Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to New Delhi happened at a time when security situation in Afghanistan is worsening; relations between Kabul and Islamabad are tense and the peace process with the Taliban is in disarray. Unrest in Kashmir has resulted in a new low in relations between India and Pakistan. There is a leadership change in Uzbekistan. Radical forces are spreading in the region as shown by suicide bombing at the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The Afghanistan-India-US trilateral dialogue is going to take place in New York soon. Next month, a major international conference on Afghanistan will take place in Brussels. The Heart of Asia Ministerial is taking place in Amritsar on December 4. So Ghani’s visit was not only an opportunity to take stock of bilateral ties but also work out joint strategies for the next phase of Afghanistan project.
India’s broad objectives in Afghanistan include orderly security, successful political and economic transition, and ensuring the safety and security of its assets and personnel. Increasing trade, transit, and energy links with Central Asia through Afghanistan are added objectives.
India’s economic, political, and strategic linkages with Afghanistan have improved significantly. Indian projects of worth $2 billion have covered various sectors. Every year 1,500 Afghan students come to India on fellowships. Another 500 training slots are provided to officials. An additional $1 billion assistance was committed during the visit. With appropriate framework, India can also work out joint projects with other partners.
As Afghanistan ultimately has to stand on its own feet, trade and connectivity will prove more important than unsustainable foreign-funded development projects. In this connection, a traditional market for Afghan products is crucial. Last year, bilateral was $835 million with more than $300 million exports from Afghanistan to India. For many years, India is the number one export market for Afghan products. Precisely for this reason, Ghani is very keen that Pakistan allow two-way traffic for India-Afghanistan trade. Recently, when Pakistan closed the only land route for Afghan products destined for India, New Delhi helped Kabul by airlifting fresh fruits. Ghani is reported to have warned Pakistan that if they do not allow Afghan goods into India through their territory, they would close Pakistan’s transit route into Central Asia.
Although no announcement was made during the visit, India is also likely to increase its defence cooperation. Last year, four Mi25 attack helicopters were supplied to Afghanistan. More military equipment from India could be in the pipeline.
Close political ties with Kabul, strong goodwill among Afghan citizens and acceptance of India as an important regional player on Afghan matters indicate that India’s aid to Afghanistan has not gone waste.
Afghanistan is an international project. It is beyond the capacity of New Delhi alone to resolve the serious security and development challenges. However, enhanced Indian engagement at this point will be a big boost to policy-makers in Kabul. In the prevailing negative western discourse on Afghanistan, Indian experts and think-tanks can also help in changing the narrative towards a positive outcome.
Gulshan Sachdeva is professor at the School of International Studies, JNU
The views expressed are personal