Ghani’s India visit: A new chapter in Indo-Afghan relations ?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Post-2001 New Delhi has invested in various infrastructure, capacity building, health, education and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan. Having pledged US$2billion, India is the largest regional donor and Afghanistan is the second largest recipient of Indian aid. India’s aid and development assistance has accrued significant ‘good will’ among the Afghans. While Afghanistan makes domestic and regional alignments in the transformation decade (2015-2024), whether President Ashraf Ghani’s visit can mark the beginning of a clear road map of India’s engagement strategy to protect its key national interests and help in the long term stabilisation of Afghanistan remains to be seen.
The increased presence of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and its capability to strike was evident during the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat in May 2014. Armed and well prepared for a hostage taking situation, LeT’s intent to execute the plan was fortunately thwarted by the help of the Afghan domestic intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). In May 2015, LeT had planned to carry out the strikes in India, coinciding with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s presence in New Delhi for the inauguration of the Narendra Modi government. The kidnapping of Jesuit priest Alexis Prem Kumar from Herat in June 2014 and his subsequent release after eight months in captivity in Helmand further underlines the complexities of the security landscape in Afghanistan.
The splintering of the Taliban insurgency and its functioning through franchisees; increased presence of criminal networks who have resorted to ransom demands add to the challenges. Increased LeT influence could further complicate implementation of Indian-funded aid schemes. For denying the extremists groups the space to target Indian interests and destabilize Afghanistan, New Delhi’s near to medium -term projects need to increase training and capacity building of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), particularly its officer corps; the police, and the air force, and institutional support to improve Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD) in its planning and budgeting process. In the long-term, security sector reforms and assistance in building sound civil-military relations are some of the other initiatives New Delhi can assist Kabul with.
While India has worked towards shoring up the Afghan government’s capacity in the last decade, the delivery of aid through support to Afghan budget would remain crucial to help the state extend its writ and provide basic services. India’s aid and assistance could make a greater impact if it shifts away from high visibility projects aimed at one time asset creation to design and help implement development programmes to address poverty, illiteracy and systemic administrative dysfunction. Likewise, greater investment in Afghan public health sector and educational initiatives like computer literacy, skill building and employment generation opportunities would help build the social and employment capital. India has actively provided assistance to women groups either through self-employment schemes, health and capacity building not only in Kabul but also in the western province of Herat. This needs to be expanded to areas in the south and east. My discussions with women groups in Kandahar brought out the need for small-scale income generation activities, and the need for improved health facilities.
In the political sector and governance, New Delhi needs to play an enabling role in institution building processes. In addition to broad-based engagement with the political elite, New Delhi needs to work on the political sector reform involving greater decentralisation and strengthening the electoral processes. The past presidential and parliamentary elections have brought to fore the problems of a highly centralised presidential system. While India has supported an Afghan-led reintegration and reconciliation process, adherence to the red lines laid down at the London Conference, including respect for the Afghan constitution, human and women rights would be crucial. Afghanistan’s attempts at reconciliation needs to be supported by larger political and constitutional reforms which would necessitate provisions for dialogue, autonomy and special representation of minorities, women and marginalised groups.
On the economic sector, in the near and medium term, India could help in establishing small and medium enterprises (SME), alternate livelihood programmes (in poppy growing areas) and revive the Afghan indigenous economic base. In Baba Saheb Ghar in the Arghandab Valley, traditionally known for its pomegranates, locals seek help in establishing storage, processing and transit facilities. In meetings with political leaders in Kandahar on October 5, 2011, a day after the Agreement of Strategic Partnership Agreement (ASP) between New Delhi and Kabul was signed, they expressed an immediate need for setting up cement factories, irrigation and power projects in the province in addition to building roads and improving health and educational facilities.
Afghanistan, due to its small manufacturing regime, is swamped by foreign goods mainly from Pakistan, China and Iran. This inhibits the growth of an indigenous economic base. India could contribute to the small-scale industries sector (carpets, ornaments and handicrafts). Follow up studies on these projects, assessing their usefulness and links with the development strategy of the Afghan government, would be extremely critical. As Afghanistan faces a contraction of its economy due to dwindling international financial assistance, it will be imperative to help Afghanistan generate revenue and realize its potential as a land bridge connecting South with Central and West Asia. Increased trade, transit and regional connectivity would provide revenue and employment opportunities and in the long term help build ‘constituencies of peace’. Expansion of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA) to India would be beneficial to all the three countries in the region.
India needs to further build on its traditional, historical, social and cultural linkages. As part of counter-radicalisation campaign, messages of moderate Islam from the Deoband would be an effective counter to the radical Wahhabi messages. There is also a need to further expand cultural, sports and educational exchanges between the two countries. Setting up of Pushtun and Dari centres in India and Hindi centres in Afghanistan would help in greater cultural and linguistic exchanges. Cricket is an important sport that needs promotion. In addition to building a cricket stadium in Kandahar, India can assist in providing a home ground for the Afghan national cricket team in India, a wish President Ghani is reported to be carrying with him.
Most of the international media puts out pessimistic stories from Afghanistan. It influences not only international public opinion but also feeds into the insurgent propaganda. It is imperative to have a strategic communications strategy highlighting the positive stories of success of the Afghan people (rather than violence, destruction and pessimism) through the radio, television and local print media. During my visits to Jalalabad, there have been requests for capacity building, collaboration, training of journalists and programmes on historical, cultural, educational and sports from India. New Delhi can help shift the narrative of pessimism to opportunity by increasing capacity building and cooperation with the Afghan media and engaging civil society, women and youth groups in bringing out the positive stories.
More importantly, New Delhi will have to take a lead in reviving the indigenous economic base and connecting Afghanistan – the Heart of Asia – with rest of Asia. The economic interdependency and benefits would create a mutually beneficial mode of engagement in the region. President Ghani’s visit can mark the beginning of a clear road map of India’s engagement strategy to help in the long term stabilisation of Afghanistan based on Afghan needs and priorities.