Think South Asia (TSA): Historically Afghanistan and India have shared rather warm relations. In Afghanistan, India has much higher approval rating amongst the people than Pakistan, China and many other countries. What do you attribute this to?
Dr.S Kulshrestha (SK): Traditionally India and Afghanistan have shared very cordial relations and cultural ties spanning centuries. Kabul was an important trade hub between the east and the west. This led to mingling of cultures and sharing of knowledge in fields like medicine and science. Invaders from the north, like the Mongols, resulted in people from cities like Herat and Balkh taking refuge in India. Literature in Dari, found place in India alongside the dry fruits and pomegranates from Afghanistan, where as Sufism, pakoras, dal and paranthas from India found acceptance in Afghanistan.
India has engaged Afghanistan multilaterally since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. India’s focus has been assistance at all levels to rebuild the country but has shied away from direct military assistance. In the recent times, unlike Pakistan, the absence of semi-porous and contiguous border between the two countries has also amply contributed in building a healthy bilateral relationship. Afghans look upon Indians as trustworthy friends.
TSA: India has donated over US $2 billion in aid and development to Afghanistan in the past decade. Do you think the investments have been a success?
SK: Indian effort in development of Afghanistan covers, infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, small and community based development projects, and education and capacity development. India’s assistance has not only been monetary in nature, Indian personnel have been physically helping in the rebuilding effort (power lines, dams and roads), in a region where terrain is very difficult. India has provided engineers, workers, vocational teachers, etc who have even sacrificed their lives during attacks by Taliban. Indian personnel and the work that they have been doing has been appreciated by the local population. Given the turmoil affecting the country the investments are a long term effort to make Afghanistan stand on its feet, keeping that in mind I would say that the effort has been reasonably successful.
TSA: Afghanistan is often viewed as a hub for natural resources, especially copper, lithium, gold and iron ore. In addition many are of the opinion that Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asian gas and oil. What role does this economic potential play for Indian policy making?
SK: Indian assistance to Afghanistan is not based upon cornering a chunk of natural resources for itself but on the premise of development and democracy. Further since India does not share a geographical boundary with Afghanistan, any tangible benefits accruing due to use of Afghanistan as a potential gateway for gas and oil has to take into account routing through Pakistan, which itself has been on the verge of instability for a long time. Alternate routes through Iran are available but being longer may not be that beneficial to India. India has focused on making trading routes available to Afghanistan through building of road links to bordering Iran from there to Chahbahar port. This would free land locked Afghanistan from using routes through Pakistan.
A consortium of Indian firms has won a bid for developing the Hajigak iron ore mine. However there are major concerns regarding transportation of iron ore and steel as the rail line to Chabahar port in Iran is not yet built. The Iran-Pakistan-India and Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline projects are as good as shelved. Entries and exits from Afghanistan for Indian trade purposes are not conducive in the present regional security environment, and these are likely to remain so over the next decade. Under this backdrop, to infer that Indian policy would be solely guided by the economic considerations may not be appropriate. The policy of supporting and developing a stable democratic regime in Afghanistan holds much more potential in the long run. This coupled with normalizing relations with Pakistan would usher in an era of unprecedented regional prosperity.
TSA: As highlighted before, aid and development have played a major role in India-Afghanistan relations. With the departure of NATO troops, do you think India will invest more in the defence and security sector?
SK: The effort to rebuild Afghanistan has always faced strong objections from Pakistan, which holds that it will be caught between two unfriendly neighbors, a view which had found resonance in the US also. India had therefore desisted from providing direct military aid to Afghanistan, however with withdrawal of American forces, India has agreed to increase training for soldiers and police officers. It will not deploy combat troops in Afghanistan. In my opinion ‘passive’ defence cooperation may further increase as it will aid in stabilizing Afghanistan, but at present the country faces a very uncertain future and nothing can be said as to which way the situation will develop. India does not favour direct engagement in security operations and deploying military personnel just to enhance its presence in the region, however India would have to take a view if violence against its personnel engaged in developmental projects in Afghanistan escalates in the coming year.
TSA: Do you think Afghanistan is a geostrategic chess board on which Pakistan and India are jousting for influence and goodwill in order to out maneuver each other?
SK: No, India is not out to score points against Pakistan, it genuinely wants to rebuild Afghanistan. In my view, Pakistan is taking a short term look at the regional development, whereas it holds the key to make the Afghanistan-Pakistan –India region a powerhouse gateway to Central Asia and provide a bridge to South Asia. India is genuinely keen to develop the SAARC region under its present proactive development oriented regime.
TSA: How do you foresee the future of India-Afghanistan relations?
SK: India and Afghanistan relations would be ascendant if a climate of reasonable peace prevails in Afghanistan. However, if the country plunges in to civil war with Taliban in forefront then it is going to be difficult to continue the developmental effort in a predominantly hostile environment. The key to regional peace lies in the hands of Pakistan, the sooner it realizes this, the better it is for all the three.