By MAJ GEN NK BHATIA
India’s two decades of engagement with Afghanistan and its people, built painstakingly around the plank of developmental assistance, people to people contact and promotion of a democratic setup seemed to have come to a naught after anointment of Pakistan backed Taliban regime in Kabul.
Afghans appreciated the Indian soft power diplomacy wherein India built its goodwill without being seen directly militarily involved in Afghanistan, although it did provide military assistance through capacity building for Afghanistan National Defence Security Forces (ANDFS), which comprised personnel from Afghan armed forces and police.
An introspection into India’s engagement with Afghanistan, post withdrawal of Taliban’s first stranglehold on the country would be in order to determine if India played its cards right, to be counted as a major stakeholder in Afghanistan, to influence events to achieve an outcome that determined its interests and place it at a pedestal to be counted amongst countries that could alter the outcome of events in a way to protect its interests.
India was the first country to embark wholeheartedly in providing developmental aid to Afghanistan beginning 2001. India’s efforts were aimed at reconstruction of broken infrastructure and initiating developmental programmes built around small and community projects to ensure that the benefits reached common man and provide benefits to maximum people in Afghanistan. India also enhanced aid in the fields of education, medical services, transport, telecommunications, agriculture, irrigation, power generation, industry, and rural development. It also enhanced people to people contact by providing liberal scholarships for higher education in Indian universities.
India’s estimated cost to provide humanitarian and developmental assistance was estimated to have been worth USD 3 billion. India began with development of important infrastructure projects in South-Western Afghanistan, the highway from Zaranj to Delaram, which was inaugurated by President Hamid Karzai and India’s then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on 22nd January, 2009.
It was followed by Construction of 220kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20 kV sub-station at Chimtala to bring additional power from the northern grid to Kabul, Construction and commissioning of Salma Dam power project (42 MW) in Herat province; Construction of the Afghan Parliament; Restoration of telecommunication infrastructure in 11 provinces and expansion of national TV network.
However it is in the field of humanitarian assistance that India’s efforts were lauded worldwide. From providing fortified, high-protein biscuits to nearly 2 million children under a School Feeding Programme administered through the World Food Programme, gift of 250,000 metric tonnes of wheat announced in January 2009 to help Afghanistan tide over its then food crisis, free medical consultation and medicines through 5 Indian Medical Missions to over 30,000 Afghans every month, reconstruction of a Child Health Centre in Kabul and gifting buses for mass urban transportation, ambulances and utility vehicles for municipalities, India’s aid was meant to alleviate problems of common people.
India faced innumerable problems while delivering its assistance to Afghanistan primarily due to lack of direct connectivity between the two countries. Its aid, even humanitarian assistance, was at mercy of an obstinate neighbour that remained unmoved at the plight of Afghans, refusing transit of Indian aid through its territory, finally relenting to allow only a part to pass its territory.
India’s “Soft Power” approach to influence the outcome of events in Afghanistan has been a test of its diplomatic manoeuvring. Having a direct interest in stabilising Afghanistan to further its own strategic interests, India now faces the litmus test of remaining relevant having been outmanoeuvred by a reticent neighbour that unrelentingly used a policy of violence and terrorism to anoint a regime that has so far side lined India’s “Soft power” approach to remain relevant in Afghanistan.
The concept of “Soft Power” was enumerated by US diplomat Joseph Nye in his book ‘The Changing Nature of American Power’ that enumerated that co-opting power is ‘the ability of a nation to structure a situation so that other nations develop preferences or define their interests in ways consistent with one’s nation.’ It would thus emerge that India through its “soft power” approach tried to define its interests aligned with Afghan interests; encompassing strategic, political as well as economic aspects that both countries could benefit from.
One prime field where India tried to influence Afghanistan was promotion of democracy and democratic institutions such as construction of its parliament and providing assistance in conduct of elections. All this seems to have come to a naught with all democratic institutions having been run over an autocratic regime. Other areas where India extended assistance were assistance in development of TV networks, promotion of cultural exchanges, Bollywood, sports including men’s and women’s cricket & football, all repugnant to the new Taliban regime.
Mr HHS Vishwanathan, an IFS officer in a talk explained that while “Soft Power” may be a necessary condition for achieving goals, but is not a sufficient condition since Foreign Policy goals are not unilateral decisions and their success depends on other nations as well. Their interests play a crucial role as well. If the goals of two nations contradict then ‘they would not tow our line’.
This seems to be an Indian predicament in relation to Afghanistan today wherein the goals of two countries do not seem to converge to forge a cogent bilateral relationship.
India has hardly ever enumerated “Hard Power” as a stated goal of its foreign policy except in exceptional circumstances. India covered itself with glory when it briefly stepped out to help create Bangladesh from the clutches of a despotic Pakistani regime showing that it was capable of taking hard decisions. Similarly, a quick intervention in Maldives was able to foil a coup. However its hurried and unplanned military intervention in Sri Lanka proved to be a disaster.
Having gained economic self – reliance India has increasingly used economic assistance as a means to foster bilateral relations especially with its neighbours and African nations.
Indian predicament to engage with Afghanistan poses formidable challenges and interference from Pakistan. India’s offer of humanitarian assistance to supply 5 million tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan has been held hostage to Pakistan establishment’s vagaries although the regime in Kabul has expressed its willingness to accept it.
The Indian humanitarian assistance may be the first step but would certainly not be the last step to come to the help of Afghanistan. Though limitations of “Soft Power” are well known, that may be the only option for India to get close to Afghanistan.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).