Though Indo-Afghan relations dates back to the period of Afghan dynasties that ruled India for centuries, yet in the post 9/11era, India has emerged as a dominant player in the power equation of Afghanistan. During last decade, it has been projecting its soft power image by providing Afghan government with $2 billion in aid and economic assistance that makes it Afghanistan’s fifth largest bilateral donor. The structural reforms in Indian economy gave it economic leverage that enabled India for the first time in history to transform its economic gains into political influence. Indian engagement in Afghanistan can be traced in the following areas: infrastructure development; developmental activities; and capacity building through various training programmes.
Given the geographical constraints, India has been heavily dependent on regional states to execute its policies. India and Iran both share economic interests in Afghanistan. Like Pakistan, Iran also shares border with Afghanistan and provides a land route to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. At present, to materialize economic relations with Afghanistan, India has been cooperating with Iran to develop a new port complex at Chahbahar at the coast of Iran, which would provide India access to Afghanistan via Iran by eliminating Indian dependence on Pakistan. Another important project has been the construction of 218 km Zaranj-Delaram highway to link Afghan-Iran border with Kandahar-Herat Highway. In addition, India has also contributed in constructing new Parliament building in Kabul, providing tele-communication and power generation facilities. It has invested in human resource development and healthcare facilities such as Indira Gandhi Institute of child health in Kabul.
Contrary to use of Indian hard power in respect to its relations with South Asian neighbors, the use of soft power in Afghanistan gives rise to many questions about India’s motives behind the use of soft power? Given the history of troubled India-Pakistan relations, Afghanistan is strategically important for India as uncertain Pak-Afghan relations provided India an opportunity to limit Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. Apart from Pakistan centric approach of India towards Afghanistan, India views Afghanistan as a land bridge to reach Central Asian States that are crucial primarily for India’s energy security and secondly, for presenting huge trade and investment opportunities for India’s growing economy.
Afghan leaders share India’s interest in building Afghanistan as a land bridge to connect South and Central Asia. India seriously considered the proposal for ‘New Silk Route Initiative’ pronounced at Istanbul Conference in November 2011. TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and India) gas pipeline project is one of the initiatives to transit untapped gas resources of CARs especially Turkmenistan to India and Pakistan to link energy rich Central Asia to energy deficit South Asia but details of the project have yet to be worked out. Given the complexities of India-Pakistan relations and lack of trust and confidence that characterize their bilateral relations, it is difficult to anticipate the successful completion of such projects unless their relations are improved. Stability and security in Afghanistan is also imperative to achieve that end.
India has already become a strategic partner of Afghanistan that has resulted in Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) that was signed during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India on October 4, 2011. It showed the convergence of interests of both states as this is the first such agreement that post-Taliban Afghanistan has formally entered into with any state that sought Indian help to guarantee post-withdrawal Afghan security. Likewise Afghanistan is the first South Asian strategic partner of India. The agreement covers wide range of areas from trade and economic ties to social and cultural exchanges. But the most important aspect of Strategic Partnership Agreement is the security dimension that provided India an opportunity to share the burden of Western states in training and equipping Afghan National Security Forces on Indian soil.
Indian policy makers view Indo-Afghan strategic agreement as a consolidation of gains achieved by India’s soft power approach that not only created goodwill among local population but it also helped India to secure its national security interests in Afghanistan. India’s soft power strategy has a clear objective to marginalize the influence of Pakistan, and to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan. Pakistan considers SPA detrimental to its interests as Pakistan’s peace and stability is dependent on Afghanistan’s peace and stability and enhanced Indian role in Afghanistan poses security challenges to Pakistan. India’s lack of interest to Pakistan’s concerns may not help India to materialize the long cherished goals of economic regional integration that is crucial for economic prosperity of the whole region.