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Why India matters in Afghanistan

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, voices in Washington are becoming increasingly critical of America’s military engagement in Afghanistan. Recognising this “new situation,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on visiting Kabul in May, called for renewed collaborative efforts to bring peace to the region at a “unique moment.”

While the nature of the ‘new situation’ is far from clear, there is plainly a need for increased international cooperation in rebuilding Afghanistan. At this critical juncture, NATO and other members of the US-led coalition should take note of Indian efforts and, together with Delhi, work towards developing innovative methods for achieving shared objectives.

As the international military presence ebbs in Afghanistan and Western interests there wane, development agencies and regional actors are assuming greater prominence. Occupying a unique position as Afghanistan’s leading regional development partner, India has established itself as a capable and dynamic player in the country’s reconstruction.

With no conventional combat troops on Afghan soil, India has been routinely marginalised by an international community acutely aware of Islamabad’s sensitivities. Though never cast as a provocation by Delhi, the Indian paramilitary troops assigned to protect certain Indian projects in Afghanistan have been perceived as an existential threat by Islamabad, as have India’s consulates. Despite this, and in spite of repeated insurgent attacks on its facilities and personnel, India has maintained a robust reconstruction programme in Afghanistan for a decade. Now, as the US-led coalition is shifting gears from defence to development, India is downgrading its presence on the ground and reassessing its approach.

New Delhi insists this is not a direct response to the security vacuum anticipated when the United States ends its combat role in 2014. Instead, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) points to the culmination of several major infrastructure projects as an appropriate time to redefine its approach in Afghanistan. Speculation may be futile, but it is likely that a combination of factors, including the conditions of Islamabad’s current rapprochement with Kabul, are circumscribing India’s role.

India has historically enjoyed good relations with Afghanistan. From ancient civilisational ties to the contemporary influence of Hindi movies, the two countries have nurtured cultural affinities. Geography has freed the relationship from the complications of disputed borders that plague relations between Kabul and Islamabad on one side, and Islamabad and Delhi on the other.

Indian development initiatives in Afghanistan experienced a hiatus while the Taliban ruled Kabul, during which time New Delhi supported the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance as a strategic imperative. But with the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, India enthusiastically resumed and expanded reconstruction and development programming throughout Afghanistan.

Articulating a policy that embraces social and economic development as the key to ensuring that Afghanistan becomes a source of regional stability, the Indian government has pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001 (making it the fifth largest donor). India`s projects cover a range of sectors, including large-scale infrastructure projects (such as the 218km Zaranj-Delaram highway connecting interior Afghanistan to the Iranian border), institution and capacity building initiatives (thousands of scholarships have allowed Afghans to study in India), small and community-based development projects that concentrate on vulnerable areas and emphasise local ownership, and the general provision of humanitarian assistance.

To be sure, the Indian agenda is not devoid of political and economic motivations. Incentives include security and access to trade, transit, and energy resources. However, although framed by Islamabad as a threat to Pakistan’s security, India’s motives in Afghanistan and the drivers of its development programming should not be defined by Pakistani perceptions.

Rathin Roy, director of the UNDP`s International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, has argued that, rather than altruism or global citizenship, the ethos of India’s development programming affirms mutual interest as the cornerstone for cooperation and rejects conditionality as a modality for transacting development assistance. New Delhi has emphasized that its strong political relationship with Afghanistan is underwriting a development partnership “between the world’s largest and most recent democracies.”

Moreover, Delhi’s approach resonates, at least superficially, with contemporary theories about the reconstruction of fragile states. For example, India’s desire to be a guide in the establishment of pluralistic institutions and the relationship of Islam to the modern state, as well as the development in agriculture, employment generation, and the licit cultivation of opium, responds to the need, articulated by development scholars, for fragile states to overcome fragmentation, expand and enhance governance capacities, and catalyse trade, investment, and market competition.

In the recently released World Development Report 2011, the World Bank emphasises the need to introduce creative mechanisms for revitalising socio-economic and political institutions that are both sympathetic to local realities and novel in their approach. It has been acknowledged that, due largely to the risk-averse nature of development programming amongst donor countries as well as international and non-governmental organisations, efforts in this direction have been fairly unsuccessful.

Given that Western donors recognise (to varying degrees) their own limitations and failings in Afghanistan and endorse the need for innovation and experimentation in development assistance, it is surprising that Indian efforts there should be overlooked. Western agencies would surely benefit from engaging their Indian counterparts.

Where India’s successes have been acknowledged (the efforts of the Self-Employed Woman’s Association, SEWA, for example, have been praised by Hillary Clinton) Western agencies have been keen to piggy-back—attaining from India the ‘biggest bang for development buck’. But New Delhi has made it clear that it is not in India’s interest to duplicate its successful bilateral programming by funding multilateral efforts to the same end. Rather, it has indicated its openness to engaging in new, multi-sectoral trilateral projects with international partners.

As an internationalised theatre of war, Afghanistan’s strategic significance to Western calculations is substantial. Crucial decisions are made and acted upon under these circumstances by the concert of states that have invested blood and treasure in the conflict. The arena thus presents certain opportunities for international engagement that will not arise in the post-war environment.

The conditions and tools with which development actors must work are, to a large extent, defined during the critical stages preceding the withdrawal of international forces. To allow and encourage India’s reconstruction programme in Afghanistan, the international community must use this window of opportunity to allay fears in Islamabad while simultaneously engaging India.

As the US-led coalition and India recalibrate their respective programmes in Afghanistan and the former camp moves to adopt a non-combat role, it makes a great deal of sense for both parties to consider one another’s reconstruction efforts, to share.

Daniel Norfolk is currently conducting research on the India-Afghanistan bilateral relationship at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).


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