By Arvind Gupta
The signing of a strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan on October 4, 2011 during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India was a landmark event. The document is significant for its implications for Indo-Afghan relations as well as for India’s wider neighbourhood policy.
The agreement positions India and Afghanistan for the post-2014 situation when the international forces are scheduled to withdraw and hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was categorical in his support for the Afghan people when he stated at a news conference that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”
Pakistan’s negative reaction to the Indo-Afghan Strategic partnership was expected. Pakistan takes India-Afghan relations as detrimental to its own interests. Its zero-sum attitude to regional cooperation creates many security dilemmas in the region. President Karzai is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, he sees Pakistan as playing a destabilizing “double game” in Afghanistan; and, on the other, he regards Pakistan as a “brother”, while describing India as a “great friend”. The nuance to be underlined here is that friends always help while brothers can sometimes do great harm. Pakistan is singularly placed to hurt Afghanistan’s interest. This is well recognised in Afghanistan where India enjoys warm welcome while Pakistan often comes for stinging criticism. Pakistan, concerned over the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, is likely to step up pressure on the Afghan government.
There is a politico-security component to the strategic partnership but the agreement does not tantamount to a security alliance. The agreement states clearly that the strategic partnership is not directed against “any other state or group of states”. India has merely agreed to assist in the “training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan national security forces.”
Going beyond the security dimension, the partnership arrangement also dwells on trade and economic cooperation, capacity development and education, social cultural & civil society and people to people relations. Significantly, the agreement provides for a high powered implementation mechanism. A “Partnership Council” at the Foreign Ministers’ level with four separate joint working groups, on political & security consultations, trade and economic cooperation, capacity development and education, and social cultural & civil society interactions, will be set up. The numerous existing dialogue mechanisms between the two countries will be consolidated and brought under the Partnership Council. The two sides will also have a regular strategic dialogue. The setting up of a Partnership Council will ensure that bilateral relations get sustained attention.
Indo-Afghan bilateral ties are set to expand to new areas. Two separate MoUs have been signed on mining and hydrocarbon exploration. A large number of specific areas of cooperation have been mentioned, including trade, investment, science & technology, agriculture, mining, health, regional trading arrangements, quality assurance and standardization, transportation, energy, regional infrastructural projects, annual scholarship programmes, sports and student exchanges. An eminent persons group representing different fields will also be established. Parliament to parliament exchanges will be promoted. All this will help strengthen mutually beneficial economic ties between the two countries. At a time when the West is distancing itself from Afghanistan, India is helping the country in nation building.
India and Afghanistan have been cooperating for the last 10 years. India has provided nearly $ 1.5 billion worth of assistance and trained a large number of Afghans in India including the Afghan police. The partnership agreement consolidates the various interactions and provides a robust institutional mechanism to build the relationship further.
The strategic partnership lays considerable emphasis on people to people ties. The two sides have agreed to simplify the rules to facilitate people to people exchanges. This will require easing of the existing rigid visa regime. Afghan visitors have often complained of difficulties in getting visas and harassment while dealing with the officialdom here. India will need to modernize and update its immigration system and also make it visitor-friendly.
Being the first strategic partnership agreement that India has signed with a South Asian country, it has implications for India’s neighbourhood policy. India appears to be taking a cooperative security approach to deal with security issues, combining hard and soft power options. The strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan showcases India’s considerable soft power. It signals to the other neighbours that there are benefits to be had from partnering with India and shedding negative attitudes. There is growing realization that human security concerns are as important as traditional, hard core security concerns. Focusing on the people helps to mitigate security issues and also brings prosperity to the people. That is why the strategic partnership agreement focuses on terrorism on the one hand and regional cooperation capacity building, trade & investment and human security concerns on the other.
If India is able to sustain such a comprehensive partnership with Afghanistan in trying circumstances, it would serve as a model for India to manage its relationships with other neighbouring countries. But sustaining an expanded policy in the neighbourhood will demand resources. The Ministry of External Affair’s website provides some numbers that help assess how much it is spending on soft power projection. India’s assistance to Bhutan in 2010-11 was Rs. 1294 crore, followed by Rs. 290 crore for Afghanistan, Rs. 151 crore for Nepal, Rs. 90 crore for Sri Lanka, Rs. 90 crore for Myanmar, Rs. 6 crore for Bangladesh, Rs. 3 crore for Maldives, and Rs. 150 crore for the whole of Africa. India spent Rs. 1958 crore on the ITEC (technical cooperation) programme. Assistance and soft loans to various governments constitute about 6 per cent of the MEA’s total budget of Rs. 6375 crore, with ITEC consuming about 31 per cent of the total budget.
For a country of the size of India with a global foreign policy, these are small sums. The immediate challenge will be to provide resources for the expanded Indo-Afghan strategic partnership. In general, India will require far greater resources to conduct an effective and sustainable foreign policy in the neighbourhood.
The author holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/StrategicPartnershipwithAfghanistanIndiaShowcasesitsSoftPower_agupta_101011