President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India, possibly his last before elections scheduled for April 2014, marks a critical moment in the development of the relationship between India and the new Afghanistan born amid the bloodshed of 9/11. India has been a partner in the process, but Mr. Karzai came asking how much more it might be willing to do. In the spring, the International Security Assistance Force which has provided the backbone of the state since 2001 will begin to return home. Although there are substantial international aid commitments in place, Mr. Karzai has been seeking a reassurance that the country’s most trusted partners will stand by it if things go wrong. He received some comfort from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Following more than a year of deliberation, India has finally committed to providing Afghanistan with the military assistance it seeks under the Strategic Partnership Agreement binding the two allies. The assistance will, for now, be modest. Indian-made light helicopters will join Afghanistan’s fledgling air fleet, while its army will receive transport and logistics equipment. This comes on top of a substantial programme of civilian assistance. Indian engineers have, despite credible Taliban threats, brought the Salma hydro-electric dam near Herat to within a year of completion. Indian experts have been involved in setting up an agricultural university at Kandahar, which Afghans hope will prove an incubator to rebuild livelihoods across the troubled south. India provides over a thousand scholarships every year to Afghan university students, and is building its new Parliament building. Preliminary plans exist for iron ore mining at Hajigak.
India’s investments, measured against overall international aid, are not huge. However, the reservoir of goodwill the assistance has generated is illustrated by the fact that all the competing presidential candidates in 2014 are vocal in their support for a deeper relationship. The reasons are rooted in history. Before 9/11, India, along with Iran and Russia, was at the heart of the small coalition of states which nurtured the struggle against the Pakistan-backed Taliban and al-Qaeda. India provided aid to the resistance. India has clear interests in helping build a democratic Afghanistan. The alternative is the empowerment of jihadist organisations which threaten peace and stability in the region. For a decade now, India’s low-key partnership has piggy-backed on the western presence in Afghanistan. The day may not be far, though, when India, with others, finds itself called on to do more. New Delhi must start considering the challenges that lie ahead.