India has so far shown an unusual tenacity in its dealings with Afghanistan, and a willingness to move beyond the binary of economic cooperation and military engagement and evolve a comprehensive policy which involves all dimensions of power. This has enhanced Indian credibility in Afghanistan which is a tough country.
Why India should be interested in the development of Afghanistan?
- Indian interests, including its Embassy and consulates, are repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan. Both the countries face problems of terrorism backed by state and non-state actors in the common neighbour- Pakistan. Hence, co-operation in security measures is essential for stability in the region. Afghanistan’s support is also necessary in dismantling of safe havens and terror sanctuaries in the region.
- India’s need to access Afghanistan and Central Asia’s natural resources and markets complements it’s vast market for Afghanistan’s growing economy. India is one of the closest regional powers that has invested in institution and infrastructure building in Afghanistan. Improving connectivity in the region therefore helps India harness trade and transit potential of Afghanistan.
- For India, Afghanistan also has immense strategic potential. Besides the infrastructure work India has initiated and completed, it has also signed the TAPI pipeline project that aims to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. A friendly and stable environment in Kabul is geopolitical insurance against Pakistan’s deep state.
What should be done to strengthen the ties between the two countries?
- India and Afghanistan’s Strategic Partnership Agreement should be effectively implemented as it shall provide a framework for future bilateral engagements.
- The SAARC grouping (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) can be utilised as a common platform for deeper engagement and cooperation with Afghanistan. As a member of SAARC, India needs to facilitate Afghanistan to embrace security and peace by investing in large-scale projects in order to create more job opportunities that are currently lacking in the region.
- Facilitating trade and development-related activities can assist in achieving a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Projects such as the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline can be utilised to strengthen Indo-Afghan ties. This project stands to benefit the Afghan economy as it will provide gas exports to energy-demanding countries like India and Pakistan. Afghanistan shall act as a gateway to connect Central Asia to Pakistan and India. This will also create an impact on the overall infrastructural and economic development of Afghanistan.
- The much anticipated India-Afghanistan-Iran trilateral agreement also has huge potential and can aim to benefit long-term Indo-Afghan ties. This will allow India access to Afghanistan via the strategically located Iranian port of Chabahar. The agreement will significantly enhance the utility of the port, as it contributes to Afghanistan’s economic growth and facilitate better regional connectivity by connecting India and Afghanistan to Central Asia. India and Afghanistan ties can also be utilised in enhancing regional efforts in activities like counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics trafficking.
- There is huge potential in trilateral cooperation between India, Afghanistan and China, as the first two can gain immensely under the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project and establish Afghanistan as a trade and transit hub.
- It is imperative to engage with the Afghan civil society through interaction between the Indian and Afghan journalists, think tank institutions, and other opinion-makers. This will enable a deeper understanding of the perception at the ground level and assist in building institutions that encourage the potential of young leaders.
- In order to boost bilateral relations, more people-to-people contact should be encouraged by way of access to education, healthcare, and student or faculty exchange programmes. While air connectivity between the two countries has increased over the years, the frequency of flights can be increased in order to encourage greater movement of citizens, particularly for medical purposes, education, and tourism.
- The Afghan government requires greater regional support from its neighbours, particularly India, in order to tackle the deteriorating security situation and to assist in the region’s overall economic development. India recognises that the presence of both development and democracy are the key to tackling terrorism within Afghanistan.
While India and Afghanistan have maintained historical and friendly relations, the potential of the two countries’ cooperation has yet to be fully realised. A crucial impediment is related to Pakistan’s fears over Indian interests in Afghanistan; this has led India to become more cautious in its involvement. Further, given the complex relationship between the United States, China and Pakistan and their interests in Afghanistan, India has, historically, focused on a development and soft power approach while keeping its distance from any deep political involvement in Afghanistan.
- But, given their long history of friendly relations, India and Afghanistan stand to gain a great deal by expanding their areas of cooperation and engagement. India can play a greater role in assisting Afghanistan’s initiative towards stability and development, which in turn will create a ripple effect for the larger interest of South Asia.
- Apart from providing infrastructural and military support, India needs to be more proactive on the international front by getting involved in a joint resolution for a larger Afghan solution. While Afghans have viewed India’s support to their country extremely favourably, it is unfortunate that hurdles are being created by the peculiar dynamics of India-Pakistan relations.
- However, India must overcome its dithering position towards providing military support to Afghanistan. New Delhi needs to continue providing assistance for training the Afghan security forces in India, in coordination with NATO commanders. This will be of great benefit for NATO while at the same time strengthening ties between Kabul and New Delhi.
- India cannot afford to slow down on its engagement in Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s paranoia. In the absence of boots on the ground in Afghanistan — which will likely cause great distrust in Islamabad about India’s intentions — India must seek new avenues for cooperation aside from traditional development and humanitarian assistance.
Close political ties with Kabul, strong goodwill among Afghan citizens and acceptance of India as an important regional player on Afghan matters indicate that India’s aid to Afghanistan has not gone waste. Afghanistan now is an international project for India. It is beyond the capacity of India alone to resolve the serious security and development challenges in the region. Therefore, enhanced Indian engagement at this point will be a big boost to both India and Afghanistan.