The India–Afghanistan relationship is not a simple bilateral engagement. India’s Afghan policy is driven by many extraneous factors such as its geographical constraints, its search for a transit route to Central Asia through Afghanistan and Iran, its troubled relationship with Pakistan and the growing threat of terrorism in India and Afghanistan etc.
The centuries-old ties between India and Afghanistan shaped by history, culture and strong people-to-people linkages have become the foundation of the deep and strong relationship between the two countries. Building on the mutual trust and commonalities in traditional and cultural values, India continues to play a major role in supporting Afghanistan’s journey towards peace and prosperity.
Historical and cultural ties
- Relations between the people of Afghanistan and India traces back to the Indus Valley Civilisation.
- The Mauryans controlled much of the area known today as Afghanistan and brought Buddhism in this region.
- India and Afghanistan share centuries-old rich heritage with deep-rooted linkages in the field of arts, culture, architecture, cuisine and language.
- In the field of music, most Afghan musicians were trained in the Patiala Gharana.
- Today, Indian films, songs and TV serials are popular with the masses
- As part of India’s restructuring programme for Afghanistan, India has regularly aimed to take up projects there that will render Afghanistan’s cultural heritage sustainable.
- India was the only South Asian country to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Its relations were diminished during the 1990s Afghan civil war and the Taliban government. Later, India aided the overthrow of the Taliban.
- Now, there exists a high-level political engagement with Afghanistan, which is reflected in the large number of bilateral high-level visits from both sides.
- In 2005, India proposed Afghanistan’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
- In 2016, Afghanistan supported India’s boycott of the SAARC summit hosted by Pakistan. This was a major diplomatic victory for India.
- India signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan in 2011. This agreement shapes India’s overall engagement with Afghanistan. It envisages close political cooperation with a mechanism for regular consultations. It seeks to launch joint initiatives on regional and international issues and to cooperate at the United Nations and other multinational fora.
- In 2015, when Afghanistan was going through a transition on the political, economic and security fronts, the government of India was quick to reassure Afghanistan of India’s long-term support towards its reconstruction and rehabilitation
Economic and Commercial Relations
- The bilateral trade at for the year 2016-17 was USD 800 million approx and has immense potential to be expanded further.
- Many prominent Indian companies are doing businesses in Afghanistan such as Gammon India, Spice Jet, Phoenix, APTECH etc.
- India is the one of the largest market in the region for Afghan products
- The inauguration of the Dedicated Air Cargo Corridor in June 2017 between Kabul-Delhi and Kandahar-Delhi has provided a fresh impetus to bilateral trade.
- India has remained Afghanistan’s biggest regional donor, providing about $3 billion in assistance since 2002.
- In 1999, the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 landed and stayed in Kandahar in Afghanistan and the Taliban was suspected of supporting the hijackers. After the hijack India became key supporter of Anti Taliban Northern Alliance
- At present, both nations have developed strategic and military cooperation against Islamic militants.
- The insurgents are on the ascendance again. More than half the country’s territory, mostly in rural, mountainous areas, is now controlled by the Taliban, while the Islamic State has set up base in eastern Afghanistan.
- Afghanistan being a part of Golden Crescent of caters to a much larger market in India of Narcotic drugs which is a major cause of concern for India’s security infrastructure
- Security cooperation between the two countries is intended to enhance their mutual efforts in the fight against terrorism, organised crime, narcotics trafficking, money laundering and so on.
- India agreed to help in the equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces.
People to people ties
- There has been a strong people to people linkage between India and Afghanistan shaped by history, culture and mutual trust.
- Presently, as per estimation, there are about 2500 Indians reside in Afghanistan.
- Most of the Indian Diaspora are engaged as professionals in Banks, IT firms, Construction companies, Hospitals, NGOs, Telecom companies, Security companies, Universities etc.
- In Afghanistan, Indian medicines and health care system are perceived to be highly trustworthy. Thus, India is the most favoured destination for most Afghan tourists, especially for medical tourism.
- India has maintained an Afghan centric liberalized tourist visa and medical visa regime.
- There are numerous Afghan students, as many as 16000, pursuing education in Indian Universities. Indian offers many scholarships to Afghan students including Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) scholarships, scholarships for the children of the martyrs of Afghan Security Forces etc.
India’s role in reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan
India has played an important role in reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, making significant investments in technical cooperation and capacity building in the country. India’s support and collaboration extends to the rebuilding of air links, power plants and investing in health and education sectors as well as helping to train Afghan civil servants and security forces.
- India helped build Delaram-Zaranj highway connecting the Delaram district in Afghanistan to the border of Iran. It will provide Afghanistan with another outlet to a seaport in Chabahar in Iran and also facilitate its bilateral trade with India.
- India has constructed Afghan-India Friendship Dam (earlier known as Salma Dam) in Heart province.
- As a goodwill gesture, India constructed new parliament building in Afghanistan
- India also established Agriculture University ANASTU in Kandahar in 2014.
- India has constructed over 2,500 miles of roads in Afghanistan.
- India has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over a 1000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students
- Many Indian companies are involved in several reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
- India is running several programmes for training and capacity building for civil servants and police force in Afghanistan
Recently, India has also agreed to implement some important new projects such as the Shahtoot Dam and drinking water project for Kabul, road connectivity to Band-e-Amir in Bamyan Province to promote tourism, low cost housing for resettlement of returning Afghan refugees in Nangarhar Province and a gypsum board manufacturing plant in Kabul etc.
Challenges for India
- India’s efforts to provide assistance to Afghanistan are hampered considerably by the lack of geographical contiguity and limited access.
- The prevailing security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s continuing interference in Afghan affairs through proxies such as the Haqqani network.
- Growing terrorism in Afghanistan under influence of Al Qaeda and ISIS has created security concerns for India.
- Afghanistan, in the Golden Crescent, has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas and drug, trafficked from Afghanistan into the Indian states like Punjab, has affected its youth and has also promoted terrorism and organized crime.
- In 2011 Afghanistan and Pakistan signed Afghanistan Pakistan Trade and Transit agreement (APTTA) which has been restrictive in the bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan
- Growing Chinese influence in Afghanistan has also created a diplomatic challenge for India.
Opportunities for India
- India enjoys ample goodwill among the bureaucracy and the people of Afghanistan which can be leveraged to build strong ties with Afghanistan.
- The strategic location of Afghanistan between South Asia and Central Asia offers India a great opportunity to boost its trade with Central Asia through Chabahar route.
- Shift in US policy and its pro-India stand on Afghan question can also be leveraged for our advantage.
Tussle with Pakistan
Pakistani political leaders and the army are of the opinion that any Indian involvement in Afghanistan is inimical to Pakistan’s interests and they have also alleged that the Indo-Afghan nexus stokes the secular ethno-national Baloch and Pashtun separatist movements in Pakistan.
Pakistani leadership has been quick in claiming that Pakistan wants ‘zero’ political or military role for India in Afghanistan. Pakistan has also used Taliban and other terrorist outfits as its proxy to counter India in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has also created hurdle in bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan through Afghanistan Pakistan Trade and Transit agreement. APTTA provides both nationas equal access upto national boundaries of each other. Thus Pak allows Afghan trucks carrying goods meant for India only upto its last check point at Wagah and not to Indian check point at Attari, less than a Km away.
India is making serious efforts to remove Pakistan’s misapprehensions about India’s role in Afghanistan, but Pakistan has steadfastly refrained from discussing this issue with India because of its misgivings about India’s objectives.
As a matter of fact, despite Pakistan’s many allegations, India has practically no military presence in Afghanistan. India’s focus has solely been on development and reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan. India seeks a peaceful and stable Afghanistan which will not only be in interest of India but also in the whole neighbouring region and the world.
Shift in US Policy
In a marathon speech given by US President Mr. Donald Trump on August 21st, a significant shift was noticed in USA’s Afghan Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to deepen the country’s military engagement in Afghanistan signals that the war against terror will continue and there may be an increase in number of US troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Pakistan was also mentioned in the speech as a safe haven for terrorists and as a target of the new counterterrorism strategy of the U.S for South Asia. There may also be a cut down in financial aids to Pakistan, due to the protection granted by it to the terrorist outfits in Afghanistan like the Taliban and Haqqani network. Pakistan has also been warned of severe consequences if it continues to support them.
India’s role in Afghanistan was fully acknowledged in Mr. Trump’s speech. Speaking of India as a main partner, the U.S President called out for a more proactive role of India in Afghanistan. This shift in USA’s Policy has shown a greater convergence of interests between India and US when it comes to Pakistan and its links with terrorism.
However, there have been concerns that a closer partnership between India and USA on counterterrorism initiatives can trigger further hostilities between India and Pakistan and even entail a greater Chinese interference in Pakistan’s favor, as a counterbalance to American and Indian efforts.
It is also not clear yet if President Donald Trump will stick to his words when it comes to dealing with the Afghan war.
Way forward and suggestions
India’s national interests lie in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Therefore, India should support all initiatives towards improving the security situation in Afghanistan and promoting peace and prosperity in the war-torn country.
- India should remain committed towards the elimination of terrorism from Afghanistan and the destruction of all sanctuaries of the anti-India terrorist outfits.
- India should continue to provide aid and assistance to the government and the people of Afghanistan.
- India should also continue its developmental efforts in Afghanistan especially training its security forces and building its infrastructure so as to maintain peace and prosperity in this friendly neighbouring country.
- India should also help Afghanistan to attain strategic autonomy and free itself from the clutches of Pakistani leadership.
- Ensuring expeditious implementation of the trilateral agreement involving Iran which would use Chahbahar port to augment connectivity in the region.
- Efforts of India’s Afghan policy should also take into account its energy security, for example, through the commissioning of the TAPI pipeline.
It is also important for India to address the “Pakistan” factor in its relations with Afghanistan. For that, it is crucial for India and Pakistan to discuss their suspicions at the official level so as to allay each other’s apprehensions and work together for peace and stability in the region.
Despite its many challenges, the India-Afghan relations have been stronger than ever. Indian policy narrative of sustained reconstruction and concerted socio-economic development in Afghanistan has helped bringing peace and prosperity in this war torn country.
India’s investment in its relationship with Afghanistan has already paid off, as India’s consistent developmental efforts and its aid and assistance programmes in Afghanistan have generated ample goodwill for India among the people in Afghanistan.
According to the Gallup poll and survey, Afghan adults are more likely to approve of India’s leadership than Chinese or U.S. leadership.