The visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Kabul less than a fortnight after the killing of Osama bin Laden was expected to provide the perfect political moment to launch a broadside against Pakistan. India and Afghanistan have both accused Pakistan of supporting terrorist networks, so what better timing than in the aftermath of the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout in close proximity to one of the country’s military establishments? However, the ‘aha’ moment did not arrive. Prime Minister Singh referred only to the ‘confusion’ that had arisen due to the conflicting statements from Pakistan, while President Hamid Karzai referred to ‘brotherly relations’ with Pakistan and that country’s own massive suffering. For a press pack hungering for a spicy sound bite, the result was disappointing, with one Afghan journalist even castigating his president for not having said enough against Pakistan.
The interesting outcome of Prime Minister Singh’s visit was the attempt to broaden India’s engagement with Afghanistan. A joint declaration announced the intention to move towards a strategic partnership that ‘envisages elevation of their multi-faceted ties to a higher level’. The list of issues is ambitious and wide-ranging: annual summit meetings, regular consultations on peace and security, as well as closer cooperation at the United Nations and other international and regional fora on security, law enforcement and justice, among others. In fact, this list pretty much includes each of the areas in which partnership has been missing over the past ten years, since the Taliban was ousted. Prime Minister Singh also announced a significant expansion of India’s aid to Afghanistan, with a further commitment of USD 500 million. This brings India’s total aid package to USD 2 billion, a substantial sum for a non-traditional donor country that faces its own developmental challenges. The visit provided no definite timeline for the aid disbursement, however, nor any schedule for executing the ambitious new strategic partnership. More to the point, for many in Afghanistan the Indian initiative has come too late.
For the most part, the Indian government cannot be faulted on the political correctness of its approach towards Afghanistan. In recent years, it has limited its diplomacy to cultivating the government of Hamid Karzai, in the hope that a friendly Pashtun-led government would provide a bulwark against Pakistan. Unlike some Western donors, all of India’s projects are carried out in consultation with the Afghan government – the ideal aid-delivery practice, according to experts. Yet beneath the pro forma approach, New Delhi has left a wide gap, failing to engage with the broad spectrum of nation-building efforts required, arguing that this is best left to Afghans. While that would be an ideal situation, since 2001 the reality in Afghanistan has been detailed micro-management of nation- and state-building by a host of interested countries; India, in the meanwhile, has appeared notably disinterested.
The result has been a steady haemorrhaging of leverage, and Prime Minister Singh’s visit was viewed as an attempt to catch up. Afghanistan, however, might have already moved on. In the interim it has been receptive to other overtures – a potent example being the speculation swirling around President Karzai’s increasing tilt towards Pakistan.
Whether or not the Afghan president is really moving closer to his immediate neighbour – and he is too wily to be second-guessed – it is a fact that there has been a flurry of diplomatic and political activity between the two countries, with frequent visits and exchanges at the top level. Compare this to the Indian involvement: this was only Prime Minister Singh’s second visit to Kabul after a gap of nearly six years.
Friendlier relations between Kabul and Islamabad are to be applauded – albeit cautiously. In this case, after all, President Karzai’s tilt towards Pakistan is being seen by some as selling out to fundamentalists within Afghanistan, and by others as a willingness to allow Pakistan to play a role akin to its control over Afghan affairs during the 1990s. Still, it is hard not to note the turnaround that has happened between Kabul and New Delhi – particularly given the cards stacked in India’s favour in 2001. Powerful positions occupied by the Northern Alliance, which New Delhi had supported, gave the latter a virtual free rein to shape the nature of its involvement. The political advantage was embedded in the great warmth of Afghans towards India and all things Indian, something that could have acted as a force multiplier for Indian policy. Yet the Indian government chose to frame its Afghan policy narrowly, with its diplomatic focus centred on dealing with its concerns about Pakistan’s role and influence.
Of course, concern over Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan is to be expected from India. However, India has failed to move beyond applying pressure on the issue of Pakistan’s role in terror. This uni-dimensional approach has lost India influence, its constant rhetoric having devalued its leverage. So, as the West moves towards an exit plan and reconciliation with the insurgents becomes the centrepiece of that effort, India finds itself sidelined, its concerns over a pro-Pakistan polity coming into power in Kabul being ignored. By focusing largely on its ‘interests’ regarding Pakistan (even while rhetorically denying it was doing so), India lost an opportunity to play a larger role that would reflect regional concerns of all Southasia over the conflict in its northwest – and help to further integrate Afghanistan into the region. This is unfortunate because, as the largest country in the region, India has a vital role in helping to foster a stable situation in Afghanistan in concert with other regional forces.
While the historical friendship of India and Afghanistan had some real roots, the warmth of that goodwill has long worn thin. The image of Afghanistan in India is one associated with violence and the role of Pakistan, a crude portrait that the Indian media has done much to propagate. Despite the rhetoric of goodwill and friendship between the two peoples, almost every Afghan visiting India is subjected to the humiliating ritual of police reporting. As a barometer of the Indian pulse, the Indian media is an indicator. Just as the Indian government has chosen to cede space in Afghanistan to the Western alliance, the Indian media overwhelmingly relies on Western media sources for its information on Afghanistan. Ten years since the Karzai government took power, not a single Indian media organisation has posted a correspondent in Afghanistan – even though Kabul is a mere 100 minutes away by air, closer to New Delhi than Mumbai or Chennai.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).