If there is one neighbourhood outreach that India can take pride in, it is Afghanistan. New Delhi kept away from participating directly in the occupation by foreign militaries for over a decade to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda despite repeated entreaties by the US and an open invitation from Kabul to do so, and focused instead on development and reconstruction projects.
Instead of soldiers, India sent engineers and workers, and the results are there for everyone to see: A hospital in Kabul, the country’s parliament building that Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated in December 2015 on his first visit to Afghanistan, a 218 km road from Zaranj to Delaram for better connectivity from the Iranian border, the 220kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul, and the $ 300 million Salma dam in Herath, also called the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, that Modi inaugurated on Saturday.
Comparisons are inevitable — it is hard to miss that Pakistan’s most substantial gift to Afghanistan for the last two decades has been the Taliban. It would have been all too easy for India, especially after the Haqqani network-Taliban bombed the Indian embassy in Kabul and repeatedly targeted other Indians working in Afghanistan, to rise to the bait and use this already ravaged country for a proxy war with Pakistan, but wisely, India has resisted that temptation too.
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The $ 2 billion that New Delhi has poured into Afghanistan is not cheap, but there can be no real price tag to the goodwill that India has earned in the process. New Delhi has always emphasised its civilisational ties and cultural links with Afghanistan. It is fitting that the dam is located close to Chisht-e-Sharif, the birthplace of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose dargah in Ajmer is a magnet for Muslims across the region.
“Your friendship is our honour; your dreams are our duty,” Modi declared as he and President Ashraf Ghani opened the dam together. Yet, there is no diplomatic endeavour in the world that is purely built on friendship and duty. What New Delhi has hoped to gain from its expansive diplomacy in Afghanistan is a strategic gateway to Central Asia, and is now closer to this goal than before. Pakistan’s denial of a land route was an obstacle, but the recent win-win solution — an India-Iran agreement to develop Chabahar, and an India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement for the development of a trade corridor from the Iranian port through Afghanistan to Central Asia — is a potential game-changer.
While the Khyber bypass may be triumph-inducing in New Delhi, it cannot be forgotten that the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan is still key to peace in the entire region. Afghanistan is far from stability, and will remain a battlefield for the new Taliban leadership and Pakistan’s growing insecurities vis-à-vis India. While much depends on the choices of Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif, India should pay no heed to those who will now advise it to ignore Pakistan. Rather, it must leverage the new emerging compact in the region to actively seek to break the impasse with Pakistan.