Why India should play greater role in Afghanistan


modi-ghaniThere is a certain – surprising – amount of unease ahead of the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to New Delhi. India has been consistently among the largest donor nations in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and is one of the most popular partners in the country. With $2 billion of development aid pledged last year and an even larger soft power through Bollywood movies, India is surely a champion of hearts for most of the people on the western side of the Hindukush.

This raises the question why analysts and policymakers in India alike are worried, that their country could lose out on the latest developments in Afghanistan? The main reason seems that with the change of government in Kabul last year, a new sound keeps emanating from the Afghan capital. But it would be a mistake to interpret it as directed against India.

True, the “good old times” when President Hamid Karzai kept on bashing Pakistan for everything that went wrong in his country, are over. But that should not be seen as a loss for India. From a policy makers point of view Karzai’s Pakistan-bashing was not very helpful and his successor has been well advised to get into a more serious discussion with Afghanistan’s most difficult neighbour. At the end of the day, Pakistan shares a 2,600 km-long border with Afghanistan and cannot be wished or cursed away for that matter.

It was also not a bad idea for President Ghani to travel to China in order to reach out to Pakistan; the reasons are well known. But last week’s news that Beijing intends to support Pakistan with infrastructure and energy investments of a whopping $46 billion over 15 years has sent a bit of a shockwave to Delhi. Compared to the $7.5 bn package by the US, even a Pentagon official (quoted by the Pakistani daily Dawn) found Washington’s investment “too thinly scattered” and indeed “a dramatic failure”.

Whether the Chinese investment will yield a bigger success, remains to be observed. The investments into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as part of Beijing’s “One belt, one road” initiative, have triggered a controversy in Pakistan right after the visit of President Xi Jinping to Islamabad last week.

Leaders from the comparatively underdeveloped provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan started accusing the Nawaz Sharif government of manoeuvring roads, rail networks and power generation away from their homeland into the Sharifs’ Punjab. The 2,000-km CPEC corridor aims to link China’s Xinjiang region to Pakistan’s southern seaport Gwadar.

If anything, the controversy shows that Pakistan’s problems cannot be solved by money alone and China might learn that a larger involvement in the troubled region will also increase the risk of getting burnt. The unresolved problems between Punjab and the “other” Pakistani provinces are not only a hot political potato but pose a serious security risk for Chinese companies as well. Both KP and Balochistan are extremely volatile and infested with extremist groups. Suicide attacks and kidnappings of locals and foreigners alike are regular occurances.

If this is a problem in Pakistan, there is even more of it in store in Afghanistan. That is exactly the reason why China preferred to keep a low profile in the country for the last ten years. But apparently Beijing believes that the time has come for China to take on more responsibility as part of its growing international ambitions. Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered earlier this year “to play a constructive role” in the country and Beijing even hosted a meeting with Taliban leaders in Qatar.

China’s challenge however is that it knows very little about Afghanistan. While China’s friendship with Pakistan began as early as 1950 and involved a considerable amount of cooperation and people-to-people exchange, nothing of this can be said about Afghanistan. China lacks people who speak the Afghan languages and understand the culture. Those Chinese who have been working in Afghanistan in the last decade, hardly interacted with Afghans and mostly kept to themselves

It remains questionable, if China in combination with Pakistan will have more influence on the Taliban when it comes to bringing them to the negotiation table. The Taliban always showed a characteristic stubbornness in refusing to take orders from anybody. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seriously seems to believe that he will be able to integrate the Taliban into the political mainstream, nobody yet has come up with an idea that could be offered to a group of radicals who claim to be the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan and do not accept the current government.

And the talk about talks has been going on now for years without getting anywhere. The advent of the Islamic State does not make it easier. There is no lack of radicals and radical ideology around in the region even if some parts of the Afghan Taliban should accept to enter a government in Kabul. Without a military component, stability cannot be reached in Afghanistan. And if China is willing to play a bigger role after the drawdown of the US and NATO forces, it will be a welcome contribution for the Ghani government.

India has no reason to take all these developments defensively. While sceptics righty point out that China wants to counter balance Washington’s efforts to deepen alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and India sees Chinas activities as another step to dominate the region, there are good reasons for India to contemplate a rapprochement to China in Afghanistan.

India has built the necessary goodwill in Afghanistan over a very long period of time. New Delhi can count on a stable friendship with Kabul and should use the opportunity not only to overcome its own hesitation regarding a greater role to support the Afghan security forces. It can also try to reach out to China in a country where both nations have no conflict of interest.

Both, India and China want a stable Afghanistan. And they are both threatened by the proliferation of radical ideology in the name of Islam. In fact, the threat for India with its large Muslim population is bigger than for China. If both powers can join their efforts in Afghanistan, it would be an important contribution to the stability and economic development of the region and in fact, the world.

(Britta Petersen is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi).

Courtesy: ORF