Context:

  • Two events in Central Asia last week, which India attended, saw Afghanistan’s neighbours seeking solutions to the conflict there.
    • The first was a meeting in Dushanbe, of the Contact group on Afghanistan of SCO Foreign Ministers, and
    • The second, a Central and South Asia connectivity conference in Tashkent.

Relevance:

GS-II: International Relations (India and its neighborhood, Foreign policies affecting India’s interests)

Mains Questions:

  1. Afghanistan’s neighbours must help it protect the democratic gains of the last two decades. Discuss 15 Marks

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Origin of India Afghanistan Relations:
  • Significance of Afghanistan for India:
  • Areas of cooperation between India and Afghanistan
  • Background of Conflict in Afghanistan:
  • Why is US pulling out?
  • Way Forward

Origin of India Afghanistan Relations:

  • The origin of the relations goes back to the 6 th century Gandhara era. However, in the modern times, the British Great Game got India closer to Afghanistan.
  • In 1949, Zahir Shah, Afghan King concluded the Treaty of Friendship with India which opened up diplomatic relations. During 1950s and ’60s, India developed its diplomatic proximity with Afghanistan. The 2400 km long boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan is called Durand Line.
  • In 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, India did not condemn the invasion but began to instead drift away from engaging directly with Afghanistan as it had become actively involved in Cold War politics while India was the pro pounder and supporter of NAM.
  • In 1996, with the rise of the Taliban, India joined hands with Russia and Iran in supporting the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (UIFSA), also called as the Northern Alliance and provided it ample support during the Taliban rule.
  • Post US Operation Enduring Freedom and the Bonn-I conference, India supported the development of Afghanistan and sided with Hamid Karzai. India has also continued to engage with Ashraf Ghani as of 2016. An analytical survey of Indian engagement and interests in Afghanistan shall now follow in the subsequent sections.

Significance of Afghanistan for India:

  • Economic importance:
    • Natural Resources: Afghanistan has significant oil and gas reserves and has rich source of rare earth materials.
    • The massive reconstruction plans for the country offer a lot of opportunities for Indian companies for investment.
    • It has also signed the TAPI pipeline project that aims to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India.
  • Security:
    • Countering Terrorism: Stable government in Kabul is essential to reduce terror activities across south Asia also in Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, the most important goal for India remains the prevention of Pakistan from regaining its central role in Afghan affairs.
  • Gateway to energy rich central Asia: Afghanistan is situated at crossroads between South Asia and Central Asia and South Asia and the Middle East.

Areas of cooperation between India and Afghanistan:

  • Trade relations:
    • India is the second-largest destination for Afghan exports.
    • Major India’s export items to Afghanistan include textiles, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, iron & steel and electrical machinery, while its imports from Afghanistan are fruits and nuts, gums and resins, coffee, tea and spices.
  • Infrastructure development: India is the sixth largest donor to Afghanistan in diverse development projects in infrastructure, education and agriculture.
    • Some of the major projects include:
      • Construction of a 218 km road from Zaranj to Delaram for facilitating movement of goods and services to the Iranian border.
      • Construction of Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam) in Herat province.
      • Construction of Afghan Parliament.
    • New Development Partnership: Due to the positive impact of the projects implemented under the US$ 2 billion development and economic assistance extended by India to Afghanistan both countries have agreed to initiate a next generation ‘New Development Partnership’. Under this 116 High Impact Community Development Projects will be implemented in the areas of education, health, agriculture etc.
  • Connectivity initiatives:
    • Chahbahar Port: India is cooperating with Afghanistan and Iran for development of the Chahbahar Port which provides an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In this context, a trilateral transport and transit agreement based on sea access through Chabahar has been signed.
    • Air Freight Corridor: India and Afghanistan inaugurated a dedicated air freight corridor service in 2017 which could provide Afghanistan greater access to markets in India.
    • Afghanistan and Pakistan signed Afghanistan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) in 2011 which gives each country equal access up to the national boundaries of both. At present, Pakistan allows Afghan trucks carrying goods meant for India, only up to its last checkpoint at Wagah, and not to the Indian checkpoint at Attari, less than a kilometer away. India is keen to join APTTA and Afghanistan has backed India’s readiness to be an APTTA member though Pakistan has so far rejected such a proposal.
  • Cultural Relations:
    • Afghanistan has been an important trading and craft centre for over 2000 years connecting the civilizations of Persia, Central Asia with India. As part of India’s restructuring programme for Afghanistan, India has regularly aimed to take up projects that will render Afghanistan’s cultural heritage sustainable.
    • Indian Diaspora in Afghanistan: Presently, there are estimated to be about 2500 Indians in the country.
  • Political & Security Relations:
    • During the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89), India was the only South Asian nation to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. India also provided humanitarian aid to then Afghan President Najibullah’s government. Following the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, India continued to provide Najibullah’s government with humanitarian aid.
    • India was the first country Afghanistan chose to sign a strategic partnership agreement with. India signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011 to assist in “the training, equipping and capacity building programs for the Afghan National Security Forces”.
    • India aids the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces in fighting the scourge of terrorism, organized crime, trafficking of narcotics and money laundering. Further India supports an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process.
    • India donated three Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan as part of the bilateral strategic partnership to counter the Taliban.

Background of Conflict in Afghanistan:

  • The Afghan war dates back to 1978 when communist government was established in Afghanistan.
  • Insurgency started against communist government led by Mujahedeen’s and Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 with troops to protect the communist government.
  • Since then Afghanistan has been in a state of turmoil for the last 40 years including a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrawal in 1989.
  • The Taliban, ultraconservative political and religious faction that emerged in Afghanistan, came to power in 1996 and were later ousted from power by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in an effort to counter Al-Qaeda in 2001.
  • The Taliban has steadily expanded its reach since U.S. and NATO forces formally concluded their combat mission at the end of 2014 and now it controls more than 14 districts (4% of the country).

Factors that aggravated the Afghan problem:

  • Great Game:
    • Intervention by global and regional powers for e.g. U.S.-Russia tensions are creating space for proxies for both on Afghan soil, and the attacks by al-Qaeda and IS-related terror groups have their roots in the larger war between Iran and the Arab world.
    • Tensions between India and Pakistan also cast a shadow over Afghanistan, with India’s development assistance under attack.
  • Failure of USA’s strategy:
    • USA has failed to evolve a cohesive strategy regarding military aid to Pakistan, troop presence in Afghanistan, indiscriminate use of airpower or infrastructure building in the country.
  • Military factors:
    • U.S. and Western governments have tried to win the war for Afghans by deploying large numbers of Western military forces and flooding Afghanistan with large amounts of assistance, which has irked the indigenous tribes. Given the terrain and the tactics of avoiding set-piece battles adopted by the Taliban, the continuous use of air power has failed to change the trajectory of the war.
  • Role of Pakistan:
    • The Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan and support from Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) allowed senior Taliban leaders to run the war in relative security.
  • Legitimacy of the National Unity Government (NUG) seems eroded due to
    • conflict between Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani,
    • corruption and lack of implementation of Electoral reforms
    • refusal of Taliban to talk to Afghan government which it thinks as artificial, foreign imposed and not representative of Afghan people.
  • Socio-cultural factors:
    • The nomadic and tribal polity in Afghanistan comprises of multiple tribes like Pashtuns, Turks and Persians and each dominant in different regions, asserting their own traditions and culture. The tribal factionalism didn’t allow the democratically elected government to settle in Afghanistan.
  • Rise of IS:
    • Despite the Afghan government’s claims of cracking down on militants, threats from the IS and Taliban have only grown both of which have a goal to destabilize the state that and throw the country into further chaos.
  • Number of war and civilian casualties
    • sdue to suicide bombings are on the rise after the international coalition forces embarked on Operation Resolute Support to “advise, train and assist” the Afghan forces and not to participate in war since 2014.

Why is US pulling out?

  • America First Policy:
    • The withdrawal is in line with President Trump’s America First policy.
    • According to Trump, US has been wasting its “blood and treasure” on distant conflicts, instead of rebuilding itself.
    • In 17th year since its inception in 2001, the Afghanistan conflict is US’s longest running war & has had huge economic as well as human costs.
    • Despite prolonged investment of financial and human resources, the political solution is nowhere in sight and this has resulted in growing skepticism within the US administration over the futility of military involvement.
  • Uneven distribution of security costs: Despite enjoying massive trade surpluses, many US allies like Germany, Japan, India etc. are not spending enough for their own security.
  • Under the new Af-Pak policy formulated in 2017, US marginally increased troops in Afghanistan, declared their engagement to be open-ended with no fixed timeline for withdrawal & took unprecedented hard stance against Pakistan. It also sought enhanced Indian role in peace and reconstruction process. But this didn’t seem to achieve the desired objective, in light of Pakistan-China nexus.
  • The withdrawal is acknowledgement of the fact that US was not winning the war in Afghanistan and submission to the fact staying the course in Afghanistan wouldn’t change the situation in their favour.

Consequences of withdrawal:

  • Impact on the peace process: A strong U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is needed to bolster diplomatic peace efforts. U.S. officials are currently engaged in talks with the Taliban. However, the withdrawal at this time will reduce the incentive for the Taliban to strike a deal.
  • Fall of the democratic government & Resurgence of Taliban: As observed in the US’s AfPak policy in 2017 symbolic presence was seen to be necessary to back the National Unity Government. With the U.S. presence gone, the Taliban — with support from Pakistan & limited assistance from Russia and Iran — might seize all the remaining cities in the country that it currently does not control.
  • Breeding ground for terrorism: A precipitous U.S. exit would allow Afghanistan to emerge as epicenter of global terror, as during the 1990s & would only embolden other transnational terror organizations like Islamic State Khorasan (the Islamic State’s local province), AlQaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (al-Qaeda’s local affiliate) and Haqqani Network to operate freely inside Afghanistan.
  • Poor capacity of Afghan forces: The withdrawal of US forces might reduce the willingness of chronically under strength Afghan forces to fight. The training of Afghan forces, waging an air campaign against the Taliban etc. will face challenges.
  • Regional instability: The withdrawal might further cement regional instability between nuclear powers India and Pakistan. An Islamist regime in Afghanistan would make Pakistan a central player in the country.
  • Refugee crisis: The civil unrest might lead to a mass exodus of Afghans trying to flee the country could trigger another refugee crisis.

Consequences for India:

  • A destabilized and Talibanized Afghanistan might lead to upsurge of violence in Jammu and Kashmir & can be used as a staging post for launching attacks on rest of India, as had been the case in late 1990s (IC 814 hijacking).
  • There is also an imminent security threat to India’s investments & developed infrastructure in Afghanistan.
  • Since India is increasing its physical presence in the region through connectivity projects like Chabahar, INSTC etc., an adverse national government will halt the connectivity efforts, increase in refugee crisis and will have a major impact on India’s energy security and regional ties in the Middle East.
  • US’s isolationism through non-interventionist foreign policy could open gates to Chinese military intervention in Afghanistan.
  • India must start preparing for the inevitable geopolitical turbulence, including the resurgence of the Islamic State and the potential return of the Taliban to power in Kabul.

Way Forward

  • It is important that the Western nations keep funding the Afghan state and provisioning their armed forces so that there is a possibility of Afghan forces pushing back Taliban forces.
  • As America pulls out, it leaves room for Russia and Iran to influence the region. India now needs to cooperate with both of them to push forward peace process.
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