Despite the conclusion of eighth round of talks between the United States and Taliban for ending the 18 year long war in Afghanistan, India’s role in the discourse of the Afghan peace process has largely remained subdued, it is time for India to make its presence felt in Afghanistan

India’s policy on Afghanistan vis-à-vis Pakistan

Officially, India maintains support for an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led reconciliation process. New Delhi wants the Kabul government to be the key player in the talks with the Taliban. India’s Afghanistan policy is not driven by ideological or humanitarian concerns. It is driven by a desire to limit Islamabad’s influence in the country. This is because increased Pakistani influence in Afghanistan may not only lead to a reduced Indian presence but will also make India more susceptible to Pakistan-based terrorist groups. As the most recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir claimed the lives of more than 40 personnel, underscores India will be the first target after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

India’s room for maneuver in Afghanistan is constrained by structural aspects, such as its limited material capacities, reputational concerns, and lack of geographical contiguity. Unlike the United States, for instance, India does not have the financial resources to support state building in Afghanistan. In reputational terms, it values its role as a constructive regional player that has helped build the capacity of the Afghan state in economic, political and military terms.

New Delhi requires partners both outside and inside Afghanistan to protect its interests and presence in the war-torn country. That led to an alliance with the Afghan communists in the 1980s, alongside the Soviet Union, and a similarly futile effort in the 1990s, when it threw its weight behind the so-called Northern Alliance with support from Iran and Russia.

Consequences for India over US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

There is great concern over not just what the complete withdrawal of the United States means for Afghanistan, but also over what it means for India and the greater South Asian region. The fear that a destabilized and Talibanised Afghanistan will lead to a spike in jihadist terrorism is real, as well as the concerns over Indian investments — political, diplomatic, economic and security in Afghanistan going up in smoke. But a cool-headed assessment of the developing situation would suggest that some of the concerns being expressed are somewhat misplaced — maybe even far-fetched. For instance, while it is true that a Taliban victory will work like a shot in the arm for all sorts of jihadists groups and there is likely to be an upsurge of jihadist violence in Jammu and Kashmir. With or without the Taliban, Pakistan will continue to be a thorn in India’s flesh. The Taliban can enter India only through Pakistan.

Trump’s exit would be fully consistent with his campaign promises about ending costly troop deployments and wasteful wars abroad. The U.S. continues to spend around $45 billion each year in Afghanistan. After assuming the presidency, Trump’s basic instinct was to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Despite its extensive developmental role, India remains a peripheral player in Afghan political affairs. As Trump muddies the Afghan waters even further with his inchoate approach, New Delhi will find itself unable to influence the situation without incurring significant costs. India’s recent critical stance at the United Nations for its failure to sanction new Taliban leaders and their helpers in the neighborhood may be ethically appropriate, but seems out of sync with emerging ground realities in Afghanistan. There are already growing voices in India who are now asking the government to engage with the Taliban more substantively. It remains to be seen how New Delhi responds to Trump’s latest policy shifts. 

Upping the ante in Afghanistan

India has played a critical role in supplying economic aid to Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. India has been providing humanitarian aid and investing in major infrastructure projects as well as smaller developmental initiatives since 2002, which have offered Afghanistan with a much-needed lifeline amidst ongoing war, sectarian divisions, and terrorism.

Major projects that have benefited from Indian investment include the construction of the Parliament Building in the country’s capital, Kabul where India committed $178 million, another $150 million for Zaranj Delaram highway project connecting western Afghanistan with the strategic Chabahar port in Iran, and the $42 million Salma Dam Project on the Hari river in the province of Herat which includes the construction of a power transmission line connecting the city of Pul-e-Khumri with Kabul. India has also signed a trilateral preferential trade agreement with Afghanistan and Iran.

Inspired by India’s history of successful community engagement programs in Sri Lanka and Nepal, hundreds of social development programs were launched in Afghanistan in conjunction with 250,000 tons of wheat to be provided to primary schools as food assistance. Furthermore, India provides technical advisers to Afghan public institutions, offers training for Afghan civil servants and policemen, and contributes funds to an Afghan Red Crescent Society program which provides free medicine and healthcare consultations in its medical missions in five Afghan cities.

Making use of soft power 

India has been heavily involved in and has largely contributed to the educational development in Afghanistan. The education sector in the war-torn country lacks proper infrastructure, suffers from a huge gender disparity and shortage of trained teachers. India has been providing scholarships to Afghan students with thousands of Afghan nationals studying in India. Vocational training and skill development classes are also provided to Afghan women and youths. Through educational development, India has also tried to build ties with the ethnic communities of Afghanistan, especially the Pashtun community which is present on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and serves as a buffer between Pakistan and India. Education as a soft power has worked in favour of India with regards to building trust and influence among the people of Afghanistan.

Another important Indian contribution has been in health and medical care in Afghanistan. India has bestowed an amount of 5 million USD for the Afghan Red Crescent Society Programme to treat congenital heart disease in children. Medical tourism has become a large market between India and Afghanistan, enhancing people-to-people interaction between the two. New Delhi adopted a more liberal visa policy in 2014 for Afghan nationals making it easier for Afghan patients to travel to India due to lack of proper facilities in their own land. Thus, India’s comparatively liberal polices in terms of healthcare have attracted Afghans, further galvanising the relationship between the two nations.

Clearly, India’s use of soft power over hard power in Afghanistan has greatly benefited the nation and its relationship with the country. Soft power plays an important role in developing friendly and diplomatic relations with nations and cannot be neglected. If Pakistan wishes to influence and have stable relations with Afghanistan, it ought to use soft power means rather than solely relying on hard power and military tactics.

The Taliban has given assurance that they will not allow the country to become a base for jihadist attacks against the United States and its allies after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but it seems to be a utopian promise. For a nation like India which aspires to be a leading global power, that’s not a very comfortable position to be in. Being too risk-averse in foreign policy has its own set of costs. There is too much at stake and New Delhi should become more proactively involved in the Afghan peace process.

Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.