India’s Afghan Policy has largely been focussed on bilateral engagement with Afghanistan characterized by its enhanced role in reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts and dependence on American military strategy.
New Delhi has taken up a proactive role in terms of projecting its soft-power image by contributing in the areas of infrastructure, health, education and capacity building. India’s interest in building transport corridors and investing in energy projects also aims at gaining access to the Central Asian energy resources. Its support in critical socio-economic areas has earned good will of Afghans. Many opinion polls suggest that India is one of the favorite countries for the Afghans.
However, India’s enhanced soft-power image does not increase its abilities to shape Afghan situation following the American withdrawal. India entered into strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan in 2011 and raised the possibility that it might train, equip and build the capacity of the Afghan army in order to stabilize Afghanistan.
Accordingly, the previous Afghan President Hamid Karzai sent a wish list of military requirements that Afghanistan wanted to procure from India and the proposal was cold shouldered by the then Indian leadership in order not to antagonize Pakistan and lose the momentum of ongoing peace initiatives with it. The Indian government under Modi’s leadership has expressed its willingness to supply four Russian-made helicopters to the Afghan army but that is not enough to ensure stability in Afghanistan with the dwindling American military assistance. In the absence of a military footprint in Afghanistan and ability to effectively project hard power beyond its borders, India’s Afghan policy is likely to suffer unless compensated by robust regional engagement.
In reality, India was unable to expand its soft-power resources to the larger region in so far as it failed to evolve and engage other countries surrounding Afghanistan around common views and ways of fighting terrorism and ensuring a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. India’s over-dependence on American military strategy is largely responsible for its predicament. India failed to observe how the Central Asian strategy of the US ever since the Soviet disintegration did not co-opt Indian interests. The US considered the Taliban a stabilizing force in Afghanistan which could help it secure a pipeline bypassing Russia and Iran and thereby could end their possible monopoly over oil supplies. It is not far-fetched to believe that the Americans would not have taken on the Taliban if the latter had not turned away from the US orbit of influence.
Surprisingly, both the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defense of India in their annual report 1995-96 referred nowhere to the American complicity in destabilizing Afghanistan and expressed concerns over the Pakistani role in sabotaging peace in Afghanistan by propping up and assisting the Taliban.
India was quick to support the US-led War on Terror in the hope that there would an all out war against terrorism. However, differences surfaced soon as the Obama Administration narrowed down the threat to Al Qaeda and expressed American support for engaging good Taliban in the reconciliation process. Moreover, the Af-Pak strategy of the Administration ensured enormous American aid for Pakistan not only to fight terrorism but to maintain its territorial integrity as well.
The underlying weakness of India’s Afghan policy began to unravel itself when it became clear that despite American reservations over Pakistan’s role as a credible partner in fighting terrorism, the latter continued to receive enormous ‘war aid’ from the US. The reason can be found in geopolitics in so far as Pakistan is considered instrumental in promoting the American interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The American project of ‘Greater Central Asia’ places Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Central Asian geopolitics. While India is considered important to contain China and is a part of American Asia-Pacific strategy.
Over the years, India’s dependence on the American war strategies in Afghanistan prevented it from seriously engaging itself with Iran and Russia on the Afghan issue although their partnership has been the key to India’s successful role in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran and Russia share common stakes in the stability of Afghanistan and share concerns like the rise of Sunni fundamentalism and drug-trafficking. Central Asia is considered to be the strategic backyard of Russia.
Any Indian strategy to expand influence beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia has to depend on Russia. However, Indian leadership failed to convince the Russian leadership how critical their partnership is to secure a stable Afghanistan and realize their common objectives. Second, New Delhi did not take serious steps to alleviate Moscow’s concerns as regards its closeness to Washington. Moscow expressed its concerns about Washington getting an increasing share in defense acquisitions by New Delhi. To India’s further disadvantage, Russia moved closer to Pakistan and described the latter as its ‘closest partner’ taking additional care not to mention any linkage between Pakistan and terrorism. Moreover, Moscow promised Islamabad to supply advanced Sukhoi 35 fighters and MI 35 attack helicopters.
Similarly, it was through Iran that India secured connectivity to Afghanistan and with Iranian assistance developed Chabahar port and constructed 218 Km long Zaranj-Delaram road in the remote south-western Afghanistan to secure access to Central Asia. However, there was palpable American pressure behind India’s vote against Iran’s nuclear program and India backed three US – supported resolutions against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency and enforced UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. As per the documents disclosed by Wikileaks, at a time when nuclear deal was being negotiated between India and the US, the latter had tried to pressure India over its ties with Iran and even objected to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Delhi, saying it would give “platform for an enemy of the US”.
India’s inability to push the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project under American pressure affected Iran-India bilateral relationship. Over the years, Iran has inched closer towards Pakistan and there are bilateral discussions on trade, energy and security. Islamabad has kept itself away from Saudi-Iranian sectarian conflicts like in Yemen crisis to keep the momentum of relationship going.
Lack of efforts from the Indian side at engaging China on Afghan issues bilaterally or multilaterally on the ground that both share common concerns in the rise of Islamic radicalism given Islamic insurgency in Kashmir and Xinjiang respectively despite territorial disputes and prevailing trust-deficit on both sides could only push China towards the easiest option of seeking Pakistani assistance to address its concerns and enhance its influence in Afghanistan. It is irony that while India and China bilaterally engage each other and discuss various bilateral issues regardless of the outcomes, there is hardly any engagement on the broader regional issues or at the multilateral forums.
Indian withdrawal from IPI pipeline has induced Pakistan to go for Iran-Pakistan pipeline with Chinese assistance. This pipeline is an integral part of the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor project and China’s ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. China has incorporated a growing interest in enhancing connectivity with Iran through land and sea using Pakistan as a bridge. Iran, on the other hand, seeks greater economic integration with Pakistan and China as Pakistan is emerging as a market for Iranian energy resources while China is already the largest importer of Iranian oil.
Russia has also seen advantages in the Chinese initiative of ‘one belt one road’ working as a complementary to its own plan for a ‘Eurasia Union’. Both Iran and Russia have become silent partners to Chinese-Pakistani initiatives on hosting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Pakistan’s centrality to the Chinese project and to the Iranian and Russian outreach to China in geopolitical terms despite the question whether it can be a credible partner in implementing the project given its dubious records of assisting radical Islamic groups fostering instability points to India’s failure in formulating a coherent and consistent policy towards the regional powers.
The Iranian nuclear deal with P5+1 opening the door for lifting of western sanctions has released fresh energy into Indo-Iranian relationship. India is keen to start an undersea pipeline project that would supply Iranian gas to India bypassing Pakistan. It assumes importance given uncertainties of other pipeline projects like TAPI. Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Turkmenistan proposed a land-sea route through Iran for the supply of Turkmen gas to India. India has also efforts to secure the Iran-Oman-India pipeline.
On 23rd December 2015, Modi left for Russia on a two-day visit and after reaching there Modi said to a Russian news agency that Russia will remain India’s “principal partner” in defense sector. India and Russia are expected to sign a number of pacts related to defense and nuclear energy. Russia is likely to be the leading partner in joint research, development and production of advanced defense systems under Modi’s Make in India initiative. All these steps towards courting Iran and Russia can be viewed as important correctives for India’s past mistakes. However, it is to be seen how seriously and consistently India engages these countries and actualizes these projects preventing the relations from cooling off again. India’s engagement with these countries in these important areas will also have a definitive impact on the level of their cooperation on Afghan issues as they have similar concerns. It will also take much steam out of the Chinese-Pakistani diplomatic maneuverings in Afghanistan. India needs to simultaneously engage China on Afghan issues as there is a convergence of interests in several areas of like economic, technical and cultural which would not only help stabilize Afghanistan but would benefit each of them.
India must have begun to realize that over-reliance on extra-territorial great powers cannot address its security concerns in the region as their role in the region is contingent upon their geopolitical interests and convenience of actualizing them. India’s foreign policy focus on great powers and bilateralism needs to give way to engagement of regional powers and multilateralism. India’s engagement with other regional powers must be based on the ground that a secured Afghanistan is in the interest of all and competing strategy for securing spheres of influence would lead to a power vacuum eventually to be filled up by non-state actors as dangerous as ISIS.