Indo-Afghan relations are among the few bilateral ties that include elements of civilisational, emotional and strategic imperatives and bonds. Kabul was once a Hindu and a Buddhist city; while Delhi was a leading centre of Persian literature and language, as well as the home of a Pathan political dynasty and Sufi Islam. For many Afghans, India is among the few places that accords them respect and dignity, unlike many others which treat them as unwanted, backward, terrorists or drug-dealers. Kabul and Delhi are also the main victims of Rawalpindi’s use of terrorism to pursue its regional ambition and inherent insecurity. India’s need to access Afghanistan and Central Asia’s natural resources and markets complements it’s vast market for Afghanistan’s growing economy. For Afghanistan’s nascent democracy, development and its state-building process, India is an inspiration and a model. India has had success in managing its diverse communities, building its state institutions, nurturing an indigenous democracy, women’s empowerment and transitioning from an agrarian society into a developing nation. Afghanistan can learn a great deal from India. More importantly, “Indian Islam” is a living manifestation of “Khurasani Islam”, which was once the prevailing flavour in Afghanistan:
A humane, peaceful, tolerant, ethical and civic Islam.
However, Delhi and Kabul have failed to translate their enormous mutual trust and political, economic and security imperatives into an effective, functioning and more importantly predictable partnership: It is more developmental and sentimental than political and strategic. India has been generous and effective in helping Afghanistan’s massive humanitarian and developmental needs, but peripheral in shaping the country’s politics and more crucially its struggle against terrorism. Delhi’s reluctance to fully and confidently implement its strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, signed in 2011, demonstrates India’s residual doubt and fear about its engagement in Afghanistan. It took almost four years for Delhi to deliver three military helicopters to Afghanistan. There are a number of factors that have shaped this cautious Afghan policy. India is transitioning from a largely inward-looking developing nation into a serious political and economic power. Competing priorities, bureaucratic lethargy, resource constraints, domestic and electoral politics and an ambivalent geo-strategic mindset characterise a transitioning nation’s foreign policy.
The other factor is Pakistan’s skill and stamina in high-risk and great-game politics and manipulation of competing players. Pakistan has disguised its expansionist regional agenda as a “proxy war” between India and Pakistan, thus equating its support to terrorism with India’s support to the processes of stabilisation, democratisation, reconstruction and state building in Afghanistan. The confusion and policy preferences of Western powers has been the other obstacle in strengthening Afghanistan-India relations. Some in the West are ready to negotiate Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and democracy with Rawalpindi in return for reducing their costs of engagement while maintaining their geo-strategic interests in the region. Kabul’s polarised elites have compounded Delhi’s reluctance, Islamabad’s manipulative game and the West’s war-weariness and confusion.
However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, India’s Afghanistan policy is shifting from a reluctant albeit friendly one, to a more confident and multi-dimensional approach: Investing in Afghanistan’s nascent democracy and economy; strengthening Kabul’s defence capability and promoting regional connectivity and integration. Speedy operationalisation of the Iranian port of Chahbahar, reviving the trilateral process between Kabul-Delhi-Washington and a better utilisation of Russia-China-India consultation mechanism on regional security should be the ensuing steps. These should not necessarily mean ignoring Pakistan’s legitimate concern and its potentially constructive role. Pakistan’s Afghan policy is characterised by Islamabad/ Rawalpindi’s concerns, paranoia and ambition. Delhi and Kabul can and should address the first two of these. To this end, a trilateral mechanism of dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India can enhance mutual understanding and identify areas for potential collaboration. A stable and independent Afghanistan would also be Pakistan’s partner in supporting its legitimate concerns such as terrorism and regional connectivity.
Above all, the goal of the Afghanistan-India partnership is to reach a degree of mutual trust so as to characterise the Kabul-Delhi relationship as a functioning, strategic partnership between two sovereign democratic nations. What many Afghans expect from Delhi is to elevate Afghanistan’s constitutional order and political independence. The Karzai government articulated such an expectation by exploring a defence pact with Delhi. Despite the signed agreements with Western powers, both Kabul and its adversaries are not convinced of the reliability of the West as guarantors of Afghanistan’s political independence and constitutional order. Other regional powers — such as Iran, China and Russia — either lack the will or the means to accord Afghanistan such a guarantee.
Fortunately, forging such a relationship does not require substantive material resources. Afghanistan is endowed with sufficient domestic and external human, natural and financial resources to address many of its formidable challenges. What it lacks is a reliable political and psychological environment and partnership. Delhi is well-placed to offer Kabul such insurance. Also, India as a victim of terrorism and a shining example of “ Khurasani Islam”, should play a leading role in articulating a global consensus and building a regional mechanism on terrorism as well as promoting mutual respect and understanding among and between different faiths and communities. Alongside China, Asian tigers and Japan, India is making this century the “century of Asia”. As an essential part of South, Central and West Asia, Afghanistan’s stability and development is a key determinant to the realisation of the “Asian century”. The full realisation of Afghanistan’s and India’s fraternity is necessary for this endeavour.