India's Increasing Strategic Role in Afghanistan and Central Asia

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 1 Mar - Apr 2017
Page No.: 
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The importance of India’s increasing role in the subcontinent and Central Asia
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kabul to inaugurate the opening of Afghanistan’s 115 million dollars, Indian built parliament, Afghan politicians were falling all over themselves to thank him and the people of India for their generosity. India’s involvement as a strategic partner in helping bolster Afghanistan’s often shaky political and economic system is highlighted by the massive amount of development aid that India has offered to Afghanistan. The construction of the 42-megawatt hydro dam, aptly named “Friendship Dam,” in the strategic city of Herat, and the proposed 20 billion development of Iran’s port of Chabahar - the closest port to Afghanistan’s border road infrastructure as well as another 1 billion dollars in promised aid, highlights India’s growing appetite for utilizing soft power mechanisms to project power and protect her interests in Central Asia’s difficult political terrain. The dam in Afghanistan will soon generate 42 MW of much-needed power for the electrification of rural and urban Herat, and also help irrigate 80,000 hectares of agricultural land.  India has also provided hundreds of scholarships to Afghan students.  
While India’s soft power projection has been successful in winning the hearts and minds of a clear majority of Afghans, the reality of a growing insurgent threat aided by Pakistan’s deep suspicion of India’s motivations means that all the aforementioned lofty projects face deep vulnerabilities, if the security situation remains tenuous.  
Over the past decade and a half, India’s policy of finesse over force has been made easier by the American led coalition’s willingness to buttress Afghanistan’s civilian and military forces. Shifting full responsibility of security to Afghan forces has, however, become an arduous, expensive and next to impossible task for the Americans and their allies.  
United State military officials have indicated that they want India to pick up more security responsibilities and provide hard security support in the face of the shared threat of terrorism.  India has responded by providing military training to Afghan soldiers, and has gifted four Russian Mi-25 helicopters for Afghanistan’s severely weak air force. In addition to this, they have also signed a deal with Russia to source military equipment to Afghanistan.  Brigadier V Mahalingam (Retd) told Sputnik news “India may finance military equipment for Afghanistan as it did in May 2014 for military equipment sourced from Russia. Providing military hardware will, however, have to be based on an assessment of the possibility of this equipment being pilfered by militant sympathizers within the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces or land in their hands.”
Despite these concerns, last summer’s meeting in Delhi between General John Nicholson, commander of US operations in Afghanistan and National Security Advisor AjitDoval, as well as Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar, indicates that the US is looking to India to provide more military support.  Pakistan has protested by arguing that India’s economic and political incursions in Afghanistan have more to do with undermining it, than in trying to give aid to Afghans.  The Taliban have also warned that they will retaliate against India’s increasing military role in Afghanistan. 
But the overarching consensus amongst China, Russia, and India, as well as the US and Europe seems to be that Central Asia remains vulnerable to hostile terrorist organizations which may lead to the destabilization of the whole region. While China and Pakistan may be uneasy with Delhi’s military aid to Afghanistan, the Americans have been far more perceptive to India’s security role.   The US’s argument is based on the logic that engaging in Afghanistan with more robust military support ensures that the billions of dollars spent on development infrastructure are protected and their benefits realized through increased trade and political stability.  
The 10-year commercial contract for the development and operations of Chabahar port was signed between India Ports Global Pvt. Ltd and Iran’s Arya Banader on 23 May 2016 in Tehran during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India will invest 20 billion dollars for Chabahar Port in Iran’s free economic zone.  The purpose of opening up a deep sea port in Iran is to facilitate further strengthening of economic linkages between Iran and India and also give India better access to central Asia through Afghanistan.  
While the threat of terrorism is the primary basis for increased focus of national interest in the region, India’s overtures towards Afghanistan and its long-term trade plans have raised eyebrows both in Beijing and Islamabad. The port of Chabahar is located less than 100 kilometres away from Pakistan’s port of Gwadar and is a part of 56 billion dollars in investments from China for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. China’s goal is to use the corridor to open up Eastern China for development. 
Opening an economic corridor between the Middle East, Pakistan and China will give both parties greater strategic trade advantages in terms of fuel costs and time, as well as a strategic military advantage as massive amounts of fuel and goods can flow through the two nuclear armed countries, with which India has long standing border disputes.  
India, along with the help of Japan and South Korea, will be working to develop Chabahar port.  Despite all the hype surrounding this mega project, much of the work still has not taken off the ground, while Gwadar is open for business.  Gwadar, is the primary nodal point of CPEC (for deep analysis of CPEC please refer to volume 10 issue 5, December 2016 of the South Asia Defence & Strategic Review, written by R. Chandrashekhar “CPEC The Geo-Strategic Counterpoise). CPEC as a pillar of economic and strategic cooperation, between China and Pakistan also means that Pakistan can utilize China’s border access to Central Asia.  Pakistan can thus  bypass Afghanistan to establish stronger trade ties with the region as China has borders with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  
Many of the Central Asian countries, however, are wary of larger partners such as China and Russia who are looking to gain greater advantage in diversifying their export transit routes. They see India as an ideal counterbalance to China’s rising influence, especially in the development of resources. On the other hand, having an ideal partner does not necessarily mean that the uncertainties surrounding the reality of a complex matrix of regional and international interests are lessened with the arrival of India as a competing regional actor. Despite these difficulties, Central Asian states, especially Afghanistan, are eagerly pushing for the project to progress
The development of the Chabahar transit route is especially important for Afghanistan, as it allows both countries to bypass Pakistan as the main transit corridor that  decreases the amount of economic leverage Pakistan has over trade relations between Afghanistan and India.    While Central Asian leaders have been looking for the project to come on line and India has offered reassurances of its commitment as a major player in Central Asia’s development, Chabahar illustrates India’s ability to smoothly incorporate and develop strategic nodal points for trade.  This task is further complicated by the Trump administration’s latest sanctions against Iranian companies and individuals.  Since these sanctions are unilateral, the effect on the development may be minimal.  American generals on the ground have indicated their support for the project.  Rather, the main sticking point for the realization of the development has also been hamstrung by India and Iran’s inability to clear administrative hurdles regarding the initial phase of funding for the project. Iran has also indicated that that the transit port is not exclusively limited to Iran and India.    
Despite all the primary hurdles, India’s drive to find access to Central Asia and create stronger economic linkages to Afghanistan and central Asia via Iran illustrates the strategic importance of the region for India from a security vantage point, as well as its desire to establish infrastructure with a view to project its economic influence.  
Given the sensitive political nature of the region, India’s motivation to gain access to resources in Central Asia and work towards political stability in Afghanistan has irked Islamabad.  But Pakistan itself has signed a CPEC agreement with China, which can also be viewed by India as a mechanism by which China and Pakistan can exert greater economic and political influence in the region; although China has indicated that the purpose of the investment is purely related to trade and other parties are open to use the route. They have also invited Afghanistan to partake in this corridor but have excluded the integration of India’s trade infrastructure. Hence for India to stay relevant in the region, large investments such as Chabahar send a strong signal to friends and rivals that India’s strategic imperatives are multi layered, multi-faceted, and capable of withstanding strong security headwinds.  
While the Chabahar port has become the centrepiece of India’s first attempt at exerting influence in Central Asia, especially Afghanistan, other more novel approaches to bypass Pakistan, such as the recent agreement between PM Modi and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani to open an air cargo route, as well as adding flights between Kabul and Mumbai, are geared toward encouraging greater flow of trade.  President Ghani hopes that the aggregate results of greater access to the Indian markets for Afghan goods will result in 25 billion dollars worth of trade between the two countries, far greater than the $680 million during 2013-2014.  Moreover, air connectivity between the two countries will make it possible for thousands of Afghans to come to India mainly for the purposes of medical tourism as well as trade.  
While investments in large projects in Afghanistan have carried a large price tag which pose many uncertainties the benefits gained by India in setting up the infrastructure, and increasing the capabilities of the Afghan state to become economically and politically viable, will help Indian businesses tap into the trillions of dollars in resources in central Asia.  India can benefit from these resources and increase its production capacity.
The potential rewards of closer ties between India and Afghanistan is burdened by the risk of agitating Pakistan and raising the ire of the Taliban.  The terrorist attacks against the Indian embassy in Kabul illustrate, however, that the threat already exists.  But it is not a strategic threat, rather, the nature of the threat is tactical - death by a thousand pin pricks. This does not mean that tactical threats cannot metamorphose into a strategic one as it did during the Taliban regime when Pakistan was the main sponsor of the Taliban and the body of the leader of the toppled India-friendly regime, hung by a noose in the middle of the city.  Afghanistan became a hotbed for terrorist networks and Pakistan’s dream of “strategic depth” was apparently realized.  
Within the complex web are international and regional interests. India’s soft power play in Afghanistan has yielded many positive results, but the protection and realization of the gains requires more vigilance on part of India as she enters the modern version of the great game. This time the rewards may be exponential, in spite of the threats.