Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani has reportedly put on hold his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s request for military aid from India. Indian policymakers will wonder about the difference between Ghani and Karzai — as the latter saw India as a counter to Pakistan and as a long-term resource for developing Afghan civil and military institutions.
Karzai asked India last year for battle tanks, howitzers and attack helicopters but New Delhi ducked his request and instead offered to pay Russian firms for delivering small arms and field mortar. It also planned to restart an old weapons factory in Kabul and refit old Soviet military equipment. There was no stated pause on training Afghan national security forces — around 1,000 Afghan soldiers and 200 officers train in India each year.
Hawks in New Delhi have criticised the government for going slow on Kabul’s request but Ghani’s decision makes sense for both countries under the current circumstances. Ghani assumes power facing many challenges including a fragile political landscape following a bitter presidential contest with Abdullah Abdullah (who is now the country’s CEO), a weak economy dependent on foreign aid, rampant corruption and a security vacuum following the departure of western troops.
Ghani needs the space to govern and, owing to the tighter financial climate following western withdrawal, he needs to pursue a political settlement with the Taliban a lot more seriously than Karzai did. The Taliban control large swathes of the Afghan countryside and Ghani cannot meaningfully negotiate with the insurgents while aggravating their patron, Islamabad, through weapon imports from India.
Being alert to regional sensitivities allows Ghani to pursue pressing economic priorities that would anyway involve India’s assistance. As an economist he sees Afghanistan as a hub for connecting Central Asia and South Asia that would anyway entail links with India. The Dawn recently reported that India is requesting Pakistan to allow transit rights for exporting wheat to Afghanistan, which will be a lot cheaper for Afghan customers.
It’s also useful for New Delhi to hold weapons exports while India-Pakistan relations remain fraught. Islamabad has long been paranoid about India’s alleged attempts to encircle Pakistan by developing interests in Afghanistan; and it even blames New Delhi for stoking insurgency in its tribal areas. There is little to gain from feeding that paranoia while bilateral relations are on a hiatus. By avoiding newer misperceptions on Afghanistan, New Delhi offers Nawaz Sharif some room to resist hardliners who do not want peaceful ties with India — and it also denies Pakistani strategists the opportunity to project an equivalence between Indian arms exports to Kabul and Islamabad’s support to anti-Indian militant groups.
Indian policymakers will, however, wonder if Kabul will distance itself from New Delhi and look to others for nation-building support, having received over $2 billion worth assistance from the latter. China has, for instance, just pledged $327 million in aid to Afghanistan. Ghani will be mindful that Beijing can deliver infrastructure projects at speed and procure Islamabad’s guarantees on security for those projects. Notionally, Beijing will be the direction of travel for Afghan policy, given its fewer risks and the latter’s interest in mining ventures.
But India is not without equities in Afghanistan. Afghan politics will continue to be fractious despite the formation of the national unity government, thus affording opportunities for regional actors. New Delhi has good links with the Afghan bureaucracy and several senior political and military figures. Hundreds of Afghan students will continue to get scholarships each year for studying in India sustaining the latter’s soft power. Owing to its proximity, prior investments, and its advantage as an economical source of technology and training, India will always be an accessible resource to improve the Afghan State capacity. There is no longer a Karzai who will rush to India frequently, but New Delhi can continue exercising a measure of influence in Afghanistan if enabling conditions persist.