For the past 10 years, Afghanistan’s new Parliament building has been rising across the road from the Dar ul-Aman — the great palace built by the modernising ruler, King Amanullah Khan, in the 1920s, and shelled to ruins by the Islamist warlords who fought for control of Kabul in the 1990s. The building’s magnificent copper dome and Herat marble facades, a gift from the world’s largest democracy to one of its newest ones, were meant to signal the birth of a new Afghanistan. The years-past-deadline building has become, instead, a testament to the greatest weakness of Indian foreign policy: the perception that it is long on promises, and short on delivery.
Last week, a report in this paper revealed that Afghanistan’s new government wishes to revisit its requests for Indian military assistance de novo — putting on ice, at least for now, the first building block of what could have become a genuinely strategic relationship. There are various factors behind the decision, among them, the fact that there are new governments in New Delhi and Kabul, and pressure on President Ashraf Ghani not to antagonise next-door neighbour Pakistan. The unhappy fact, though, is that India failed to deliver the light helicopters it had promised would be in Kabul early in the year, and made little progress on plans to refit Afghanistan’s light transport aircraft. The UPA government, also fearful of irking Pakistan, dithered on meeting Afghanistan’s requests for lethal equipment — despite having signed a strategic partnership agreement which promised just that. Kabul is thus entitled to wonder if New Delhi is a reliable partner.
Lethargy has long characterised Indian strategy in the neighbourhood: New Delhi has dilly-dallied on oil storage and port investments in Sri Lanka, proved slow in developing trade between Bangladesh and the Northeast states, and is building infrastructure that would give depth to ties with Myanmar at a glacial pace. India, it is true, has won friends with small amounts of development aid, and with low-grade military-to-military training assistance. Its record on things genuinely strategic in their scale, though, can at best be described poor. The lethargy gives reason to fear that India doesn’t have what it takes to play under the spotlight reserved for genuine great powers. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood-first initiative to have heft, he will have to rebuild the creaking institutions to which India has entrusted the conduct of its foreign policy.