The Indian challenge in Afghanistan

Intra-Afghan tensions rather than any hostility towards India could impede implementation of projects

June 30, 2022 12:15 am | Updated July 03, 2022 09:32 pm IST

Afghan men search for survivors in Gayan, Afghanistan, following the earthquake.

Afghan men search for survivors in Gayan, Afghanistan, following the earthquake. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

India’s record as a ‘first responder’ is improving by the day. Just 24 hours after a massive earthquake hit Afghanistan, the Indian Air Force moved in with tonnes of relief. That is impressive. It is also badly needed, given that the worst earthquake in 20 years hit a region that has been at war for decades. Desperate people are always open to adopting any means to survive. Apart from India, other countries will soon weigh in with aid. This might be the time to either make friends or renew hostility with old enemies.

The quake

The massive earthquake was centred around Khost along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, and measured 5.9 on the Richter Scale. Clearly, the Pakistan side would have suffered as well, though there has been no reportage on this in the Pakistani media. Like other news from the tribal areas, this one also appears to have been damped down. The proximity to the affected area also meant that Pakistan was able to send relief aid quickly. Trucks decked with banners entered Afghanistan declaring that the aid was from “the people of Pakistan”. Iran also sent relief material by air. Both these efforts and the Pakistan Foreign Ministry’s statement expressing condolences were reported by Xinhua There was nothing about India’s effort. There was also nothing on Qatar, which is in negotiations to manage Kabul, Kandahar and Herat airports.

Stressing “historical and civilizational relationship ties” with the Afghan people, Delhi announced the arrival of a technical team to “closely monitor and coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders” for the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance. This followed the arrival of a delegation led by a senior official to Afghanistan. Afghan officials welcomed not only aid, but called for the restarting of small projects across the country. Prior to this, there were reports that Indian aid was being hoarded and diverted back to Pakistan. This meant that only a fraction of some 50,000 MT of wheat and medicines was actually reaching the country. Delhi seems to have asked for aid to flow through the Iranian route, instead of across Pakistan, so that it would reach Afghanistan. Iran is on board, as was evident during Foreign Minister Dr. Hossein Amir Abdollahian’s recent visit to Delhi, where issues discussed included provision of aid to Afghanistan.

Providing relief

Meanwhile, countries are responding to the United Nations’ appeal for aid. That includes Taiwan, which has offered $1 million despite not being a member of the world body due to Beijing’s objections. Japan, South Korea, and the UAE have also responded to the UN’s appeal. The U.S. and its primary agency, the United States Agency for International Development, made brief and similar statements without making any specific commitment. U.S. aid stands at $512,208,314 in the current financial year, after the U.S. Treasury Department broadened the types of activities authorised under U.S. licences, and the UN Security Council allowed sanctions exemption for delivery of humanitarian aid. However, the U.S.’s response indicates the difficulties involved given the broken Afghan banking and financial systems and lack of infrastructure. A range of institutions is involved in actual aid delivery, and U.S. instructions are that all aid should be in cash, since no banks will do business or accept letters of credit to the Afghan central bank (DAB). UN organisations also provide cash, and aid agencies have long had to use reliable local hawala networks for transfers. The main benefit to this is that money is spent within the country, rather than in physical aid sourced from the neighbourhood. The trouble is that a notoriously strait jacketed Finance Ministry will never agree to large-scale Indian aid being spent in this manner. Cash transfers to the DAB are possible, but its own reach to the furthest parts of the country is doubtful.

While ‘buy local’ may work with food and immediate aid, the requirements for reconstruction, particularly in the present case, will have to be sourced from Pakistan. Pakistan cement companies such as Lucky Cement made their fortunes out of U.S. construction in Afghanistan, of everything from airfields to culverts, when operations were ongoing. A 2004 study reported not just the huge amounts of money being made by all those concerned, but also revealed that Afghan companies were being sidelined in favour of Turkish or Chinese ones in the country.

Also, most UN activity for Afghanistan is slotted through Pakistan. U.S. listings show that major UN agencies and the International Organization for Migration are present in Pakistan, where they are funded to source supplies. This includes smaller NGOs such as Red Crescent or the hundreds of others operating on the ground. Any Indian attempt at reconstruction has to take this reality on board. India also needs to encourage Afghan cement plants and related industries, and ensure optimal use of coal, which is now being exported to Pakistan at cheap prices.

The security issue

Then there exists the ever-present issue of security, which was apparent from the recent attack on a gurdwara in Kabul, apparently by the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). The IS-K is a group of many parts, with a presence in the north, along the Pakistan border, and in Kabul. In the north, the Russians accuse the Americans of assisting the group, while in Kabul, the IS-K’s worst attack was against withdrawing U.S. troops in August 2021. In recent times, IS-K has become strongly anti-India, along with al- Qaeda, which put out a video where chief Ayman Al Zawahari was seen praising a Karnataka girl for defending the hijab. Even more vicious language was used in the threat made against Nupur Sharma, former BJP spokesperson, for her controversial remarks against the Prophet. A recent UN report notes that both groups are operational, and may see increased recruitment of young men with no alternatives.

Editorial | Gradual engagement: On India-Taliban ties

India has around 400 projects in all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. With the Taliban offering protection to foreign embassies, and acting quickly in the recent gurdwara bombing, it is possible that the Indian effort will continue unimpeded. It is also important to remember that the Taliban have never actively been anti-India. Difficulties in implementation are more likely to arise from intra-Afghan tensions rather than any hostility to India.

Finally, it is likely that China will try to corral Afghan ‘neighbours’ into pooling aid efforts, in an exercise aimed at projecting China as the most influential country in the region. For this, it may use the Foreign Ministers conferences. Which organisation Beijing uses will be interesting, since it could choose to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of which India is also a member to showcase “Asian unity”. Separately, India could also choose to co-opt Pakistan in the aid effort, which would do much to raise confidence on the nature of India’s role. The obverse of that is simple. Pakistan has to do a complete turnaround on its decadal policies of using its territory to sponsor terror on both sides, instead of using it for profitable and vibrant connectivity. Out of destruction rises opportunity and a possible realignment of forces in the region. 

Tara Kartha is former officer from the National Security Council Secretariat, where she served for nearly 20 years, working largely on Pakistan and Afghanistan

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