The strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan can be regarded as a game changer in the region and truly a landmark event. However, there are uncertainties and impediments that the signatories ought not to overlook or ignore. While the agreement will impact each stakeholder differently, the real challenge for both India and Afghanistan will be to restore the currently derailed negotiations amongst the stakeholders and convert the slogan of peace in Afghanistan into reality. Undoubtedly, this is likely to be a task more easily said than done.
On October 04, 2011, through an agreement that was the first of its kind in Asia, India and Afghanistan forged a strategic partnership. This happens to be the first such agreement that Afghanistan has ever formally entered into with any country. What makes it particularly significant is the timing of the agreement which is evidently linked with the drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan. While the historic document signed in Delhi between Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan and Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India during the visit of the former to this country is symbolic of the mutual trust and confidence between the two nations, it has also served to introduce a new twist to the already complex geo-political situation in the region. More specifically, it has added a new dimension to the ongoing turmoil in the somewhat unpredictable relationship between India and Pakistan as also has aggravated tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Afghan Perspective
Given the diverse and conflicting interplay of interests in the region, it is only natural that the perspectives amongst the multiple stakeholders and their responses on the move by India and Afghanistan should differ substantially. The problem is further compounded when the stakeholders concurrently pursue different agendas and objectives often leading to serious conflict of interest. However, both the Government and the common people in Afghanistan view the agreement on strategic partnership with India as an iteration of the strong traditional bonds between the two nations that have existed for centuries. However, at the pragmatic level, there is awareness in Afghanistan today that the country desperately needs assistance in its reconstruction to rise from the ashes and that with its large, prosperous and rapidly growing economy, India has much more to offer than Pakistan. India is undoubtedly in a better position to play a more constructive role in rebuilding the shattered economy of Afghanistan, a nation devastated by the prolonged and seemingly interminable conflict. In the past decade, India has already donated nearly $2 billion by way of economic assistance.
But beyond the lure of funds for reconstruction, the Government of Afghanistan also views the strong ties with India as a means to assuage the sense of insecurity that would definitely plague the hapless nation on account of the debilitating power struggle anticipated in the power vacuum following the withdrawal in 2014 of the US and NATO forces. Of particular concern to Afghanistan is the potential of trouble from Pakistan.
While Afghanistan is aware that India is unlikely to rush in with large military forces to replace the powers withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Karzai government perceives India to be a reliable partner without any devious intent, evil design or hidden agenda, capable of assisting the war-torn nation to stabilise. In the Afghan assessment, India has the political stature and economic clout to influence nations not only in the region but also in the world to support efforts to safeguard the legitimate national interests of Afghanistan. As against Pakistan’s long history and somewhat dubious track record of perpetual interference in the affairs of Afghanistan, its subversive activities there and covert support to militancy, India has accumulated a fund of goodwill amongst the common people through her strong focus on programmes related to the development of infrastructure such as roads, telecommunication facilities and power generation. India has also invested in education, human resource development as investment in the future leadership and healthcare. In the Afghan perception, Pakistan is clearly not in a position to compete with India be it in respect of economic cooperation or in the realm of foreign policy where India is being seen as a mature, seasoned and proactive player on the global scene. Afghanistan has clearly opted to go along with a partner that can effectively contribute to stability and prosperity.
For years, Afghanistan has been a beneficiary of aid through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. This is a bilateral programme of assistance of the Government of India that was launched in September 1964 and covers a large number of nations in need of assistance spread across the globe. To that extent, the strategic partnership agreement now signed may appear to some as mere reaffirmation of common interest in reinvigorating the past ties, India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s economic growth and the intent to develop a new partnership. In fact, the strategic partnership agreement is more than just that as it aims to propel the relationship beyond a mere aid-donor equation to a much higher plane with training of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Police included as an important and integral part of the agreement. India sees a strong, independent, stable, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan as being critical to her security interests and for overall stability of the region in the evolving geo-political and geo-strategic scenarios. Building up and sustaining the capability of the Government of Afghanistan through external assistance to provide for her own security is therefore the first and indispensable step in the pursuit of this objective.
The Pakistan Angle
Withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will provide Pakistan a strategic opportunity to once again play a leading role in the region. With the help of the Taliban which it created in the period 1993-1994 to dislodge the non-Pashtun Rabbani-Masud government from Kabul, Pakistan will seek to once again re-establish its influence over Afghanistan not only to gain strategic depth against India but also for reasons of history, ethnic commonality of the population on both sides of the border, control of the flourishing cross-border trade and access to the energy resources of the Central Asian Republics. Pakistan regards Afghanistan as its “backyard” and considers domination of its neighbour in the West as a legitimate right. Other than with Pakistan, politically, Afghanistan enjoys good relations with all its neighbours. However, Afghanistan is unlikely to go to war or create any military situation along its border with Pakistan that will adversely affect cross-border trade, legitimate or otherwise, and hurt her own interests in the long run. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have generally existed in a state of precarious equilibrium.
Pakistan is highly sensitive to India’s presence in Afghanistan or any move by it in the region that will militate against the former’s political and strategic interests. Regarding any initiative by India as undue interference, Pakistan has always blamed India for creating trouble in Baluchistan through Afghanistan as well as for supporting terrorism inside other parts of Pakistan. In fact, so acute is Pakistani sensitivity that given the option, she would have India close down diplomatic establishments and move out of Kabul altogether. Pakistan is also averse to Indian participation in any regional or global conference over the future of Afghanistan.
Despite assurances from President Hamid Karzai that, “the new partnership with India was not meant as a form of aggression towards Pakistan” and readiness on the part of both the signatories to the agreement to accommodate Pakistani interests and address her apprehensions, the overt expression of strategic partnership is bound to cause serious discomfort to Pakistan especially on account of the “strategic” connotation of the agreement. Indian involvement in the training of Afghan National Security and Police Forces, in all likelihood, will be unpalatable to Pakistan. In her perception , the agreement will facilitate direct access to Afghanistan for Indian forces with the possibility of the country being “sandwiched” between two not-so-friendly neighbours. Pakistan sees the move by India as a new “great game” directed against herself and her mentor, China. She also views the agreement as a major impediment to her vision of the establishment of a bloc consisting of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey duly patronised by China to counterbalance India’s rise as a regional power and contain US hegemony. It would not be surprising therefore that in the new situation, Pakistan brands Afghanistan as an enemy equated with India and undertakes a complete review her foreign policy.
In the wake of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, the Taliban fully supported by Pakistan, is likely to progressively scale up the offensive in an effort to re-establish control over the seat of power from where they were violently dislodged by the US a decade ago. All efforts by the US at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in search of a peaceful solution to the conflict in Afghanistan have turned out to be futile. The underlying fact is that Pakistan is not serious about any reconciliation between the government forces and the Taliban and will, in fact, do everything behind the scenes to thwart any progress towards a peaceful settlement. The recent conference in Bonn is ample evidence.
Pakistan regards the Taliban as a strategic asset in achieving her political objectives in Afghanistan. India’s efforts to support the Government of Afghanistan through a strategic partnership will, in all likelihood, push India into an indirect conflict with Pakistan with attendant implications for Afghanistan, India and the strategic partnership agreement itself. Under directions from Pakistan, while battling the government forces, sponsored by Pakistan or otherwise, the Taliban might target Indian personnel engaged in reconstruction activities and those deployed for their security thus jeopardising projects initiated under the new strategic partnership agreement. While Indian workers in civilian projects will, without doubt, be vulnerable, of particular interest to the Taliban would be Indian personnel engaged in the training of the Afghan Security and Police forces even though they would not be employed in combat role.