Chabahar and the Afghan roundabout

Whether it’s security or connectivity, Afghanistan is now a focal point of world powers and regional leaders. India needs to find its own role to build on the potential of the Chabahar gambit

May 25, 2016 12:49 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST

Historic deal: “Once the Chabahar port is developed, goods from India will not only travel up to Afghanistan, but beyond.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Tehran.

Historic deal: “Once the Chabahar port is developed, goods from India will not only travel up to Afghanistan, but beyond.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Tehran.

The signing of the >trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan has been described as a “game changer”, improving manifold the way India can deal with both countries in its “extended neighbourhood” without having to deal with its most intractable neighbour, Pakistan. Once the Chabahar port is developed, goods from India will not only travel up to Afghanistan, but beyond, along the yet-to-be developed International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Central Asia.

The idea isn’t new, but it has faced many challenges, including >U.S. sanctions on Iran and the war against terror in >Afghanistan . In 2003, India signed a tripartite agreement with Iran and Afghanistan for preferential trade that would eventually ply through the Chabahar port and Special Economic Zone, and in 2013, committed $100 million for the port’s development. In 2009, India also handed over a $135-million Zaranj-Delaram highway to Afghanistan that ran to the Iran border, while Iran constructed the road connecting Chabahar to Zahedan on its side.

A changed country But in the years the arc has taken to complete, Afghanistan has gone from being a landlocked country with limited options to a country at the centre of many plans. Iran itself is involved with India and a number of other countries to develop the INSTC, while the U.S. is supporting the ‘ >New Silk Road Initiative ’ linking Afghanistan to Central Asia, Turkey is planning the ‘Modern Silk Road’ with Georgia and Azerbaijan, not to mention the ‘Silk Wind initiative’. There are ancillary projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and the CASA-1000 electricity project, not to mention the SAARC dream of seamless connectivity to the east. A 2007 study by the Ministry of Commerce estimated that bringing Afghanistan into a possible South Asian Free Trade Agreement would alone yield benefits of $2 billion, of which $606 million would go to Afghanistan. And then there is the biggest plan yet, that of the Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’, combined with its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that Afghanistan joined this week, amongst six agreements signed by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah on a visit to China. No surprise, then, given all these many options, that at a conference in Beijing in October 2014, President Ashraf Ghani referred to Afghanistan as the “Asian roundabout”, an update from the colonial “Great Game”.

The message for India is clear: it is no longer possible to see Afghanistan in terms of a line from Delhi to Kabul, but as a centre-point of many strands of connectivity and energy, with each strand held by a different world power or regional leader. This is also true of security in Afghanistan, and India needs to find its own voice and speak clearly to be heard above the din if it is to build on the potential of the Chabahar gambit.

While Afghanistan is no longer the Great Game, groupings such as the U.S. and allies, including non-NATO allies, and another with Russia, China and Iran, are beginning to coordinate in different ways. Former President Hamid Karzai’s pitch for a “new security architecture”, suggesting an “important role” for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Afghan stability, at a Russian Defence ministry conference in April is significant in this regard. It is not only time but also necessary for India to clearly define where it stands on all of this.

It is equally clear that India cannot be part of either arc, or, in fact, play second fiddle to any other power in the region. This is an old position, often criticised as ‘fence-sitting’, but one that has borne fruit in the goodwill India enjoys in Afghanistan.

It is equally clear that India will not be a part of the reconciliation process with the Taliban for a number of reasons. The first is obviously the Taliban’s basic ideological opposition to India and India’s troubles with Pakistan, which houses much of the leadership. The second is that the process itself is in trouble, with Taliban leaders refusing to come for talks, and Afghanistan pulling most of its delegation out of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group meeting in anger with Pakistan. Given the atmosphere, the U.S. strike on >Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour would most definitely have buried the already dying reconciliation process as well. Instead, the Afghan government has had more success on signing a preliminary agreement this month on its own, with the Hizb-e-Islami, than it has in all these years with the Taliban.

If New Delhi cannot be a peacemaker, it would be hard to see how it could be a peacekeeper in Afghanistan. Rather than ‘boots on the ground’, its strategic assistance to the country, in the form of helicopters and jeeps, helping finance weaponry for the Afghan Army, and training army and police officers marks the broad area in which India must continue to operate.

Also read: >The shifting sands in Afghanistan

A different voice In finding its role, India must be clear that the only other voice it needs to hear is that of the Afghans themselves, who have repeatedly lauded New Delhi’s efforts to build big development projects, and provided health and education options. In the country’s surveys, India’s popularity outranks that of every other country. Of the projects, the three biggest — the highway to Iran, the Parliament, and the reconstruction of the 42MW Salma irrigation and electricity project — are now complete, and the government must begin to think of next projects in Afghanistan, given their impact.

When the Salma dam began to fill last year, hundreds of Afghans braved security threats to build a human chain that held a 100 m Indian Tricolour all the way to the Indian consulate. This was the product of India's efforts to stand as a friend for decades, not interfering or exploiting Afghanistan. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Afghanistan next, as he is expected to for the inauguration of the Salma Dam, he will be carrying that tradition forward.

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