Signalling long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s future — be it under Taliban or other political forces – India on Tuesday announced about 150 projects worth $80 million (about Rs 592 crore) in the conflict-ridden country.
New Delhi also committed to build a new dam, which will provide drinking water to 2 million residents of Kabul.
This new commitment was announced by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at the Afghanistan 2020 Conference, which he addressed through video-conferencing. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, UN and EU officials, besides representatives of other countries, attended the conference.
Since 2002, India has so far committed $3 billion (about Rs 2,200 crore) towards rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan. While India did not invest in Afghanistan during the Taliban years from 1996 to 2001, the government’s decision now to invest in Afghanistan’s future, where Taliban is set to play a dominant role, is being seen as a major departure from the past. It signals that India is finally shedding the hesitations of history.
New Delhi has had a bitter experience with the Taliban. Now, with their return after the US exiting Afghanistan, South Block is quickly trying to adapt to the changed circumstances and reach out to the Taliban.
Jaishankar said at the conference, “I am happy to announce today an agreement with Afghanistan for building the Shahtoot dam, which would provide safe drinking water to 2 million residents of Kabul city. It builds on the 202-km Phul-e-Khumri transmission line of 2009, through which we provided power to the city. India will also launch phase-IV of high-impact community development projects in Afghanistan, which include around 150 projects worth $80 million.”
Stressing that India has invested heavily in peace and development in Afghanistan, he said, “We strongly believe that the gains of the last two decades must be preserved and the interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections must be ensured.”
This is one of India’s red-lines in the wake of the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan, as the Sikh community has faced attacks and hostility in the last few months.
He also flagged the issue of violence: “(The) increasing level of violence in Afghanistan remains a matter of grave concern. While we support all efforts to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan, India calls for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire. We also believe that the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.”
As an important stakeholder, he said, India looks forward to “walk hand in hand with the people of Afghanistan and the world community to work towards a peaceful, prosperous, sovereign, democratic and united Afghanistan”.
Reaching out to a Kabul with Taliban
So far, there was a perception within the Taliban that New Delhi will not deal with it beyond ritualistic statements. But this additional financial commitment moves beyond statements at conferences, and with this, India has now shed its ambiguity about engaging with the Taliban. Earlier, in a carefully calibrated shift in India’s position, New Delhi had participated in the commencement ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks in Doha on September 12. Indian attendance at the Doha event, where a 21-member Taliban team was present, reflects South Block's realisation of ground realities and shifting sands in Kabul’s power structure.
On Delhi going beyond statements on Taliban, a source told The Indian Express, “It shows India has put its money where the mouth is.”
Officials in Delhi pointed out that Jaishankar also said, “There is no part of Afghanistan today untouched by our 400-plus projects, spread across all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.”
India’s current development programmes in Afghanistan are centered around five pillars: large infrastructure projects; human resource development and capacity building; humanitarian assistance; high-impact community development projects; and enhancing trade and investment through air and land connectivity.
Large infrastructure projects completed include construction of 218 km road from Delaram to Zaranj (on Iranian border) which provides alternative connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran; Salma dam; and the Afghan Parliament building which was inaugurated in 2015.
More than 65,000 Afghan students have studied in India under various scholarship programmes and 15,000 students are presently studying here; 3,000 scholarships have so far been granted to young Afghan women to pursue higher studies in India.
Going beyond basic education, India also provided vocational training to a large number of women in Afghanistan. “This number shall increase every year with our long term commitment to help rebuild Afghanistan,” Jaishankar said.
Jaishankar also said that Afghanistan’s growth has been constrained by its landlocked geography and “we need to address that” — an oblique reference to Pakistan blocking transit access. “Through Chabahar port, we have provided an alternate connectivity to Afghanistan that has helped transport 75,000 tonnes of wheat during the Covid pandemic. We were also able to send more than 20 tonnes of life-saving medicines and other equipment to address the Covid-19 challenge,” he said.