For a long time, strategic analysts in India had been criticizing the foreign policy establishment of India (including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of External Affairs and other related departments) for not paying sufficient attention to the region. New Delhi has tried to address this imbalance during the last decade, enhancing its ties and presence in its immediate and extended neighborhood. From Nepal to Sri Lanka, and from Afghanistan to Myanmar, there has been an added emphasis in dealing with the region.
Afghanistan and Myanmar received the attention of Indian policymakers in particular. There was a push not only in terms of attention and bilateral relations with these two countries, but also an increased presence and support to their governments. Aid to the two countries increased disproportionately. Myanmar is seen as a link in India’s larger strategy in Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan is important for its plans in Central Asia.
During the 1980s and 1990s, because of local and regional developments, India had lost contact with the governments and people in these two countries. Now, New Delhi is trying to re-establish the old ties.
Although India’s investment in and aid to Afghanistan may appear less significant compared with the US and the EU, for India it is substantial. From building infrastructural networks to schools and hospitals, New Delhi has invested substantially in helping the government in Kabul and its people. The first major challenge for India in the post-2014 Afghanistan would be to protect this investment.
Secondly, like all other countries in the region and the rest of international community, India would like to see a stable and democratic government in Afghanistan. New Delhi has established substantial linkages with the Karzai government including a strategic partnership. It would like to strengthen this relationship further and not want any future governments to rupture or sever these ties, as had happened during the mid and late 1990s, when India lost all contacts with Afghanistan. When an Indian passenger flight was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar, it did not even have basic official communications with the government in Kabul. In future, India would like to avoid such a situation.
Today, despite all criticisms and cynicisms, Afghanistan is certainly better than it was during the late 1990s. Substantial investments have been made in every sector – from building local capacity, security forces to even a political understanding between various sub-nations within Afghanistan. India would prefer that this process continues and the positive developments in the last 10 years do not get reversed because of violence.
A section in India is also apprehensive of Afghanistan becoming a center of radical ideology and violence again. Such a development would also affect Pakistan, and would inevitably reach India and spread further to other countries – Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Myanmar. Such a development would not only undermine the stability of the Af-Pak region, but also the entire Central Asia-South Asia-Southeast Asia belt.
In particular, New Delhi would prefer the Afghan security forces remain stable and do not crumble because of any future onslaughts from insurgent groups. While India would be willing to assist the Afghan security forces in their training and it even supplies some anti-insurgency equipment, New Delhi is unlikely to send its troops into Afghanistan, even if there is a specific request from Kabul.
India also sees Afghanistan as an essential component of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline. To address its energy needs to sustain its economic growth, pipelines from Iran and Central Asia would be extremely important. The general fear in India is that an unstable Afghanistan would hurt the construction of this pipeline and the subsequent flow of gas.
Finally, a section in India is extremely apprehensive of Pakistan attempting to scuttle India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. Every country in the region and elsewhere, depending on their interest and investment, would like to exert an element of presence and influence in Afghanistan, including Pakistan, because of its geographical proximity. While New Delhi should appreciate this, what it is afraid of is Islamabad and Rawalpindi playing a negative role in Afghanistan to undermine India’s investments.
While no country including India would like to deny Pakistan’s proximity and cultural linkages with Afghanistan, none, including New Delhi, would be comfortable with Islamabad abusing its leverage to install a puppet regime in Kabul, or undermine an existing framework, as had happened during the 1990s. In fact, a section even within Pakistan would be against such an approach. But the greatest question is what strategies to adopt if Pakistan decides to pursue a negative agenda in Afghanistan?
While Pakistan would like the rest of international community to understand its own fears and concerns in Afghanistan, the opposite is also equally true.
Since there is a widespread understanding at the regional level on the importance of a stable Afghanistan, can Kabul become a bridge bringing the countries of the region together?
The TAPI pipeline is likely to be a major connector, linking Central Asia with South Asia, especially Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The Asian Development Bank has agreed to be the advisor for the project recently and the countries have agreed on the transit fees. The US on the other hand, is engaged in a dialogue process with Iran and there is a nuclear deal in the process. As a result, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline is likely to face less opposition from the US. Both these pipelines are likely to change the energy future of Central and South Asia.
Afghanistan is also extremely interested in becoming the transit country for not only gas, but also an electricity grid. The CASA 1000 is a parallel initiative, linking Central Asia and South Asia, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the electricity grid in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to become a major transit routes for pipelines and electricity grids. For India, there are threats and opportunities in Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan is in everyone’s interests and the regional security is intrinsically enmeshed with it.
The author is the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies