By Gareth Price, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gareth Price is senior research fellow on the Asia Program at Chatham House. The views expressed are his own.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit this week to India highlighted the strengthening relationship between the two countries. While India has invested heavily in a range of development projects in Afghanistan since 2002, its emergence as a political player is relatively new, considering that as recently as January 2010, and under Pakistani pressure, India was excluded from a conference in Istanbul discussing security in Afghanistan. Deteriorating relations between the United States and Pakistan, and the subsequent announcement of 2014 as the year of “transition” changed the West’s attitude towards India’s role. By June of this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was urging India to play a more active role in Afghanistan.
While there had been speculation prior to Karzai’s India visit that the two countries would agree to scale up training of Afghan army officers, in the end the main focus was on economic engagement. Under the Istanbul process of regional engagement, India had already agreed to lead work on increasing regional interaction among chambers of commerce, and on commercial opportunities in the region. It has also hosted an investment summit for Afghanistan. On the trip, Karzai reiterated that Afghanistan was open to Indian business.
While no details were given regarding any agreement on enhanced security cooperation, in an interview during his visit, Karzai welcomed India as a destination for training Afghan military and police, and for providing equipment. India is already providing some training for a few hundred Afghan soldiers and police, but has been somewhat reluctant to provide full details so as not to antagonize Pakistan.
While the West’s approach towards India has shifted, so has Indian thinking. Indian strategists seeing Afghanistan as a stick with which to beat Pakistan are now in a firm minority. Instead, India’s policy stems from recognition of the opportunity presented by greater regional engagement, as well as the regional threat presented by the collapse of the Afghan state. Most of all, India would appear cognizant of the risk that a belief that state failure will arise following 2014 risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In relation to the recent investment summit, India’s ambassador to Afghanistan was quoted as saying that the idea was to alter the “narrative from that of anxiety to a narrative of hope.”
But still there are challenges. In November 2011, an Indian consortium won the tender to mine iron ore at Hajigak in Afghanistan. The consortium has been slow to develop the mine, which could generate billions in tax revenue for the Afghan government. Here, Afghanistan faces one of many catch-22s. Understandably, commercial investors are hesitant to invest without knowing the future security scenario. Yet if they do not, one of few potential sources of revenue to facilitate a sustainable Afghan government will go begging. At present, India trades with Afghanistan through Iran, but the more direct route would be through Pakistan.
India and Pakistan are already making progress in increasing bilateral trading links, including in energy. The best scenario would see increased trade links up through Afghanistan and into resource-rich Central Asia. While this might seem optimistic, it is not implausible, particularly in light of the progress made between India and Pakistan in recent months.
Thus, while some in the West are calling for India to escalate its security cooperation with Afghanistan, Indian policy would seem to make this secondary to enhancing business links. While security cooperation represents a stick with which to beat Pakistan, increased economic ties represent something of a more palatable carrot for Islamabad.
In the meantime, India’s assistance to Afghanistan continues to expand. During Karzai’s visit, one of the agreements signed related to small development projects. India had earlier committed another $100 million for the third phase of this scheme, which has involved the construction of various clinics, schools and hospitals. India’s total assistance towards Afghanistan is now approaching $2 billion.
While India’s approach may diverge from that of the West, Indian policymakers know that public support for India among Afghans is not unconnected to the lack of any Indian military presence. 2014 will mark a challenge for India’s broad-based approach towards Afghanistan. Furthermore, the discrepancy in size between India and its immediate neighbors has frequently led to distrust among its smaller neighbors. If India does deepen its relationship with Afghanistan, it will need to take steps to sustain goodwill.