As the date of withdrawal of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan draws nearer, New Delhi is determined to play a larger role in the conflict-prone country, in spite of reports of expanding Taliban influence. While some analysts are emphasising the threat of Taliban and cautioning India to lessen its engagement in Afghanistan, unlike in the 1990s, India is no longer considering ‘withdrawal’ as an option. Moreover, because of continued American presence and long-term assured international engagement in reconstruction activities in Afghanistan, it would be difficult for the Taliban to repeat their performance of the 1990s.
At the moment, a confident India is moving ahead with its plans to provide necessary training to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in order to make them combat-competent. Ensuring smooth security transition is the key to larger political stability of Afghanistan. India’s Afghan policy is driven by the twin themes of stability and development. A stable Afghanistan is less likely to act as a sanctuary for terror, and pose security threats to the countries in the neighbourhood. In addition, India has other geo-political interests; Afghanistan can provide it with the crucial link (via Iran) to central Asia. Thus Indian investment is aimed at providing critical developmental support and generating goodwill which can be converted into political capital to boost its staying power in Afghanistan.
India has pledged $2 billion worth of aid to Afghanistan. Some projects have already been implemented and some are in the pipeline. India has now proposed community based development projects worth $100 million which it plans to undertake in all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. These projects would be implemented in the following sectors: agriculture, health, education and rural development. It will be used to provide vocational training, sanitation and drinking water facilities. The number of scholarships for the Afghan students has been raised from a total of 650 to 1000 students per year. India is also planning to allocate an additional $120 million for Salma dam project to meet the escalation cost caused by delay in project implementation. This dam could not be completed as per schedule in 2010 due to worsening security situation in the area resulting from frequent gun-battles between the Taliban and the project security personnel. This project is vital as it will generate 52 MW of power and irrigate 40,000 hectares of farm-land touching the lives of ordinary Afghans.
In this context, to ensure its long-term engagement with Afghanistan, it is imperative for India to work on its relations with Iran which provides vital connectivity with Afghanistan through Chabahar, to sustain India’s presence there. Recently, Pakistan allowed Afghanistan to receive 100,000 tonnes of wheat from India out of its total pledged amount of 250,000 tonnes. This trade consignment is part of the trade and transit Agreement signed between Pakistan and Afghanistan and under this arrangement Afghanistan is allowed to import wheat from India through the Karachi port. However, Pakistan is not willing to allow India overland transit through its territory.
After a long wait (and several meetings), Ahmedinijad government has finally approved $100 million Indian investment in Chabahar port. This has been pending for long due to political reasons. India’s relations with Iran have been strained due to India’s vote in the IAEA. Moreover, because of international sanctions, India is presently facing problems to pay Iran for its oil. There is an argument that by building roads and transportation links India would be able to pay Iran through other means. Notwithstanding US pressure, it is in the strategic interests of India to invest in the Chabahar port as an alternative link with central Asia.
As per some media reports, India wants Afghanistan to be part of this link project and sign a trilateral Agreement on the sidelines of Non Alignment Summit which is going to be held in Tehran on August 30-31, 2012. Kabul has so far been noncommittal about this proposal fearing US reprisal. However, in January this year India assured Iran that it would build the missing part of the road and rail links to connect Iran to Afghanistan and beyond. Lately, some Afghan scholars are proposing an India-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral on the lines of several multilateral arrangements that Kabul has forged with its neighbours. There were also reports that the foreign ministers of these three countries had met in New York in 2010 and discussed the possibilities of initiating such a mechanism. But no progress could be made because of US pressures.
There is no reason why India should not be cooperating with Iran to make its presence in Afghanistan sustainable. Since India is aspiring for a larger role in Afghanistan as envisaged in the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries, any strategy to have an expanded presence in Kabul would require close cooperation with Iran for better access to Afghan territory through Chabahar. In spite of US pressure, Afghanistan has maintained its links with Teheran. It has recently admitted that it did receive regular cash aid from Tehran.
If US wants India to play a larger role in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and coordinate its efforts with the international community to stabilize Afghanistan, it should take a pragmatic look at India’s engagement with Iran. The US knows quite well that Pakistan has refused to provide land transit to India to trade with, or even send essential items to Afghanistan. Keeping in mind the distance and time factor to send goods to Afghanistan through Iran, India had to convert wheat into fortified biscuits to prevent it from rotting during transportation. Even India had to move five mega transformers for Salma dam project by air. Thus Iran remains crucial for India’s engagement with Afghanistan and central Asia.
India is part of many multilateral initiatives on Afghanistan. Recently, India also held Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan to encourage private sector investment there. A seven-member Indian consortium, led by the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), has won the bid for three iron ore mines with estimated reserves of 1.8 billion tonne at Hajigok in 2011. It is also interested in bidding for some copper mines in Afghanistan. To transport these mined minerals from Afghanistan Iran provides the only alternative route given Islamabad’s intransigence to allow India transit and trade.
Thus, there are compelling reasons for India to collaborate closely with Teheran to make its Afghan policy successful. In fact, from a pragmatic point of view, India, US and Iran have a convergence of interest in Afghanistan and they should work together to stabilise Afghanistan. However, rather than coordinating their policies towards Afghanistan, US and Iran are engaged in a meaningless confrontation in Afghanistan. Iran wants the US to leave Afghanistan, while the US wants Iran to stay away from the internal conflict in Afghanistan.
In this context, India has limited options; it has to work with the US to stabilise and rebuild Afghanistan and simultaneously, it has to have friendly relationship with Iran to access Afghanistan through its territory in order to sustain its links with Afghanistan. India has its security interests at stake in Afghanistan and would not like the return of a regressive regime in Afghanistan; therefore, it needs to stay engaged in Afghan beyond the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Since India-US relationship has matured in the meanwhile, India’s strategic relationship with Iran should not hurt the US too much. Even if it does, since India has no other alternative, it should not hesitate to pursue a policy independent of US priorities.