Greater Power Involvement in Afghanistan

India and Russia are both anxious to invest in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy.

While most NATO partners have had enough of the war and even the United States appear to be preparing for a retreat next year, nearby interested powers may finally have chance to invest in Afghanistan.

Internationalizing the war and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has been suggested before but for many years, the United States balked at the prospect of having countries as India and Russia, let alone Iran, play a major role.

India, which deeply resents the notion of negotiating with the Taliban — as has been promulgated by commentators and think tanks in the West — lest in herald their eventual return to power, likely coupled with an extension of Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and the region, has been undertaking infrastructure projects in the country and continues to rank among the foremost financial contributors to the rebuilding of Afghanistan. It is also a strong supporter of President Hamid Karzai’s regime in Kabul which, at least for now, it regards as the only viable alternative to insurgents in power.

Infrastructure projects which India has sponsored include a 250 kilometer long highway between Zaranj near the border with Iran and Delaram on the road that connects Kabul, Kandahar and Herāt. India’s money and companies are also rebuilding the Salma Dam in western Afghanistan and laying a power line that will connect Uzbekistan and Kabul. Some 4,000 Indian nationals are currently employed in Afghanistan. Indian companies are invested in Afghan agriculture and mining and the country is providing student scholarships, medical aid programs and training for Afghan police and civil servants.

India’s help comes with a price though. New Delhi maintains a huge embassy in Kabul; it has built an array of consulates, two of which, in Jalalabad and Kandahar, face the border with Pakistan; and hundreds of Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Police forces are stationed in Afghanistan under the guise of guarding diplomatic facilities and infrastructure projects.

As long as India can’t deploy more troops though, its ability to amplify influence in and around Kabul relies entirely on the security order which NATO and the United States are able to impose. If the Western coalition forces go, India will have little choice but do the same which will, in turn, badly strain its relations with the United States.

More help is underway from the north however. The New York Times reports that Russia is eager to revive Soviet era public works in Afghanistan. The country, which waged a deadly war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, has already begun negotiating to refurbish dozens of projects that were initiated during the Soviet occupation, including hydroelectric stations, bridges, wells and irrigation systems, in deals that could be worth over $1 billion.

The Kremlin is also looking to blunt Islamic extremism in Central Asia, which poses a threat to Russia’s security, particularly in the Caucasus, and to exploit opportunities in the promising Afghan mining and energy industries.

Vast mineral reserves were recently uncovered by American geologists in Afghanistan. China is already investing some $3 billion in a copper mine south of Kabul. Russia, which is experiencing a painfully slow economic recovery and remains largely dependent on the export of resources, is similarly anxious to delve for natural riches.

China has so far stayed on the sidelines, ready to take advantage of economic opportunities in Afghanistan but relying exclusively on US security forces to safeguard them. With its strong ties to Pakistan, it could play an important role in resolving the Afghan war, by trying to convince the Pakistanis to stop playing their dangerous double game: taking American money but supporting elements of the Taliban at the same time. Neither Washington nor Beijing has shown a particular willingness to extend China’s involvement in the near future however.