The South Asia Channel

India Needs a Plan B in Post-2014 Afghanistan

In February, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai in commemorating the opening of the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANATSU) in Kandahar. India’s latest major capacity-building project, the university aims to generate economic opportunities through agriculture, the mainstay of the Afghan economy. But the project’s location, the sprawling Tarnak ...

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

In February, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai in commemorating the opening of the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANATSU) in Kandahar. India’s latest major capacity-building project, the university aims to generate economic opportunities through agriculture, the mainstay of the Afghan economy. But the project’s location, the sprawling Tarnak farm where Osama bin Laden lived during much of the late 1990s, was chosen with a secondary goal in mind: It is part of India’s effort to re-establish greater ties with the Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan’s east and south.

A former Taliban stronghold, Kandahar is where Pakistani nationals brought the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999. In the six days of negotiations that ensued, India lacked any credible interlocutor in that part of the country. Since reopening its embassy and four consulates in 2001, India has tried to improve this situation, making forays not only in northern and western Afghanistan through infrastructure and electricity projects, but also setting up slew of reconstruction projects, including community-based small development projects in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

India’s primary interests in post-2001 Afghanistan are warding off an extremist takeover of the country that could cause terrorism and violence to spill over into India. A strong, stable, and democratic Afghanistan greatly reduces the probability of such dangers. In the long term, India sees Afghanistan as a potential "land bridge," giving India access to energy and trade opportunities in Central Asia. To help ensure Afghanistan goes down this path, India needs to further increase the scope and extent of its assistance to Afghanistan, expanding its involvement in security affairs and with local leaders and traditional institutions.

At a time when the international community is scaling down operations and disengaging from Afghanistan, New Delhi is expanding its presence, even in unstable and insecure areas. India’s pledge of $2 billion in aid makes it Afghanistan’s fifth largest bilateral donor, after the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany. In 2011, India and Afghanistan signed the Agreement on Strategic Partnership (ASP), an institutional framework for extensive bilateral cooperation beyond 2014.

India has thus far adopted a "soft power" approach to help Afghanistan’s nascent democratic regime through developmental assistance, reconstruction initiatives, political and administrative capacity building, and reestablishing cultural and historical links. It has stayed clear of a military role, both to heed Pakistan’s sensitivities and refrain from becoming party to Afghanistan’s internal conflict.

During my travels to Afghan provinces such as Nangarhar, Balkh, Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, Afghans expressed favorable views on Indian aid and said they would like it to expand further. When I met in Kandahar in 2011with political leaders such as Shah Wali Karzai, the then-head of Kandahar’s provincial council and President Karzai’s half-brother, Qayoom Karzai, a former presidential contender and the brother of President Karzai, and Mehmood Karzai, another of the president’s brothers, they told me of the need for cement factories and irrigation and power projects in the province. In Baba Saheb Ghar in the Arghandab Valley, traditionally known for its pomegranates, Afghan farmers and traders asked for help in establishing cold storage, agro-processing, and transit facilities. Women’s groups in Kandahar and Jalalabad brought up the need for small-scale income generation activities, education, and improved health services.

Despite the obvious support for Indian aid in Afghanistan, it remains unclear whether India’s decade-long aid policy and the gains it has made are sustainable with a shrinking international troop presence. Amid the continuing standoff between the United States and President Karzai over the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement and uncertainties regarding the security and political transition, it seems uncertain whether goodwill and support for Indian projects will translate into tangible gains for New Delhi in the long-term. 

Unlike Western donors, India has channeled most of its aid through the Afghan government. New Delhi’s efforts have been geared towards building the credibility and reach of the government in Kabul and have refrained from creating parallel structures of governance. Yet, particularly at a time of political transition, an overtly centralized approach runs the risk of missing the real pulse of Afghanistan – the ethno-tribal dynamics of the Afghan society. India has not optimally explored opportunities for a more decentralized approach of working with the local leaders, particularly at the peripheries.

New Delhi’s choice to avoid placing conditionalities on its assistance programs has garnered greater support within the Afghan government, but it has not helped in dealing with challenges associated with patronage systems, pilferage, and delays. Close supervision and adherence to benchmarks could increase aid effectiveness and diminish losses through graft. Large high-visibility infrastructure projects have been marked by huge cost overruns, contractor problems, and delays. Though the projects have generally resulted in national assets for Afghanistan and gratitude for India, these delays could undermine India’s image in the long run, particularly at a time of rising expectations from the Afghans.

New Delhi needs to craft its Afghan policy to deal with the rapidly changing political dynamics associated with the upcoming presidential elections, the reconciliation process, and the changing character of the Afghan insurgency. Beyond lending rhetorical support to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process and emphasizing the adherence to "red lines," India should use its leverage to call for a national dialogue in Afghanistan that will help build an inclusive political order and preserve gains in human and women’s rights.

India’s persistent reluctance to be involved in Afghanistan’s security affairs has caused much disenchantment among Afghan elites. India, in this view, has let its Afghan policy be held hostage by the sensitivities of Pakistan, ignoring President Karzai’s "wish lists" for military hardware and arms.

The agreement signed between India and Afghanistan contains provisions for assistance and training for Afghan forces; however, with time running out, these provisions could be inadequate. In a scenario where international troop withdrawal and the combined Afghan National Security forces are rendered impotent against an increased insurgent onslaught, New Delhi would have to step up to the plate.

New Delhi’s staying power in Afghanistan will be linked to its ability to innovate, expand and deepen its engagement at multiple levels. The scope and extent of New Delhi’s assistance and engagement needs to increase to prevent any future regime from upturning the achievements on the ground. The current policies are meant only for the best-case scenario – fair conduct of the presidential elections, a smooth democratic transition, ability of the ANSF to quell any insurgency and keep extremists from return to power.

During discussions with senior diplomats and government officials in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, I was told that Afghanistan is of "secondary interest" and any increased assistance would be an "overstretch." Such a policy of measured detachment is insufficient to protect New Delhi’s vital interests in Afghanistan.

Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is research fellow who focuses on Afghanistan and the politics of aid, development, gender and security at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. She can be reached at shanthied@gmail.com

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