Bilateral relations between India and Afghanistan have been characterised by ‘friendly engagement’ and underscored by positive public perception in both countries; this has continued after the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took office in May 2014. Even then, emerging realities in and related to Afghanistan necessitate innovative action from both countries in at least three key sectors:
• Economy and developmental partnership
Overall, over the past three years, political relations between India and Afghanistan have witnessed more flow than the perceived ebb. Both countries held national elections in 2014. The new dispensation in India treaded cautiously during the Afghan presidential election and also during the initial months of incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s presidency. The commonly held perception at that time was that this caution was due to President Ghani’s overtures to China and Pakistan. However, India demonstrated strategic patience and gauged developments; it continued with its developmental assistance and engagement in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, as President Ghani's disenchantment with the establishment in Pakistan grew, he began investing relatively more effort towards strengthening Afghanistan’s relations with India. Since May 2014, several high-level visits have taken place between the Indian and Afghan governments, including those of India’s vice president, prime minister, external affairs minister, national security adviser (NSA), and minister of law and justice; and Afghanistan’s former president, incumbent president, chief executive officer (CEO), NSA, deputy foreign minister, and army chief. Recently, the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan met Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIG), soon after the latter signed a peace deal with the Afghan government. This was the first such interaction between the two sides, and given that Hekmatyar, who is now politically vocal and active in Afghanistan, has enjoyed the patronage of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) throughout his years as a terrorist, the meeting demonstrates New Delhi's constructive approach towards the Afghan peace process. Moreover, it can also be viewed as part of India's broader efforts to play a greater, more proactive and responsible role in the overall regional stability and cooperation.
The overarching theme of Indo-Afghan political relations over the past three years has been that of camaraderie and productive exchanges. To build on this and ensure continuity, it would be useful to diversify engagements/cooperation to multiple levels and formats.
Economy and Developmental Partnership
Since 2001, India has spent US$ 2 billion on development assistance in Afghanistan. The past three years have seen continuity on this front. The previous government in New Delhi initiated numerous infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, including the construction of Route 606, the new Afghan parliament complex and the Salma Dam (officially, the Afghan-India Friendship Dam); the establishment of the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANASTU); and investments in small development projects and skill-building-related initiatives.
After taking charge in 2014, the Modi government ensured completion of key pending projects such as that of the parliament and Salma Dam – both of which Prime Minister (PM) Modi jointly inaugurated with President Ghani during his visits to Afghanistan in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Visas for Afghan businesspersons and tourists were further liberalised; 500 scholarships were announced for the children of the martyrs of Afghan security forces; restoration of the Stor Palace was completed. In 2016, India pledged an additional US $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan. To overcome the obstacle of land contiguity posed by Pakistan, the India-Afghanistan Air Freight Corridor became become operational in June 2017, which has shipped agricultural produce, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment etc.. Additionally, India has steadily been working with regional countries on developing landlocked Afghanistan's connectivity to facilitate trade and movement of goods. In 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed the Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor (the Chabahar Agreement) and by September 2017, India will begin shipping 35,000 containers of wheat to Afghanistan via Iran's Chabahar port.
At present, bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan stands at US$ 700 million. New Delhi's economic relations with Kabul have been overshadowed by the development partnership, which is characterised in part by the view that sustainable development in Afghanistan requires long-term investment in the country. Economic relations will eventually have to evolve into one where the trade and investment component is bigger in proportion than the aid money India spends in Afghanistan so that both countries can benefit. Currently, all sectors of the Afghan economy need a sustainable boost. These matters could be partially addressed by developing a conducive environment (for instance, ease of doing business on issues such as formalities and joint ventures) and encouraging businesses and educational institutions (both small and big) from India and elsewhere to expand their footprint into Afghanistan.
The telecom sector is a potent area of cooperation given India's efforts in this sector in Afghanistan since 2001 and especially now given the NDA government’s Digital India initiative. Three months after India launched the South Asian Satellite, the Afghan Ministry of Telecommunications and Technology has reportedly requested India to launch a special satellite exclusively for its use. Cooperation in the textile sector too has potential. India's textile market is expected to touch US$ 250 billion by 2019, and Afghanistan is looking to revive its textile sector. A visit by Ms Smriti Irani - India's union cabinet minister of textiles as well as minister of information and broadcasting – who is popular in Afghanistan as a television actor - would be an excellent step in public diplomacy and useful to kick off cooperation on this front.
Bilateral engagement in security-related issues has seen continuity and some enhancement. Although India is hesitant to supply lethal weapons to Afghanistan, it delivered three unarmed Cheetal helicopters and four refurbished Mi-25 assault helicopters to the Afghan Air Force (AAF) in April 2015 and December 2016, respectively. In 2016 and 2017, New Delhi participated in multiple Russia-led regional multilateral meetings aimed at addressing the security situation in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood, in addition to participating in other ongoing initiatives. Meanwhile, the new administration in the US may be considering different ideas regarding Indian participation in resolving the security situation in Afghanistan. India, too, is evaluating its options.
To that end, it might be useful for India to develop a framework of engagement that envisions human security in the broader ambit of security cooperation. Periodic consultations and exchanges could be held on short and long-term issues and involve Afghan local leaders, civil society members, police personnel and professionals from medical, telecom, education sectors. India enjoys tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan and New Delhi must try to find innovative and varied ways to enhance it, especially in the public diplomacy area. Cost-efficient methods could be explored for this purpose. Simple initiatives like visits by Indian cinema and television stars (even to promote their movies) could provide a sense of normalcy in the prevailing tense circumstances.
India can certainly 'afford' to be more proactive in Afghanistan, but proactiveness can be practised smartly. India should demonstrate confidence strategically and also continue to engage with Afghanistan in its unassuming style.