By Janosch Jerman
Facing the exit of Western combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the signing of the strategic partnership agreement (SPA) signals a stronger Indian role in Afghanistan. Whereas India has in fact a theoretical potential for playing a bigger role in Afghanistan’s future, its unresolved conflict with Pakistan clearly speaks against such involvement. First and foremost, India has to understand that it is perceived as part of the problem in Afghanistan.
When signing the strategic partnership agreement – the first in Afghanistan’s history – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced it would create an ‘institutional framework’ for cooperation between the two countries. In fact, the agenda is ambitious, involving four working groups, a strategic dialogue and regular cabinet-level contacts. It follows India’s long-term involvement in Afghanistan, where it represents the fifth-largest bilateral donor, contributing almost US$2 billion over the last ten years. An agreement that aims at closer cooperation between the two countries, including ‘training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces’, is therefore only consequential.
From an Afghan perspective, India is one of the few nations in the country with a serious interest in stability. Such am agreement makes Afghanistan more independent from ISAF, ensuring that security forces training will continue even after the Western nations withdraw their troops. At the same time, it also underlines Afghanistan’s independence from Pakistan, showing that it is able to maintain good bilateral relations even with countries hostile to Pakistan. Finally, it sets off a process of regional integration for Afghanistan, in an attempt to increase trade and bolster the economy. For Afghanistan, the SPA therefore is a powerful institutional mechanism to ensure cooperation with India that also guarantees support for the troops post 2014.
Similarly for India, such an agreement is equally attractive. Since Afghanistan is not a direct neighbour, India has no immediate obligation to get involved. Rather, through its soft-power approach, India opts to establish itself as a regional power that comes in to help its ‘friend’. Some observers even see the SPA – India’s first one with a South Asian nation – as the beginning of a cooperative approach to regional security that emphasizes the benefits of cooperating with India. Nevertheless, Afghanistan does represent India’s realpolitik power interests. An India-friendly Afghanistan keeps Pakistan in check and takes attention away from the embattled Kashmir region. Given that India is victim to terrorism emerging out of the Af-Pak region, it has to take part in establishing stability in Afghanistan. Additionally, if India is serious about its regional power ambition, it cannot shy away from the most pressing conflict in the region. Furthermore, India and Afghanistan recently signed MoUs regarding mining and hydrocarbon exploration, resulting in the signing of a US$10 billion mining deal. At the same time, India’s influence allows to block Pakistani access to the resource-rich Central Asian states – at least without India having a say in it. Finally, and maybe most importantly, a stable and possibly even democratic Afghanistan would contain extremist forces in Afghanistan and thus prevent a further destabilization of Pakistan.
For Pakistan, however, the SPA is all but welcome. Irrespective of improving relations between India and Pakistan, including the possibility of granting each other the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status, India is still all but Pakistan’s ‘most favoured’ nation. Pakistan, utilizing Afghanistan for its ‘strategic depth’, fears nothing more than being encircled by India. For that reason, Pakistan follows a realist zero-sum policy in the region in which the gains of the others are their own losses. Any Indian involvement in Afghanistan is therefore seen as potentially threatening, as the 2009 attack on India’s embassy in Kabul forcefully showed. Following the signing of the Indo-Afghan strategic agreement, Karzai attempted to play down the significance, explaining “Pakistan is our twin brother, India is a great friend. The agreement we signed with our friend will not affect our brother.” It is unlikely, however, that Pakistan will be satisfied by this assurance.
Given India’s soft-power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has two options. It can try to challenge India’s role by competing in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, attempting to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and their government. Or, it can continue to play a destructive role against stability and Indian influence in Afghanistan by supporting and harbouring Afghanistan’s insurgency. A unified Afghanistan, led by an India-friendly Pashtun government, is Pakistan’s nightmare, which it will try to prevent at all costs. At present, there is no indication that Pakistan would change its course in favour of a (more) constructive role – it has no incentive to do so. Pakistan’s fears will increase parallel to India’s involvement in Afghanistan. Should India have an honest interest in a stable Afghanistan, it has to play low.India must acknowledge that it is part of the problem in Afghanistan. India’s involvement would be welcomed greatly by Afghanistan and the West, but as long as Pakistan feels threatened by India, any involvement at present is counter-productive.
Research Intern, IPCS
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