The ties between India and Afghanistan stretch back to 1947, when the former obtained its independence from British colonizers. Since then, both countries have been working closely and building a close bilateral relationship. In a bid to further cement their ties, both India and Afghanistan signed a friendship treaty in 1950. The cordial relations between the two nations remained warm until 1989, when the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan significantly increased, and resultantly, they came to power in Afghanistan. However, their relations were re-established in 2002 after the Bonn Agreement. Since then, New Delhi has been actively engaged in Afghan Politics due to its strategic interests. So, what are New Delhi’s strategic interests in Kabul? India, Taliban, Afghan talks, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan,
First and foremost is the security concern. New Delhi associates the increased terror activities inside India with the Taliban. It believes that radical Taliban factions use Afghan soil to spread their motives in Jammu and Kashmir. It goes without saying that India also blames Pakistan for using the Taliban for its vested interests in Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi believes that it has serious security threats from Afghanistan until the extremist Taliban stay there. Therefore, it has been working closely with the installed regime in Kabul to push the Taliban away.
Moreover, India also wants to Curtail Pakistan’s influence in the region. It is known to the world that Pakistan’s help was crucial in pushing the USSR out of Afghanistan. While there is no doubt that Pakistan had to pay dearly for fighting someone else’s war, it also grew its influence in Afghanistan as it believes that peace in Afghanistan is crucial for stability in Pakistan. In a recent article in Washington Post, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan unequivocally stated that in this global world, we would do well to remember that no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, New Delhi believes that Pakistan is using its leverage in Afghanistan to destabilize India. The world knows that Pakistan and India have been archrivals since their independence, and both countries have also fought several wars. The trust element between the two nations lacks, and each of them wants to downplay the other. In this bid, India intends to curtail Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, India has economic interests in Afghanistan. New Delhi’s economy has grown rapidly over the past few decades. To meet its economic requirements, India direly needs energy. For this purpose, it wants access to Central Asian states, and any passage that leads to India must pass through Afghanistan. Therefore, to ensure an uninterrupted supply of energy to India, it is elementary that there must be peace in Afghanistan. In this regard, work is already in progress on Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, also known as the TAPI gas pipeline. The project cost was estimated to be 7.6 billion dollars. Through this pipeline, India expects to meet over 1.5 percent of its annual energy demand. For the security of this pipeline and other energy projects in the future, peace in Afghanistan is of paramount importance.
Lastly, India believes that it is time to emerge as a global power and curtail the influence of regional powers like China. The Chinese entry into Afghanistan to work for the development of Aynak Copper Mines in the Logar province also worried India. China has been giving a tough time to India in South Sudan and the South China sea. So, India believes that if they remain slow, they may get left behind by the Chinese once again. Recently, Professor Harsh V. Pant also wrote that “Afghanistan is a litmus test for India’s ascendance as a regional and global power.” Therefore, India has been trying to build its soft power in Afghanistan since the revival of their relations in the early 2000s.
To attain its strategic objectives, India has been actively engaged in Afghan politics. It has used various political, diplomatic, economic, and security tools to build its leverage in Afghanistan. On the diplomatic front, New Delhi opened its consulate in Kabul and built others in Jalalabad and Kandahar. New Delhi, especially after Narendra Modi gained power, has been actively engaged with the government in Kabul. India has also used various economic policy tools to build its influence in Afghanistan. It has actively provided aid to the war-torn nation and has become the top regional and fifth global aid provider to Afghanistan.
Moreover, they have also been working on various development-related projects in Afghanistan. In September 2017, a new development partnership was signed between Kabul and New Delhi. According to this, India will invest 1 billion dollars in various educational, healthcare, agriculture, and water-related projects. Furthermore, their bilateral trade has almost doubled in the past decade. In mid-2018, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, said that they expected their bilateral trade with India to reach 2 billion dollars by the end of 2020. He also said that Kabul seeks private investment from New Delhi in agriculture, mining, heavy industries, education, and healthcare. India has also been supporting Afghanistan by training Afghan security forces to enhance their capacity and capability. India has been working on all these fronts to build its soft power over Afghanistan, but India’s future in Afghanistan is in the shadows, with the US backing off.
On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Afghan Taliban reached a landmark peace deal to end America’s longest and the costliest war ever. According to this deal, US troops would leave the US, and an intra-Afghan dialogue would occur. As a result of which, some new order would emerge in Kabul. Pakistan has played a crucial role in this peace agreement by using its leverage over the Taliban and bringing them to the table. India, an important ally and a strategic partner of Afghanistan, did not have much to do and felt leftover. While some in India claim that this is a one-sided deal and India believes that it might hurt the Indian interests in the region, the official stance has been that New Delhi supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled process for enduring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Such an arrangement would protect India’s economic and security interests in Afghanistan. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, while talking to participants of the peace deal, said, “Our expectation is that Afghanistan’s soil should never be used for any anti-India activities.”
Moreover, New Delhi also believes that with the Taliban’s ascent to power, Pakistan will gain a significant influence in Afghanistan and might use the Afghan soil for spreading instability in India even though the Taliban have agreed in the peace deal that the Afghan soil will not be used against the US and its allies. To what extent this guarantee works still remains to be seen. Furthermore, Indian massive investments in Afghanistan are also at stake. With these developments, India needs to reposition its priorities in Afghanistan.
So, what can India do? India has very limited options. With this peace deal, it has become clear that the Taliban are bound to come into power sooner or later. So, India needs to prepare accordingly. In a recent visit to New Delhi, US Chief Negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad urged New Delhi to start a political dialogue with the Taliban and directly discuss their terrorism-related concerns. He said, “India is an important force in Afghanistan, and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place.” But it does not mean that India has to move away from its long-term strategic allies presently in the government. New Delhi would need to maintain a balance of the two. Therefore, India is keeping a close eye on developments in Kabul, Washington, and Doha. However, whatever the outcome of these peace talks, as former Indian Army Deputy Chief of Staff R. K. Sawhney said. “India cannot afford to beat a retreat from Afghanistan if it wants to remain a major regional player.”