By C. Uday Bhaskar*
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who has just completed two years in office in end-May has demonstrated a high degree of personal involvement in foreign policy matters and has commenced his third year with a brisk five nation tour that began over the weekend (June 4-5) wherein he visited Afghanistan and Qatar. Subsequently, he will proceed to Switzerland, USA and Mexico.
Afghanistan and Qatar are an instructive contrast in that one is the richest nation in the world by way of per capita (Qatar – USD 146,000 in PPP) while the former is listed among the poorest and the view from Kabul is very bleak. Yet, both nations have a special relevance in the regional context individually and also have a complex linkage in relation to Islamic radicalism/terrorism and the Taliban in particular – an issue which is of salience to India.
PM Modi was in Afghanistan at a time when the war-torn nation is reeling under a renewed Taliban attack on security personnel and over the last week, more than 50 police personnel have been killed in the Helmand province. In a departure from the norm, some of the attackers were wearing a burqa as they stopped buses and pulled out the police personnel who were then slaughtered.
The more recent US drone attack that eliminated Taliban leader Mullah Mansour(May 21) has led to considerable turbulence within the Taliban and a new leadership has been put in place that includes Sirajuddin Haqqani – a notorious perpetrator of terror attacks as the number two man.
Qatar has played an active role in encouraging the Taliban to open an office in the Arabian peninsula and has been seen as a credible facilitator by some factions within Afghanistan. Thus for Delhi, the Qatar-Taliban connection is a slender window that offers certain non-Pakistani possibilities. However, on Saturday the focus was on the Salma dam in the Herat province that was inaugurated by PM Modi and the Afghan President and is testimony to the manner in which Indian support has been translated into tangible development infrastructure. Indian personnel along with their Afghan counterparts have toiled in dangerous conditions to complete this project.
PM Modi dwelt at length on the friendship symbolized by the re-built Salma dam and his hosts were particularly gratified that India projected itself as a’development partner’ and not as a hands-off ‘donor’ that did not empathize with the Afghan people.
It may be recalled that in December last, PM Modi had handed over the Parliament building that had been built in Kabul with Indian aid to the Afghan people and the building is symbolic of the aspirations of a population that is weary of war and sectarian turmoil. The Afghan elections held under very challenging circumstances are testimony to the commitment and determination of the stoic Afghan citizenry to strengthen the roots of participatory democracy despite the dire threats issued by the local Taliban.
The Salma dam in Herat has been re-built at a cost of US $279 million and is part of a two billion dollar aid package that India is committed to. Other major projects include the Zaranj-Delaram road corridor (that will enable the Chabahar connectivity to Afghanistan) and power transmission lines. Having had occasion to visit some of these projects when they were being built, one can vouch for the arduous nature of such project execution in Afghanistan in the face of Taliban threats. Timely completion of major projects is also a reflection of India’s credibility abroad. To that extent, learning from the Afghanistan experience, the need to create a core team of dedicated professionals who can manage Indian infrastructure projects abroad merits consideration.
Afghanistan is unlikely to see a dramatic transformation for the better in the near future and the primary reason for such a bleak assessment is the role of external actors. Pakistan’s support to the (Afghan) Taliban and groups such as the Haqqani network is the major stumbling block. This is compounded by other factors such as: the ambivalence of donor nations led by the USA, the deep sectarian divisions exacerbated by regional geo-politics, the deviations introduced by narcotics and a socio-cultural inheritance that is rooted in traditional norms that venerate tribal loyalties and is alas still oriented against women.
This is a long list of structural constraints that will have to be resolved at the end of the day by the Afghan people themselves and friendly nations can only enable this effort in a patient consensual manner. India’s contribution reflects this quiet commitment and includes the parliament complex, dams, power projects, hospitals, a generous education scheme (1,000 scholarships are offered to Afghan students annually by Delhi) and limited military training.
India will have to consider how best to be part of the political reconciliation process in the face of Rawalpindi’s opposition and here some suggestions have been made that Tehran and Moscow which have in the past played a major role could be bought into the framework along with Delhi.
This is where the Qatar visit of PM Modi acquires added significance. Qatar, often associated with Al-jazeera is a distinctive Arab nation with a huge hydrocarbon profile (gas in particular) and is an important energy supplier for India. In addition, this nation of just two million it is now playing a major role in regional affairs. It has taken a position to support non-state groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and was visibly active in the turbulence that engulfed Libya and Egypt. Concurrently, it also provided diplomatic support to the Taliban to open an office in Qatar and has facilitated peace talks and its ‘honest-broker’ profile is in contrast to the role being played by Pakistan.
India’s West Asia policy needs re-calibration and has to be infused with the kind of directivity and sustained high-level political investment that one discerns in the Act East policy. The region is critical to India as the most important energy supplier and is also home to a vast diaspora. The regional framework has been altered with the gradual return of Iran post the rapprochement over the nuclear issue and Delhi has to carefully balance its national interest compulsions as it engages with Iran and Saudi Arabia, as also Israel even while remaining invested in Palestine.
PM Modi is to be commended for the focus and energy he has imparted to foreign policy but the challenge as always will be to translate word into deed. The third year is deemed to be the most effective for a parliamentary form of government such as India and the need for a dedicated West Asia sherpa or a special envoy who can pull the various strands together merits consideration.
*C. Uday Bhaskar is the Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]