On a visit to Afghanistan in February 2014, it looked as though relations between India and Afghanistan were on a high. Relations were set to get into a new pace, with India committing to projects as part of the total package of $2 billion for development aid and to a request from Afghanistan for helicopters. The helicopters, >three upgraded ‘Cheetals’ from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, were to be delivered “soon”.
“Soon” has meant more than a year later. The helicopters will now be handed over when Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani visits New Delhi on April 27. But the Afghanistan they will land in has changed vastly in the past year, and their impact may not be as deeply felt as when they were needed a year ago. What has changed? New governments in New Delhi and Kabul are the most visible change; so have Afghanistan’s regional equations with Pakistan, Iran, and China, especially since its President, Hamid Karzai, demitted office.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to welcome Mr. Ghani, it is this change, rather than past years of goodwill, that will be the most important determinant of the future course of India-Afghanistan relations.
Turnaround with Pakistan Mr. Ghani’s turnaround with Pakistan is probably the most dramatic shift in Kabul’s foreign policy. From the moment he assumed office, he has shunned making any comments on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) support to the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) insurgents in the way Mr. Karzai had, and has pursued closer ties on the military front. He has invited Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, the ISI Chief, Lt. General Rizwan Akhtar, and two corps commanders to Kabul. He went to Pakistan in November, visiting the Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. Mr. Ghani agreed to send the first batch of six officers to Abbottabad for training in February this year. The Peshawar school massacre in December 2014 and the Kabul embassy attack might have brought the two countries closer, evident in their sharing information on the terror groups responsible. The other part to this closeness comes from Mr. Ghani’s desire to restart talks with the Taliban. Much will depend on how much Pakistan delivers in terms of persuading senior Taliban leaders to appear for talks, even while curbing attacks by the groups under its control in Afghanistan.
Engagement with China, Iran Talks with the Taliban have changed the nature of Afghanistan’s engagement with China as well. China has traditionally stayed away from playing an overt role in the internal political process of countries it invests in. Yet, in February this year, its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, announced at a press conference in Islamabad that China was “ready to play a constructive role” and would “provide necessary facilitation at any time if it is required by various parties in Afghanistan.” What he didn’t say then, but which is well known, is that Beijing has already hosted a team headed by the leader of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, Qari Din Mohammad, to discuss the way forward. The Taliban visit came a month after Mr. Ghani had been to Beijing, in October 2014, and issued a public invitation for talks to the Taliban when at a press conference with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. Around the same time, a senior Minister in the Ghani cabinet visited India and his message to the Indian government was clear; “For peace in Afghanistan, we need a handle on the Taliban, for which we need a handle on Pakistan, for which we need China.”
For China, the move to reach out is clearly driven by Mr. Xi’s desire to clear the path to Central Asia with his Silk Route “One Belt, One Road” initiative, spanning cities from Xian to Venice. The project — which involves hundreds of billions of dollars to be spent on infrastructure along the route from China to Europe — envisages Afghanistan as an investment hub, while also securing energy supplies for China’s burgeoning needs. Mr. Xi is making it known that he is willing to spend, and spend big on the venture, along with a more modest “Maritime Silk Route” initiative. His announcement of a $46 billion plan to build an economic corridor through Pakistan to the Gwadar port, and which the Chinese will manage, is in line with that. His plan to link Afghanistan to Pakistan through highways, and new railway lines will also boost more trade along the route. Simultaneously, the Chinese outlay of $40 billion in the Silk Route Fund will strengthen Afghan transport and trade links with Central Asian countries.
Finally, in the discussion on Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, there is Iran, a country now poised on the brink of big changes. The P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China, facilitated by the European Union) agreement to work on a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme by June 30 opens up many possibilities for Afghanistan, which had a go-slow at several points on trade with Tehran because of sanctions by the United States. There is no doubt that the economic landscape of Afghanistan will change with the development of trade routes through Iran and Pakistan.
A role for India>Where does India fit in in all this ? Has Mr. Ghani spoken with his feet, by travelling to China on his first state visit, in October 2014, and later to Pakistan, in November, leaving India to much later, after a visit to the U.S. in March 2015? Does India risk being left out of the loop when it comes to strategy, trade and development with Afghanistan? This in a changing region where the U.S.’s influence is receding, China’s influence is rising, Pakistan is more powerful, and Iran is showing the potential to be the economic powerhouse in its neighbourhood? The answer: not necessarily. But as Mr. Ghani comes to New Delhi, it is necessary to recognise the contours of this changing world as well as build a new dynamism into the India-Afghanistan relationship.
Negative impulses To begin with, policymakers in New Delhi will have to acknowledge that three essentially negative impulses have dogged most of the moves made over the past few years. These are: manoeuvres against Pakistan’s terror threat; measures cutting trade with Iran because of U.S. sanctions; and moves countering China’s rise in the neighbourhood.
The decision to refuse Afghanistan’s demands of military transport and combat assistance was essentially driven by India’s nervousness over Pakistan’s reaction, and attacks by the LeT on Indian nationals. Eventually, Afghanistan’s government gave up waiting, and Mr. Ghani withdrew the requests, made by Mr. Karzai in 2012-13. While India may still not wish to accede to the Afghan plea for lethal weaponry and combat assistance on the ground, it is necessary that the government moves quickly on other requests for helicopters, jeeps, and plans for an academy to train security forces in Kabul. The delivery of the Cheetal helicopters in a few days could be the signal that India is finally ready to do much more. At the same time, Mr. Modi may have to accept the inevitability of a dialogue with Pakistan on cooperating on transit trade with Afghanistan. This would strengthen Mr. Ghani’s request to the Pakistan Commerce Minister, Khurram Dastgir Khan, to include India in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) in talks this month.
Second, the delays in the alternate route through Iran’s Chabahar port can be attributed to U.S. pressure against deals with Iran. Putting off work on this route will ignore Indian sacrifices already made in order to build the Zaranj-Delaram highway on the Afghanistan side. It is imperative that India makes good on its promise to quickly refurbish the Iranian port, and re-establishes full trade relations with Iran in order to have a head-start on the new trade route to Afghanistan, that will no doubt emerge as a consequence of the P5+1 agreement with Iran.
Third, the government’s opposition to China’s Silk Route initiative in the neighbourhood should be revisited. If China is willing to invest in the region’s infrastructure, this is something India can also benefit from, by developing its own trade relations with each of the countries along the Silk and Maritime Silk Routes. India’s influence over its neighbours, be it in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region or in the Indian Ocean region has always been in a historical and cultural context, and involving a large-heartedness in sharing its resources with its neighbours. India must extend its generosity of spirit by encouraging its neighbours to benefit from Chinese prosperity, while “being the Un-China” itself and reaching out in ways China can’t. Mr. Modi’s visit to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, in March 2015, underlined just what this engagement could look like.
Afghanistan has shown that it values relations with India, even as it essays the new opportunities in its own neighbourhood, and Mr. Ghani’s visit will be a chance to repose confidence in those ties. In his inaugural address, Mr. Ghani outlined his country’s “five-circle foreign policy”: relations with neighbours, Asian countries, the Islamic world, donor countries and international institutions. As one of its most reliable donors — as the architect of development projects as prominent as the Parliament, highways and the Salma dam, a provider of health and education to lakhs of Afghans, and as a strategic partner with a long history of shared culture and faith — India already has a big place in the Afghan heart. Now, it can well occupy a significant part of each of these circles.