Being regional power: Why India should get out of its 'comfort zone' on Afghanistan fast

Over a fortnight ago, four former Ambassadors of India to Afghanistan gathered in New Delhi before an invited audience to discuss the future of that country. These were some of the finest Indian diplomats we have had in recent years -- Satinder K Lambah, Vivek Katju, Rakesh Sood and our envoy until December last year and a serving diplomat, Amar Sinha.

Being regional power: Why India should get out of its comfort zone on Afghanistan fast

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

But, their prognosis of the future for Afghanistan was far from encouraging. They all argued that the security situation would deteriorate further and it would take two-three years for conditions to stabilize. Frankly, they all shared pessimistic security outlook for Afghanistan and separately emphasised that they could not speculate where the war-torn country was headed. Moreover, the uneasy relationship between President Ashraf Ghani
and CEO Abdullah Abdullah could soon reaching a breaking point.

According to UN the number of casualties, dead and injured among civilians was the highest in 2015. Reports by security experts and international media have painted an alarming state of ground situation not only in Southern Afghanistan (traditional stronghold) of Taliban but, even Northern provinces like Badakshan, bordering Central Asia. Daily reports point to attacks in Nagrahar, Helmand, Kandahar and Kunduz provinces apart from Kabul getting increasingly targetted.

In this background India has finished the building of Parliament in Kabul which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January and the Salma Dam project is nearing completion. In the coming weeks another milestone would be reached when $300 million Salma Dam project is completed. Damaged during Taliban rule the renamed Afghan-India Friendship Dam is expected to be produce 42 MW of electricity and water nearly 80,000 hectares of farmland.
It was reported in the local press that when the reservoir’s earth filling process was on, grateful residents of villages walked to Indian consulate and stood outside singing Bollywood numbers from Amitabh Bachchan old movies.
None can deny that Afghan people view India and the people with love and affection that are not shared with any other country.

India’s commitment to a politically stable and economically strong Afghanistan has remained steadfast and is evident from the previously pledged $2 billion in relief and construction activities of the country.

With two major projects coming to a close the government of India has announced the 3rd phase of 92 small development projects totalling $16-17 million.

But all planned funding or investment would necessitate a certain amount of political stability. That means New Delhi’s economic co-operation would slow down if not halt.

After Modi’s Kabul visit and a trip to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Lahore residence, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called for co-operation from Pakistan to make Afghanistan an economic hub.

In Rawalpindi, the Generals have no intention to accommodate New Delhi. Afghanistan is too important for them to allow India any space or say in that country’s future. The Pakistan Afghanistan Trade and Transit Agreement is highly unlikely to be expanded to include India.

What options does India have given these realities? India’s former envoys in Kabul offered no new option from what is already known publicly.

A few months ago Firstpost had looked at different options that could look at. India’s conservative diplomats would not like to do anything that is dramatically different. But, if India wants to pursue a muscular foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi it must also look for out of the box options.

With Iran nuclear agreement under implementation and the US relaxing sanctions on Tehran, the Modi government must put all its energies in getting the Chabahar port project operational.

With access through Pakistan unlikely to materialise it is the Iranian route that India needs to seriously work on. For months Iran had sought India to expedite its decision making process to start investing in Chabahar Port in Sistan-Balochistan border that hold the potential for India to bypass Pakistan and reach Afghanistan. Growing restlessness with Indian bureaucracy led Iran to woo China for investment to get New Delhi to get serious about Chabahar.

Pressure from Tehran seemed to have worked and now Parliament has been informed that negotiations on an Agreement on India-Iran-Afghanistan Trilateral Transit Corridor have made progress and the next meeting of experts to finalise the clauses of this agreement will be held in India shortly.

A few weeks ago the Union cabinet extended a $150 million credit line to Iran to help develop Chabahar port.

Serious efforts must be made to make Chabahar take off.

At the same time India needs to deliberate on how it could provide succour to Pakistan-dependent Afghan exporters by making access to Indian market possible for fruit and dry fruit growers. Weekly chartered freight flights to ferry fruits and dry fruits to Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai would provide better price and lower their dependence on Pakistan.

Similar assistance that go beyond traditional dam and road projects need to be studied and options looked at, including sale of small weapons and infantry guns as requested by Kabul government for long. The political leadership needs to be less conservative and must explore options that would reflect India’s deep interest in Afghanistan’s future and seriousness to engage at more substantial level.

The US foreign policy establishment and some experts have for long tried to impress upon New Delhi since the tenure of Manmohan Singh that regional power or regional superpower status entails taking difficult foreign policy decisions at times. The Modi government must decide and move out of New Delhi’s “comfort zone”.

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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2016 18:16:43 IST

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