Originally Published 2011-05-23 00:00:00 Published on May 23, 2011
PM Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Kabul and India's initiative to develop long-term strategic partnership will redefine India's relations with Afghanistan by giving it leverage in Kabul that it has not enjoyed in the past.
India-Afghanistan engagement: New Beginnings
PM Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Kabul and India’s initiative to develop long-term strategic partnership will redefine India’s relations with Afghanistan by giving it leverage in Kabul that it has not enjoyed in the past. The announcement of a fresh commitment of US$500 million worth aid and acceptance of the political reconciliation programme will take India’s relations with Afghanistan to an altogether new level. Given the changing equations in the so-called Af-Pak region, India is using its political and diplomatic resources to reinforce its importance in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the timing has also been perfect - the US is looking for an end to the Afghan quagmire and planning to reduce its troop presence by 2014, Osama Bin Laden got killed recently, US-Pakistan relations are undergoing a fresh low, Pakistan army has been bidding for more leverage in the post-settlement scenario and pushing for China’s increased involvement in the reconstruction process (by sidelining US), and there is a pressing need for regional actors to show initiative for a stable Afghanistan.

India has enjoyed close cultural and political ties with Afghanistan historically. Having signed the Treaty of Friendship with the Royal Government of Afghanistan in 1950, India went on to becoming the first democratic country in the world to recognize the Communist government that was installed in Afghanistan by the Soviet Union after its invasion in 1979. India supported successive governments in Kabul till the rise of the Afghan Taliban in 1996, during whose rule it cut diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. Relations between the two countries improved tremendously after the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Since then, although India has intensively supported Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts and provided millions of dollars in aid, it remained politically aloof. Whereas India won the hearts and minds of the local Afghan people on one hand, it lost out on the political front and could never utilise the clout that it once had in Kabul. PM Singh’s visit to Kabul provides India with an opportunity to regain political ground in Afghanistan that New Delhi allowed to erode in the past few years.

Firstly, announcement of the strategic framework indicates India’s "political intent" to depart from the narrow engagement with Afghanistan, often shaped by India-Pakistan rivalry. Regardless of an admirable beginning during the post-2001 period when it enjoyed tremendous goodwill among Afghans and the Northern Alliance, India failed to capitalize on its leverage. It decided to further lower its profile in the war-torn country after the deadly attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008. Although a prudent decision given the security concerns of Indians in Afghanistan, it did little to consolidate India’s political clout. Moreover, India’s silence on the High Peace Council that has been given the responsibility to push the reconciliation process and the Peace Jirga, has raised concerns among Afghans. Framing a strategic initiative will provide a possibility to make up for past failures and allow India to fill the political vacuum that is emerging due to limited political engagement by regional actors.

Secondly, New Delhi has shown commendable diplomatic maturity by taking a definite stand on the issue of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. By making it very clear that if reconciliation is what the people of Afghanistan want then it shall support it, and that this should be an "Afghan-led" process, India has aligned its stance with the Afghan thought process. This is a departure from India’s staunch anti-Taliban stance - as it was always against the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in any shape or form. Also, the strategic framework does not require Afghanistan to undermine its relations with other countries. This signals that India understands that Karzai cannot do without the support of the Pakistani establishment to successfully carry out the reconciliation process. This decision is important not only because it will help India build strong ties with Afghanistan but also because it will help India in improving its relations with Pakistan.

By endorsing the reconciliation programme devised by President Karzai, India will help in dispelling suspicions in Pakistan’s power corridors about India’s intent in Afghanistan. It is fairly well known that Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani wants to call the shots in Kabul. He wants to gain "strategic depth" against India by treating Afghanistan as exclusive Pakistani backwoods free of Indian or outside presence. If the Taliban ends up getting small zones of influence in Afghanistan in a power-sharing setup, Pakistan does intend to hone its relations with it for such objectives. In such a scenario, supporting the reconciliation programme without political qualms will ease the Pakistani establishment’s understanding of the role India is hoping to play in Afghanistan in the long run. This is a major psychological barrier that India has successfully overcome. Though it will not completely pacify India’s security concerns and Pakistan’s mistrust of India, it reflects that India does not view the two neighbours as being caught in a competition in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, PM Singh has said it very categorically that the Indian military will not be involved in Afghanistan. Not only does this symbolizes respect for sovereignty of the fledgling democracy but also strengthens the benign image of India among Afghans. India can further intensify its aid and economic engagement with Afghanistan and help Kabul in capacity-building measures. It has already promised to train the Afghan police that is expected to play a very important role in the post-settlement scenario. Furthermore, as mentioned in the Joint Declaration, the two sides have decided to enter into a Strategic Economic Partnership for greater cooperation in sectors such as mining, metallurgy, fuel and energy, information technology, communications and transport. The two countries have also agreed on the importance of regional projects such as TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India oil pipeline) in promoting regional integration.

Therefore, with the joint declaration of strategic partnership, India has built the base to consolidate its engagement with Afghanistan and has signaled towards changing political attitude in its neighbourhood. What still needs to be seen is whether it actually capitalizes on this opportunity and keeps up to its promise of playing the role of a major partner - something that was long sought of it.

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