Last week, the Taliban’s assault on Kabul’s Park Palace Hotel, killed 14 people including four Indians. The Indians were working in different capacities to help rebuild Afghanistan. This was yet another attack on Indians working there with significant implications for our engagement in the country. In an earlier offensive in 2010, nine Indians were killed in attacks on Hotel Park Residency and Arya Guest House. Important hotels are soft targets with significant implications for international engagement.
Hotel Park Palace was never attacked in the past. In fact, when I stayed in Kabul first between 2006 and 2008 and then again in 2010, Park Palace was always my first choice. Everyone in Kabul knew that big hotels were soft targets. So, if one wanted to stay for longer periods, it was advisable to opt for relatively low profile guest houses. What’s more, Park Palace had UN clearance, which meant that the place had adequate security staff, barbed wires, bunker with food and windows protected with blast protection films, etc. Since it was a relatively large guest house with plenty of common spaces, one could network and interact, gather insights from other development experts working on different projects all over the country.
Despite bold statements by Indian policymakers, these attacks will have an impact on bilateral development cooperation. It may also impact the larger presence of Indians working with international agencies. It is becoming clear that international financial support to development activities in Afghanistan is declining. India has pledged assistance worth $2 billion, with projects mainly in areas like road construction, power transmission lines, hydro-electricity, agriculture, telecom, education, health and capacity building. Every year, about 1,500 Afghan students come to India on educational fellowships. A few hundred Afghan officials are invited for different training programmes. Sustaining Indian engagement in the coming years is not going to be easy. We have not announced any major development project in the last few years. Similar to other partners, our priority in the last two years has been to complete projects already announced earlier. Rightly, the focus has also been on small development projects and fellowship programmes. With the deteriorating security situation, it will become even more difficult to involve Indian NGOs or independent experts in bilateral development activities.
With falling commodity prices, the proposed Indian investments in Hagigak iron ore mines may not be very attractive at the moment. Withdrawal of foreign forces has already impacted the transport and logistics business badly. The one time booming war economy in Afghanistan is stagnating. Within this difficult scenario, India has to find ways to sustain its engagement. Even from a narrow base of $40 million a year in 2001, bilateral trade has grown to about $700 million with $200 million imports from Afghanistan. Now when the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement is being extended to Tajikistan, New Delhi should work for its extension to India. Enhanced cooperation with Afghan security forces is also key to secure Indian assets and citizens in Afghanistan.
Gulshan Sachdeva is professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal