India’s Future Role in Afghanistan Severely Limited

India is keen to expand its presence and influence but limited by external factors.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai reiterated the importance of India’s assistance for his country during his visit to New Delhi this month. He urged the country, and in particular its private sector, to further increase its investment in Afghanistan. The importance of Indian engagement in Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the Americans as well who are pushing India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan post 2014, especially in the security realm.

There is no doubt that India has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001. Having contributed close to $2 billion in aid over the past decade, India is the fifth largest donor nation to Afghanistan.

Although India has committed to increase its involvement in Afghanistan, there are some major limitations to its engagement that need to be highlighted.

For starters, there is no geographical contiguity between the two countries so India depends on others, notably Iran or Pakistan, for access. Both options are contentious.

Although there has been some easing of trade restrictions between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani military is still wary of Indian influence in Afghanistan and keen to prevent it from playing a larger role in what it sees as its traditional backyard.

Denying access to Indian goods that are meant for Afghanistan is one strategy for inhibiting Indian influence and there seems to be no inclination on the part of Pakistan to change this approach. This has prevented the maximization of the commercial relations between Afghanistan and India.

India, consequently, has relied on Iran to facilitate its trade. However, the port facilities at Chabahar in southeastern Iran still need to be developed and expanded, thereby requiring massive investment, to enable it to support trade on a large scale. More importantly, the use of such facilities will always be contingent on good relations with Iran which could be strained if India does not tread carefully when it comes to collaboration with the United States in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. Any developments in the region that India is a part of, including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline or the “New Silk Road” initiative of the United States, that isolates or excludes Iran is likely to be resented by Tehran. This could ultimately prompt Iran to deny India access.

The main thrust of the Indian approach to Afghanistan has been the provision of socioeconomic and humanitarian assistance which has enabled it to earn significant political capital among both the Afghan political elite and the Afghan people. However, its positive engagement has been possible on account of the semblance of security created by the United States and their NATO allies. It would be difficult to maintain the same level of commitment when international security forces withdraw in 2014.

The future uncertainties have already begun to derail India’s commitments to Afghanistan. No new projects have been started for the last two years. Reports suggest that India is planning to scale down the allocation of both human and monetary resources to Afghanistan post 2014. Work on a number of existing projects has stalled due to the prevailing insecurity in Afghanistan. For instance, work on the Salma Dam project in the Herat Province, which was to be inaugurated two years ago, has been delayed on account of the prevailing insecurity in the area and constant attacks on the construction site by insurgent forces.

The problem is compounded by India’s inability to fill the security vacuum that will be created after 2014. For instance, India is not going to contribute directly toward enhancing security in the country as it will likely continue to resist sending in troops into Afghanistan.

This has been to avoid antagonizing the Pakistani military which in the past has resented even the deployment of a small noncombat contingent of troops to provide security to India’s own projects and workers. An Indian military presence in Afghanistan in the future would be counterproductive as it could make India’s presence in Afghanistan actually more vulnerable.

Similarly, it could serve to undermine the goodwill that India has earned over the past decade given the negative perception in the Afghan psyche associated with a foreign military presence. For all these reasons, there is unlikely to be consensus within India for sending troops.

India has limited itself to providing equipment and training to the Afghan National Security Forces. Although it has agreed to increase such activities, it will not train more than 1,000 Afghan troops per year. This is too low a number since the envisioned strength of the Afghan army is about 350,000.

Policymakes in New Delhi will be keen to protect and expand upon the clout they have garnered in recent years through assistance and investments and use it as a springboard to further their interests and influence in Central Asia. But given the absence of an alternative security arrangement, tense relations with neighboring countries and the future uncertainties in both Afghanistan and the region, India’s ability to advance this agenda is severely limited.