Shakti Sinha: The Changing Strategic Environment in India’s North West neighbourhood

Shakti Sinha Shakti Sinha
Director, South Asian Institute of Strategic Affairs

The long-awaited visit of President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan was unusual in that the expectations were low, the opposite of what we would normally expect. The Indian strategic community was not particularly enthused with Ghani’s perceived tilt towards Pakistan and China. And the leadership in the foreign ministry had to face an unusual situation of having to deal with an Afghan leader who was apparently not seen as a close friend of India, a first since the Taliban were overthrown. The physical situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate, with increased levels of terrorism for which the Afghan people and society are paying a heavy price. Thirdly, the expectations of any bilateral visit have changed in this present era of mass media and instant judgement and their success, or failures, is measured in terms of agreements/ memorandum of understanding/ protocols signed, not in facilitating better understanding of each others’ positions.
Prime Minister Modi in the joint press conference with President Ghani made it quite clear that the India-Afghanistan relations are not transactional, that India shares the dreams of the Afghan people for peace and stability, in fact that ‘India stands shoulder-to-shoulder’ with the Afghan people, supports an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Modi added that India ‘shared Afghanistan’s pain over persisting terrorism and extremist violence that destroyed lives and derailed progress.’ President Ghani, on his part, interestingly said that the bilateral relations between Afghanistan and India were unique in that the past did not stand in the way of such relationship, not something that had to be overcome. And both leaders in the joint communiqué ‘reaffirmed their commitment to patiently and systematically work towards strengthening of the India Afghanistan Strategic partnership, with a clear focus on the long term relationship between them.’
While the overall optics looks fine, many Indian strategists do feel a sense of disappointment. Unlike the previous communiqué of 2013 issued during the last bilateral visit of President Karzai, this time around there was no mention of Indian assistance in defence and security sectors. Though the Indian government used the visit to hand over three Cheetal helicopters, the fact is that Ghani confirmed that while he has not withdrawn his predecessor’s wish list of defence equipment, he is not acting on it either. When asked at the press conference about Pakistan becoming the country of choice for defence assistance, Ghani was quick to point out that while there are only 8 Afghan defence personnel being trained in Pakistan, the numbers being trained in India was 600. Afghanistan has generally not come into the picture in the India-Pakistan ongoing tensions. While there is no doubt that during the Taliban period, there were training camps in Khost province of Afghanistan for training terrorists to be deployed in Kashmir, and the Laskar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), the Haqqani network and the Hizb-ul-Tahreer besides the Taliban have targeted Indians and Indian assets in Afghanistan, including the recent attack on Hotel Park Palace. India operates 4 consulates in Afghanistan, two in Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, are very far from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Yet elements in Pakistan, including the then President Musharraf, insists that all Indian consulates are concentrated near the borders. And the other two are in Jalalabad and Kandahar, admittedly the two most important cities in the East and the South. And despite repeatedly allegations of Indian involvement in Baluchistan, using consulates in Afghanistan, no proof has yet been offered.
President Ghani’s entire focus was on the economic integration of the South Asian region, of Afghanistan being the hub connecting this region with Central Asia and West Asia. He gave the historic example of the Indo-Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri and the economic integration engendered by the construction of the Grand Trunk Road. In that vein, he talked about pipelines, railroads, fibre optic cables and highways linking the region. In the specific context of Chahbahar port, he said that Afghanistan would set up a special economic zone on the Iranian border which would provide easy link with the port. And that he had directed that the route of the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) bypass the troubled Helmand and neighbouring provinces.
President Ghani as a serious scholar of state stability and based on his extensive experience at the World Bank and stint as his country’s finance minister is absolutely right to focus on the economic aspects of bilateral relations and regional architecture. And India, particularly with the present government’s rightful focus on economic growth, trade and regional/ supra-regional integration, should cooperate with the Afghan authorities in pushing this agenda. Ghani’s turning to China to help bring peace to his country, by pushing Pakistan in this direction, is a useful starting point. China appears keen to change the dominant narrative in Pakistan by launching the US$ 46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Contrary to many Pakistani analysts, Chinese funding would be strictly as a commercial investment, with attractive guaranteed returns. These investments would not take place, or yield returns, unless there is peace and stability in Pakistan. This represents a unique opportunity to convert the ‘garrison state’ into a normal country, which puts the socio-economic growth of its people as its top priority. A dangerously unstable Afghanistan would in the end send Tsunami waves across Pakistan, jeopardising CPEC completely, and with it, all prospects of peace, stability and growth in Pakistan. Hence, Ghani’s turn to China seems extremely rational even though the jury is still out whether this gamble would succeed.
Specifically on regional economic integration and on Afghanistan once again becoming the hub linking three regions and beyond, the lowest picking fruit would be to link India and Afghanistan by road. Afghanistan is a land-locked country with Pakistan being its single most important ‘door’ to the world. The existing Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Agreement allows Afghan trucks to bring Afghan goods through Pakistani territory to Wagah, but does not allow these trucks to carry any Indian goods back to Pakistan, thereby severely reducing its economic viability. Recently, the Indian Embassy in Kabul made a demarche to the Afghan Government that since the treaty is being revised, India should be made a party to it. Global experience in enhancing regional economic integration place direct transport links as a useful staring point, and a minimum requirement for regional integration to take place. Pending that which is not likely to happen in the near-term, Afghan trucks should be allowed to carry Indian goods from Wagah to Afghanistan, as they are doing on the Karachi- Afghanistan route. In other words, Afghan importers would get the option that is normally available globally to all land-locked country. This would also make Afghan logistic companies competitive, and lead to increased trading volumes.
If this simple request, which is neither a favour nor unusual, would give India the assurance that Pakistan is a trusted partner in economic relations and would provide a conducive atmosphere for India’s participation in the TAPI project. Insecurity in southern Afghanistan may pose a threat to the project as a whole, but it is unlikely that India would support TAPI until it sees Pakistan as a responsible partner. Without India, TAP is unlikely to be a viable project.
The Modi government has very wisely decided to invest US$ 86 million in upgrading Chahbahar project, as a way to lessen Afghanistan’s dependence on Karachi, and to provide India an access to Central Asia. India and Afghanistan should work with Iran to make Chahbahar and its catchment area an economic hub through improved security, supporting infrastructure and a web of commercial ecosystem necessary to attract investment. Similarly, Government of India should devise innovative instruments, to encourage the Indian private sector to become a participant in Afghanistan’s economic growth story.
India-Afghanistan relations are long term and there would be political setbacks but if economic underpinnings are strong, then obstacles can be considerably stymied. India must show leadership, and generosity, so that countries in the region can become its close economic partners, benefitting from its growth, and providing the former with peace and stability in its neighbourhood.