A New Era of India-Afghan Relations

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India’s strategic partnership and friendship with Afghanistan is an "article of faith" and "not just another relationship, but a spiritual and civilizational connect," said India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj. She also announced that India and Afghanistan have agreed to launch a New Development Partnership through which the two countries will jointly implement 116 "high impact" development projects across Afghanistan.

According to the terms of the partnership, India will aid Afghanistan in infrastructural projects such as constructing dams, roads, and power transmission lines among other things. These projects will not only be in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul but also in 31 provinces across the country.

India’s support to Afghanistan sovereignty is not a new phenomenon. As Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani elucidated in an interview recently, “India has been very active for the past 17 years and even before that, so it is important that is now being recognised.” 

In fact India had signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan at the end of 2011 that called for expansive bilateral military cooperation. That was followed by, The Strategic Partnership Council meeting for the first time in 2012. It is now, after five years, that the council finally reconvened and took vital decisions. As per recent reports, the council now aims to meet every year. 

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 Advisor (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.

Experts have stated that India should play a decisive role in strengthening Afghanistan’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. In view of this, India is negotiating with the United States (US) the potential acquisition of non-lethal guardian surveillance drones. 

Another key area that India could possibly support Afghanistan with is air space surveillance. India is one of the leading players in air space and satellite technology, and it possesses some of the most advanced space sensors, such as the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which could provide all-weather coverage. At the 2nd Strategic Partnership Council Meeting, India widened its co-operation with Afghanistan in the field of space technology by extending assistance in remote sensing. India also welcomed Afghanistan’s participation in the South Asia Satellite project, a gift from New Delhi to its neighbours, as the two sides exchanged an Orbit Frequency Coordination Agreement.

The intensifying of the strategic partnership comes against the backdrop of US President Donald Trump’s aim to improve India's socio-economic footprint in Afghanistan. “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India - the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.  We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan; we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” declared the US president, while expounding America’s South Asia strategy. It is for the first time that the US has coupled India in its broader South Asia strategy, in view of Afghanistan.

Until the recent speech by US President Trump, there was an uneasy feeling amongst India’s decision-making and strategic circles that US was not keen on India’s active role in Afghanistan. This was made evident in Shakti Sinha’s, the Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, proclamation that “While India knew it had to step up its role, it was hesitant. Because there was a feeling from the US that Pakistan will get upset. But now since that is out of the way and the US is making it clear, it is in India’s interests clearly to see a strong and prosperous Afghanistan,”

 A similar ethos has been reiterated by the US acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, in response to a question from Indian-American Congressman, Ami Bera, on India's role in Afghanistan. She stated that “just as Pakistan has very real and legitimate security interests in Afghanistan, so does India. And we would like to see and appreciate constructive economic investments in Afghanistan's stability and institutional stability."

It would be remiss to deny Pakistan’s role concerning the security in the region. In the recent past, two significant events in the international arena have clearly pointed to Pakistan facing the blowback of supporting terror. The first was the statement from US President Donald Trump who termed Pakistan as a safe haven for terrorists in his South Asia strategy.  The Second was the BRICS Summit declaration which condemned Pakistan based terror organisations. The summit statement asserted, “We express concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/DAISH, Al-Qaida and its affiliates including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.” The statement mentioned above was a marked departure from earlier BRICS statements. Take for example, the declaration issued after last year’s summit in Goa that referred to terrorism several times but only named one group, the Islamic State.

Indian policymakers have realised that in addition to assisting in Afghanistan’s stability, they must help Afghanistan forge alternate access to the world and in specific, to Central Asia. That explains the investment of $500 million in the construction of the Chabahar Port, which envisions a transport-and-trade corridor stretching from Iran to India via Afghanistan and Central Asia,  excluding Pakistan. The deal, concluded in 2016, could give India access to Iranian crude oil and natural gas, in addition to energy supplies in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and other Central Asian states.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi aptly summarised India’s intent behind the construction of the Chabahar Port while addressing the Afghanistan Parliament. He said, "When Afghanistan becomes a haven of peace and a hub for the flow of ideas, commerce, energy and investments in the region, we will all prosper together. That is why we are working to improve your connectivity by land and sea.”

With this it will be safe to say that India’s renewed approach for co-operation with Afghanistan could well mark an ‘inflection point’, as C. Rajamohan, Director, Carnegie India, wrote. In which he further elaborated that, although Delhi’s approach towards Kabul has been marked by excessive caution, now it seems ready to make it ‘bold’.

(Writer is Deputy Director at India Foundation, views expressed are personal)