India’s Afghan Game: Strategy and Balance from Central Asia

While India’s race with China for Indian Ocean hegemony continues to escalate, India is taking an alternative approach in Afghanistan in order to attain and maintain its strategic edge in the region. In an interesting yet not unprecedented development, India has agreed to engage in a cooperative measure with its foremost competitor for Asian supremacy. A two-day summit at the end of April between India and China concluded with an agreement to implement joint development measures in Afghanistan, a move for New Delhi that is ultimately a part of a much larger strategy begun several years ago that aims at balancing against its historical enemy in Islamabad and contributing to its quest for regional hegemony.

 

The Commerce of Aid

The cooperative project in Afghanistan with the Chinese is just the latest undertaking by India following its five year, USD 1 billion ‘New Development Partnership’ (NDP) that was agreed to with the Afghan government in September of 2017. India’s NDP with Afghanistan covers over 100 development initiatives across sectors such as health, education, and institution-building in more than 30 provinces.  This partnership comes in conjunction with an ongoing aid initiative that already includes the creation of new roads and highways, the construction of the Afghan national parliament, and the building of dams such as the completed Salma project and the planned Shahtoot initiative.

India’s investment in Afghanistan goes hand-in-hand with their vision for increased commerce with the Central Asian nation. India’s impact on Afghan economic development is two-fold: it comes via an increase in trade volume as well as in the role of India-funded infrastructure that facilitates and makes such trade possible. India’s ‘Ministry of External Affairs’ noted that bilateral trade between the two nations approached a level near the USD $800 million mark in 2016-17. With both Kabul and New Delhi seemingly adamant about the warming progression of their relationship, trade value is only expected to increase. The most significant boost to Indo-Afghan bilateral trade comes from the viable access to Afghanistan now provided by the Chabahar-Zahedan rail-line via Iran’s Chabahar Port. Development of this port is now in the second phase of substantial joint efforts as per a trilateral agreement between India-Iran-Afghanistan signed in May of 2016. Moreover, the 2017 establishment of a series air freight corridors intended to increase volume of trade has indeed stimulated bilateral commerce. There is the possibility of further advancement provided that the Wagah-Attari route manages to remain open on a regular basis.

 

Brothers in “Arms”?

India’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan is not limited to development projects and increased trade endeavors. There have been a variety of defense-based partnerships and agreements between the two nations in recent years. Driving this cooperation is a concern held by both nations regarding cross-border terrorism committed by Pakistan-based jihadi groups and Pakistan’s perceived role in facilitating such acts both in India and in Afghanistan. There is also fear over the growing presence of ISIS in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan.

In April of 2018, India agreed to provide Afghanistan with a variety of military equipment including tank parts and counter-insurgency (COIN) rocket systems. This agreement comes on the back of the attack helicopters sold to the Afghan Airforce in December 2016, the ongoing training of Afghan security forces at multiple Indian defense institutes and the additional four Mi-35 choppers (the export version of the Mi-24) that India will supply to Kabul. Indian reaffirmed in 2017 the continuation of counterterror cooperation as well as increased support for the Afghan security apparatus. There has also been discussion in the last twelve months regarding the potential for India to send troops into Afghanistan. And, while there is no indication of imminent military action, the fact that a discussion has even taken place regarding troop involvement is a telling sign of the concern held by both countries over the aforementioned terror threat and border security issues, and of the direction in which Indo-Afghan relations currently are heading.

 

The Afghan Plan and India’s Ambitions for Regional Hegemony?

India’s multipronged approach in Afghanistan serves their strategic interests in several ways. First, it aids in the continual reinforcement of a significant relationship with a nation whose instability comes, in part, from the same primary source as India’s own insecurity: Pakistan and its support for known terror outfits. This creates a common cause for Indo-Afghan cooperation that operates at a collective level and addresses the normative need for both state and regional stability.

Combined with Afghanistan’s increasingly tumultuous relationship with Pakistan, New Delhi’s progressively closer ties with Kabul could afford them a strategic positioning should a large conflict break out with Pakistan in the future. Given Afghanistan’s geostrategic significance, an increased Indian presence there would contribute to its own desire for Pakistani encirclement while working to ensure that they do not succumb the same fate of strategic encirclement in the region themselves.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, India’s relationship with Afghanistan has led to development of Chabahar Port in Iran which not only creates a bypass of Pakistan for goods heading from India to Afghanistan but, as a supply line and operational launch pad, it is also critical to India’s ongoing securitization of the Indian Ocean Region and its desire for supremacy there. In turn, India’s influence and ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan and surrounding regions is bolstered by its newly acquired capability to reach the area with supplies and goods via specialized access to this port.

India’s monumental aid to Afghanistan, the rapidly increasing bilateral trade relationship, and the progressive development of defense and military ties, all work to support India’s grand strategy in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions, and it makes them a significant player in the newly reconstituted ‘Great Game’ currently underway for supremacy in Asia.