Indo-Pak-Afghan knot: threat to region’s stability?

Pakistan sees India’s growing economic and political profile in Afghanistan as a threat, which, it is feared, might lead to growing tensions between the two historic nuclear rivals and even countermeasures by Pakistan.

Afghanistan has long been in the spotlight as the site of the largest ongoing US-led military campaign joined by a coalition of 43 nations. On December 1, President Barack Obama announced a plan to send 30,000 more troops to the Islamic Republic, and to begin the reinforcement withdrawal in July 2011.

The news has caused mixed reactions of two other major players in the region – India and Pakistan, each of whom pursues their own interests in Afghanistan. The turf war over the influence in the area makes the tangled knot of Indian-Afghani relations even more complicated.

India’s aid to Afghanistan

Delhi and Kabul have historically shared good political and cultural ties. India supported Afghan governments and was the only South Asian state to recognise the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union's military presence on Afghan soil in the 80s.


Afghan Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asif Rahimi (L), Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad and Afghan farmers pose with apples at the Kabul International airport

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, India did not recognize the Islamist government. Pakistan, however, together with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, did recognize the rule of the radical Sunni Islamist movement, which didn’t work for the improvement of India –Pakistan relations.

After the Taliban government was overthrown, diplomatic ties between India and Afghanistan were restored.

Notably, many Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have lived and studied in India and have maintained good relations with New Delhi.

Since 2001, India has committed $1.2 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction, becoming the sixth largest donor to the country.

It has also heavily invested in promoting infrastructure development in the Islamic Republic, which includes a strategic 218 km Zaranj-Delaram road in southwest Afghanistan near the Iranian border, which was opened in January this year.

In May, an Indian-made power transmission line to the Afghan capital and a substation were opened, bringing 24-hour electricity to Kabul for the first time in 17 years.

Other major projects include the construction of Afghanistan's new Parliament building which is set to be completed by the end of 2011.Also, India has trained Afghan police and diplomats and it has provided assistance in such areas as education, health, and telecoms. About 4,000 Indian personnel are working in Afghanistan on various projects.

The Indian stance so far has been to help the Afghan government in its reconstruction efforts, but not to become engaged directly in security operations.

“The USA had created [the war] in Afghanistan and they will solve their own problem. We are not USA with $25,000 GDP per person. We have 50 % of our citizens living at less than $2 a day. We have to wage war-like efforts to raise our living standards, otherwise we will end up like Pakistan,” photojournalist Raminder Pal Singh told RT.

India “stirred up hornet’s nest in Islamabad”

India’s interests in Afghanistan include trade and transit routes to energy-rich Central Asian states. In addition, by helping Afghanistan, India hopes to counter Pakistan’s influence in the region in order to have more stability in the region.

“India’s success had stirred up a hornet’s nest in Islamabad, which soon came to believe that India was ‘taking over Afghanistan’… India’s reconstruction strategy was designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, give India a high profile with the Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage, and, of course, undercut Pakistan’s influence,” the Hindu newspaper quotes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid as writing in his book “Descent Into Chaos”.


Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands guard near the the Beijing-funded "megaport" of Gwadar, in southwestern Pakistan (AFP Photo /Jean-Herve Deiller)

Bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan has also been on the rise and reached $358 million in 2007-2008. However, Pakistan allows Afghanistan to transit its exports to India, but does not allow overland access from India to Afghanistan. An agreement that would put an end to this situation has been discussed for 43 years now, though little success has been reached so far.

Searching for alternative solutions, India and Iran are developing the Iranian port Chabahar, which will allow the countries to create an alternative trade route bypassing Pakistan. Moreover, Tehran and New Delhi are also discussing constructing a rail link from Iran to Western Afghanistan.

Pakistan, which has its own strategic and trade interests in the region, is not happy with the developments.

“Pakistan is losing ground to India and Iran as the two countries are quite at an advanced stage in developing the infrastructure in and around the Iranian port of Chabahar, which can compete with Pakistan's Gwadar port in accessing the landlocked Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s financial daily “Business Recorder” writes.

Meanwhile, India-Iran relations have been warm since the mid-nineties.

“The relationship blossomed in Afghanistan. Concern over the Taliban and the rising influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan brought the two together. India, Iran and Russia provided support to the Northern Alliance,” wrote independent journalist and researcher Sudha Ramachandran in Asia Times online.

Pakistan feels “isolated”

Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan's intelligence agencies (ISI) for supporting the Taliban-led insurgency. It also has complained repeatedly that Pakistan-based militants are crossing the border to launch terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.


Indian Navy Harrier Fighter Jet

The rekindling of Indo-Afghan bonding has become an eyesore for Pakistan, especially since the Karzai government hinted at the possibility of inviting India to help train the new Afghan army.

“India’s humanitarian aid and penetrations in Afghanistan would not have been possible without its friendly relations with the states of Central Asia and Iran, with whom it collaborates on projects inside Afghanistan. This is considered hostile to its interests by Pakistan – a country that has become kind of isolated,” an-ex Indian army officer, who refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, told RT in an interview.

“India has established an air base in Farkhor [in Tajikistan],” he added. “This has further irked Pakistan as Uzbek support means India is backed by Russia. This has given Pakistan a feeling of being ‘isolated’ and ‘encircled’.”

Farkhor is the only Indian military base situated in a foreign country and just two kilometers from the Tajik-Afghan border that can aid in sending of troops to Afghanistan if India ever decides to take that step.

India has to “justify” its presence in Afghanistan

In the last 15 months, the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul was attacked twice. Even though the Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast in October this year, New Delhi believes Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, masterminded the attack, the point of which was apparently to send a message to the Indian government to keep out of Afghanistan.

There have been other attacks on Indians which the Taliban was blamed for.

Pakistan is highly suspicious of Indian consulates in Afghanistan’s Herat, Mazhar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kandahar, claiming they provide cover for Indian intelligence agencies to run covert operations against Pakistan, and also incite separatism in Pakistan's largest Balochistan province.

In October this year, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, during a diplomatic tour of the US, said that India has “to justify their interest” in Afghanistan.

“They do not share a border with Afghanistan, whereas we do. So the level of engagement has to be commensurate with that,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “If there is no massive [Indian] reconstruction [in Afghanistan], if there are not long queues in Delhi waiting for visas to travel to Kabul, why do you have such a large presence in Afghanistan? At times it concerns us,” Qureshi is quoted as saying.

Al-Qaeda’s hand seen in worsening Indo-Pak relations

Some analysts suggest that the relations between India and Pakistan are at their lowest point since the 2002 standoff when one million troops were mobilized on the border between the two states following an attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistan-based militants.

While the international community is concerned over the situation, according to the US, there is a side that may see the situation as beneficial and try to use it for its purposes.

“Al-Qaeda sees using the Taliban in Pakistan and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba as ways to destabilise Pakistan and even try to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan that would inevitably destabilize Pakistan,” US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in a testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We have evidence that Al-Qaeda is helping them pick targets, do operational planning, helping them in their effort to try to destabilize the Pakistani government,” the Times of India quotes him as saying.

Gates also said that Al-Qaeda is providing the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) “with targeting information and helping them in their plotting in India, clearly with the idea of provoking a conflict between India and Pakistan that would destabilise Pakistan.”

Sixty years of strained relations

Since the end of British rule and partition in 1947, there have been three wars and a number of armed conflicts between India and Pakistan. The main stumbling block in the relations has been the territorial dispute over Kashmir. As a result of this fierce rivalry, the two South Asian states developed nuclear weapons against each other.

The fragile peace process was stalled in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, which was allegedly orchestrated by LeT.

New Delhi blamed Islamabad for failing to take enough action against LeT. Even though Pakistan did put on trial seven suspects of the attacks that killed 166 people, it released the terrorist outfit founder Hafiz Saeed on the basis of insufficient evidence. India insists he must be prosecuted.

India’s path to becoming a global superpower

If India wants the world to recognize it as a global power, the first step in that direction is to respond to the latest attack in Kabul with greater military engagement to support its developmental and political presence in Afghanistan, Dr. Harsh V Pant, a professor at the Department of Defence Studies, King's College London told RT.

“India proudly claims to have one of most powerful militaries in the world. If it cannot be pro-active in venturing into Afghanistan, where critical Indian interests are at stake, why is it spending so much on defence at all?” Pant added.

Dr. Pant also believes that India has been present in the war-torn country long enough. It should not back out now as it doesn’t have “many options.”

“If the West decides to leave Afghanistan, then we will see a return of the Taliban backed by Pakistan. Does India want that to happen and keep on fighting proxy wars? I think these issues need to be addressed in the crafting of Indian policy towards Afghanistan,” he said.

India’s military cooperation with Afghanistan has been through providing help in training the Afghan army. For instance, about a hundred Afghan officers are trained each year in Indian military academies. Indian military personnel have also been taking part in teaching basic skills to the Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan.

However, India rules out sending its troops to Afghanistan and joining the US-led offensive.

“I am saying categorically that there is no question of Indian military involvement in Afghanistan. I do not foresee such a situation, not now or in the future,” Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the media.

Antony said India was involved in Afghanistan for humanitarian aid, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.

Natalia Makarova, RT and Nidhi Sharma, RT contributor