THERE IS a growing sense of uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future and no one is sure how the endgame will play out. Amid fears that the country could plunge into yet another long-drawn civil war, India faces troubling questions about its $2 billion investment and its carefully calculated strategic, security and economic interests.
In the past decade, India has poured investment into Afghanistan to help reconstruct and develop the country. From providing capacity-building training to the Afghan army, police and politicians, India has built roads, schools, hospitals, power lines and helped modernise the agriculture sector, which is their economic mainstay. It has also increased the intake of Afghan students for higher education.
“The key to Indian interests is a strong, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan,” says a senior government official. “We don’t want to see Afghanistan carved up or fall into the sphere of influence of any country. Neither do we want to, nor is it possible for us to have or maintain a military presence in the country. Our goal is to help in the nation-building process.”
According to Javed Noorani, a researcher at Integrity Watch Afghanistan, “The hundreds of Afghan students who return after higher studies in India, Indian movies and India’s development efforts have created a good image of the country. India is seen as playing a positive role.”
This sentiment is shared by Mondira Dutta, director of the Central Asian Area Studies Programme at JNU. “When I travelled to Kabul and the Balkh province, I found that the people were very happy with the reconstruction process and the role India has played,” she says. “In fact, the driver even said to me, ‘India construction, Pakistan destruction’. But, despite the positive role we have played, we cannot ignore the Pakistan factor, which is very strong. We cannot ignore the ethnic, historical, cultural and religious bonds.”
Despite President Hamid Karzai’s recent visit to New Delhi, where he wooed India to invest in Afghanistan, which is sitting on large natural gas, copper, iron ore and gold reserves estimated to be worth $1 trillion to $5 trillion, India’s interests have remained strategic.
“India’s interests are not economic; the economic critical mass has not developed. In fact, strategic commitments are driving India’s economic commitments,” says Ajai Shukla, a strategic analyst. “India is now working towards the prevention of a civil war and the creation of a somewhat stable establishment in Afghanistan where there are no large pockets that can be used for anti-India activities. While a lot of these activities can now be carried out from Pakistan itself, the fear that there could be a large tract of land in Afghanistan from where these activities could be carried out is still something that concerns our policymakers. That’s why you have to try and confine the Taliban to as small an area as possible and simultaneously try to ensure that they are not overtly hostile to India.”
This opens up a very polarised debate on whether India should talk to the Taliban. There is a growing school of thought which believes that since the Taliban will be a political force after the US withdrawal in 2014, it is in the best interests of both the Taliban and India to talk. With the withdrawal of western troops, the western aid will also dry up; if the Taliban want to be a part of the legitimate political process, they will badly need Indian investment.
“It seems the Taliban is moving away from their traditional stand and if they want to accept the Constitution and legitimately be in power, I don’t think it is a bad option to talk to them,” says Noorani.
India’s Afghan AID
$175M Constructing the 218-km highway from Delaram to Zaranj, bordering Iran
$116M Reconstructing the 42 MW Salma Dam Power Project in Herat province
$111M Building a transmission line to bring power from neighbouring countries
$83M For the construction of the Afghan Parliament
Shukla feels this is something that the Indian security establishment has now begun working on. But the Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, and the Quetta Shura are still completely controlled by Pakistan. “However, this is not going to continue forever. Post-2014, if Pakistan releases Mullah Omar and his associates, and allows them to go back to Afghanistan to establish control over the areas that their fighters control, it would mean that Pakistan’s hold over them goes. Then India will have a chance to talk to them. So, meanwhile, you try and build up as many relationships as possible with the Pashtun areas, and that is what India is doing. It is addressing almost 70 percent of its aid to Pashtun areas. The Taliban is a shifting body of opinion; you can engage someone who is not overtly in the Taliban today, but will be tomorrow, depending on how the power dynamics develop.”
Niamat Ibrahimi of Afghanistan Watch adds: “It’s not clear if the peace process or the talks with the Taliban are going to achieve anything meaningful in the near future. There has been little progress in bringing them into the mainstream.”
This creates a dilemma for India; the Taliban may be a political force, but can India afford to trust them? Dutta doesn’t think so. “We shouldn’t be talking to the Taliban, given the bad experiences with them in the past,” she says. “The ground situation has changed from the 1990s and it’s not going to be easy for them to come back. Yes, they will be there and create problems, but I don’t think their numbers will be big enough to pose a big problem.”
But in the uncertainty and chaos of Afghanistan’s political landscape, India has to plan for the future. Given the lack of geographic continuity, India has been forced to enter Afghanistan through Iran. India has developed the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran and linked it with the Zaranj-Delaram highway to facilitate trade in Afghanistan, but that has come at a cost. “As Iran is the most feasible entry point for us into Afghanistan, we are bound to them at some level,” says a senior intelligence official. To counter this, India has been working on building entry points through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Dutta feels that India needs to open up as many routes as possible so that it doesn’t have to depend on Pakistan. “Forget Pakistan, there are other countries that we need to work with — Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, even Russia, which is going to come in a big way after the withdrawal of the NATO forces,” she says. “Working together as opposed to entering a minerals race will protect all of us.”
SECURITY WILL be of prime concern as India continues with its commitment to develop Afghanistan and begins to increase its commercial investment. “India has remained dependent on western forces to secure Afghanistan and we have gone in with the development approach,” says a senior security official on the condition of anonymity. “Our policy is based on a lot of hope; we hope that the West will bring peace, that our activities will create enough goodwill, that a government not opposed to us comes to power in 2014.”
But what will India do after the withdrawal? While the US is expected to keep 20,000-30,000 troops, maintain some of its bases and keep its air and strategic assets active, deploying security forces is not an option. First, it will work against the goodwill we have created. Second, Indian sites that are presently not targeted will become targets. Third, it is logistically not possible for us to maintain an armed force in Afghanistan without land connectivity.
A lot depends on the post-2014 US commitment, Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban, China’s involvement in mining and India’s ability to foster regional ties. New Delhi’s development approach and massive investment has created a positive image that can be taken advantage of, but like many other countries, India has to wait and watch and, more importantly, hope that all its moves will pay off.
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.