Despite Challenges, India Firmly Stays the Course in Afghanistan

Published on April, 2016 in Diplomatist

India remains an integral part of Afghanistan’s steady progress in institutionalising peace, pluralism, and prosperity. Ties between Afghanistan and India go beyond the traditionally strong relations at the government level. Since time immemorial, people of Afghanistan and India have interacted with each other through trade and commerce, peacefully coexisting on the basis of their shared cultural values and commonalities. This history has become the foundation of deep mutual trust. Public opinion polls in Afghanistan confirm this, as well as the sentiment Afghans share about feeling at home whenever they visit India.

Against this background of real friendship, it’s appropriate to take stock and see how far Afghanistan has gone in its journey to become a full-fledged, contributing member of the international community. It is a journey being undertaken with the continued support of India, which itself is striving to become an anchor of regional stability and prosperity.

Post-Taliban Gains

Although it’s true that conflict continues in Afghanistan, a great deal of progress has been made in just over a decade. Let’s start with the gains made by Afghan women and girls, who were denied, under the Taliban, their most basic human rights, such as access to education and healthcare, let alone the opportunity to serve as vocal representatives of their constituencies in the Afghan parliament. Yet today female MPs now occupy 28 percent of the seats, a higher percentage than can be found in the legislative bodies of India, Britain, or even the United States.

In the 1990s, when factional infighting and the tyranny of the Taliban systematically devastated the country, Afghanistan had barely any diplomatic representation abroad. Today, it has more than 50 diplomatic missions around the world, including a well-resourced embassy in Delhi, which serves thousands of Afghan students and medical tourists, while working with its Indian counterparts in the public, private, and civil society sectors to deepen the multi-faceted relations that have always underpinned Afghanistan’s partnership and friendship with India.

Indian Development Aid

Afghanistan’s monumental gains in its polity, economy, and society would have been impossible without the continued support of the international community, and particularly the assistance of the country’s trusted friends and strategic partners such as India, the United States, and NATO. Despite its own many domestic needs, India is Afghanistan’s 6th largest donor, providing the country with some $2 billion in effective aid since 2001.

India’s well-targeted aid programs include infrastructure development, institutional capacity building, small development projects, as well as food security assistance in the form of ongoing deliveries of wheat to Afghanistan. Since 2001, more than 10,000 Afghan students have studied in India on Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) scholarships, with some 7,000 returning home armed with education and technical skills, which they are using to drive Afghanistan’s stabilisation and development. Meanwhile, many mid-career officers in the Afghan government have benefited from the technical capacity building programs of Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), while some 8,000 Afghan students are pursuing self-financed degrees in different fields across India.

India’s signature infrastructure projects – the building of the Afghan parliament in Kabul and the Salma Dam in Herat – have been completed. The former gives Afghan MPs the secure space they need to further institutionalise democracy in Afghanistan, while the latter will generate 42 MW of much-needed power for the electrification of rural and urban Herat, as well as helping irrigate 80,000 hectares of agricultural land.

In spite of many transit obstacles, the volume of Indo-Afghan trade stood at $680 million during 2013-2014, a figure that should exponentially rise, following the full implementation of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA). Moreover, air connectivity between the two countries has grown steadily. There are now 4-5 flights operating daily between Kabul and Delhi, bringing to India nearly 1,000 Afghans, many of them medical tourists, seeking treatment in Delhi hospitals.

Attracting Indian Investment

To deepen economic ties between the two countries, the Afghan Embassy in Delhi has frequently engaged with the national and local chambers of commerce and industries of India. The embassy has so far signed 5 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) covering commercial and medical cooperation between Afghanistan’s respective chambers of commerce and hospitals, while it has initiated another 20 MOUs with state chambers and hospitals across India.

Indian investors remain deeply interested in the many ‘virgin markets’ of Afghanistan, including mining, agriculture and agribusiness, information and technology, telecommunications, and others. Although more than 100 largely mid-sized Indian businesses have already invested in Afghanistan, the Afghan government is strongly encouraging capital intensive investment in the natural resources and infrastructure sectors. There is no doubt that this investment will gradually be made, as the key regional players address the existing interstate tensions and hostilities that impede investment in Afghanistan and the rest of the region.

Building Sister-City Relations

Moreover, in an effort to further solidify ties between Afghans and Indians, the Afghan Embassy in Delhi has initiated the creation of sister-city relations between major Indian cities and states and their Afghan counterparts. To date, the embassy has proposed establishing relations between Delhi and Kabul, Mumbai and Kandahar, Ajmer Sharif (Rajasthan) and Herat, Hyderabad and Jalalabad, Ahmadabad (Gujrat) and Asadabad (Kunar), as well as the State of Assam and the Province of Helmand.

As soon as these proposals are procedurally processed by both sides, the major cities of Afghanistan and India will be connected through tourism, student and faculty exchange programs, as well as private sector investment, which the embassy has been promoting through its vigorous economic and cultural diplomacy outreach throughout India.

Ghani’s State Visit

As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee during the former’s April 2015 state visit to India, “We are two countries that are bound by a thousand ties and millions of memories.”

“The ties between our two countries are engraved in our landscapes, from the haunting, empty frames where the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan once stood, to the remnants of Hindu temples that stud the Afghan countryside, to the Sufi shrines and the mosques and minarets, forming the cultural heritage of India,” Ghani added.

Against this backdrop of strong people-to-people and civilisational ties, Afghanistan presents a clear economic opportunity for India and the region. Afghans are working to make their country – ‘the Asian roundabout, a key hub in the revival of the Silk Road.’ In April 2015, Ghani spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian business community about his vision of Afghanistan, and encouraged India to consider investing in Afghanistan’s highly profitable markets.

The Afghan president even promised personal intervention to facilitate significant Indian investment in Afghanistan, provided that Indian businesses consider moving in with major investment plans. In a proactive step to facilitate Indian investment in Afghanistan, Ghani has ordered the opening of a new consulate, either in Kolkata or Hyderabad. A feasibility study has been carried out already.

In this connection, Afghanistan’s Minister of Energy and Water and Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development visited Delhi in August 2015 to participate in the Afghanistan-India Renewable Energy Summit, hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). The ministers discussed business opportunities in the renewable energy sector in Afghanistan, and invited Indian businesses to take advantage of the chance to invest in a vast unexplored market in this critical sector.

Also, appreciating India’s efforts to expand regional connectivity, Ghani invited India to join the PATTA (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan Trade and Transit Agreement), an invitation currently under review. If agreement is reached, it would go a long way in enabling Afghanistan play its natural role as a land-bridge connecting South and Central Asia.

In the same vein, Ghani lauded India’s investment in the Chabahar Port project, and encouraged its speedy implementation, which would ensure wider regional connectivity, increasing North-South transit trade and investment through Iran and Afghanistan.

At the same time, Ghani welcomed India’s decision to provide support to the Habibia School in Kabul over the next 10 years; contribute to the Afghan Red Crescent Society’s program to treat Child Congenital Heart disease over the next 5 years; and offer assistance for a program of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul over the same period.

The Afghan president also appreciated India’s decision to extend the 1,000 ICCR scholarships per year scheme for another 5 years until the academic year 2021-22. Both sides agreed to sign in the coming months a number of commercial, consular, and mutual legal assistance MoUs to further expand bilateral cooperation between Afghanistan and India. These range from an extradition treaty to an agreement on visa-free entry for holders of diplomatic passports.

The Way Forward

Afghanistan and India have a full agenda of shared objectives to execute. The framework, within which bilateral aid programs and projects should be implemented, is the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which Afghanistan signed with India in 2011. Over the long run, the multi-dimensional Indo-Afghan relationship will only grow, in line with the two nations’ historic ties and converging interests, which they share with China and Russia.

Like Afghanistan, India, China, and Russia have been targets of terrorist attacks, and remain concerned about the growing threats of terrorism, radicalism and criminality that primarily destabilise the country and also undermine regional peace and stability. Afghanistan has of course long been fighting the threat of terrorism. Its forces continue to wage a relentless campaign that has found consistent institutional support outside of Afghanistan. Casualty estimates vary, but about 92,000 innocent Afghans are believed to have been killed since 2001, while nearly 100,000 others have been wounded. Just recently, the United Nations reported that more than 11,000 Afghans were killed by terrorist attacks across Afghanistan in 2015.

The 2015 summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS in Ufa, Russia, also discussed the intertwined security challenges of terrorism, radicalism, and criminality that confront the entire region, with far-reaching implications for international peace and security. As Ghani said in the two summits, Afghanistan occupies ‘a prominent place in the narrative and activities of terrorist organisation networks; they are betting on our failure and should we fail, three of our neighbours, China, India, and Russia, out of the big countries, will be in harm’s way, but also all our other neighbours, near and far.”

To avoid this scenario, especially in light of the rising presence of ISIS in Afghanistan, Ghani called on the three key regional players to join in a ‘forceful and coherent action’ against any threats that undermine the security and stability of the region. He strongly recommended that the SCO – which will include India and Pakistan as full members – adopt a comprehensive strategy to overcome terrorism, since international actions have so far been ‘partial and fragmented,’ while terrorist networks such as ISIS and al Qaeda have moved ‘with coherence, determination, and decisiveness.’

As ever, India has responded positively to the security and development needs of Afghanistan. Earlier this year, India provided Afghanistan with 4 Mi-25 attack helicopters, filling an urgent gap in the close-air-support capabilities of the Afghan army and police, as they battle the whole world’s war against terrorism. This military aid is matched by India’s ongoing civilian aid, as the country recently signed 12 MoUs with the Afghan Ministry of Economy to implement 92 small development projects at the cost of $20.4 million.

And on March 3, 2016, the first meeting of the bilateral working group on infrastructure development, within the Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement framework, took place in Delhi. Officials on both sides discussed how India could help address Afghanistan’s major infrastructure needs that would further boost internal and regional connectivity for increased transit trade and investment. In the coming months and years, India is certain to stay the course by enabling the Afghan people to build on their hard-earned gains of the past 15 years for the further stabilisation and development of their country. Indeed, this Indian effort will help ensure peace in Afghanistan and security throughout the region.