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The Afghan connection

Salman Haidar |

The inauguration of Kabul’s reconstructed Stor Palace as an Indo-Afghan collaborative project has become the latest event in the steadily developing relationship between the two countries. As he took part in the ceremony, Prime Minister Modi had much to say about the depth of bilateral ties, and he identified Afghanistan as one of the key partners for India. At much the same time,  Afghanistan’s former President Hamid Karzai was on a visit to India where his several meetings with Indian leaders and opinion-makers also  drew attention to the current satisfactory state of Indo-Afghan relations. Mr Karzai is well known in India and he knows this country well, having been here in his student days, so he speaks with great understanding of the two countries and the links between them. He has  completed two eventful and productive terms as leader, and  has disclaimed all intention of any sort of comeback, but nevertheless his is a strong voice in his country’s affairs. The long years of strife in Afghanistan, externally induced in the main, have left scars and rifts that are not easy to eradicate, and there are numerous groups contending for primacy to complicate the task of governance.

It is also necessary for a tricky transition  to be effected when the time comes for the current ruler President Ghani to make way for his successor Abdullah Abdullah, as part of the democratic changeover following Mr. Karzai’s tenure.  Afghanistan has met all these challenges and succeeded in consolidating its democratic process, so that it can now anticipate an orderly transition when the time comes. At the same time, it has developed its relations with India very substantially and India has become one of its most significant development partners. Economic and technical cooperation between the two goes back to the earliest years of Independence, and as India’s capacity and its resources have grown so too have the dimension and reach of the joint development projects. Some of the development activity has a strategic dimension, as witnessed in the tripartite collaboration between Iran, Afghanistan and India that now permits overland movement between India and Central Asia, bypassing the road block placed by Pakistan.

To be considered, too, is the supply of some defence equipment by India to support the Afghan effort against insurgency. In earlier years India had been chary of entering this area of cooperation but it has responded to Afghan need, and equipment including helicopters has been made available to support the  Afghan forces. The massive US-led military assistance to combat the country’s multiple insurgencies is now tailing off, so the support provided by India is of growing importance. Numerous initiatives involving India were taken during Karzai’s presidency and have been developed further since. Top-level contact has been developed with the visit a few months ago of PM Modi to Afghanistan, where he inaugurated an Indian-built dam in Herat, which adds a fresh dimension to the relationship: Afghanistan is a water-deficient country and there have been a few previous Indo-Afghan irrigation projects, but nothing on the present scale.

Bilateral ties have prospered but the region remains beset with problems, and Afghanistan has had more than its share of terror attacks, with extremist groups taking advantage of the disturbed conditions to establish a presence and mount strikes. Collective effort to meet the challenge of terrorism is imperative and India has been active in bringing this message home in regional organisations like SAARC, where it shares membership with Afghanistan among others. Afghan leaders have identified many of their country’s troubles as originating in the neighbour  Pakistan, and have pushed hard for rectification. There have been numerous ups and downs in the relationship between these two countries that lie side by side, notwithstanding  frequent testaments to the brotherly nature of what binds them. Afghan displeasure with this state of affairs has often been expressed but the attempt has been to keep relations with its immediate neighbour in good repair, in view of the mutual dependence between them.

Tangled regional relations notwithstanding, especially those involving India and Pakistan, Afghan leaders like Mr. Karzai have  not been shy of  expressing their viewpoint on controversial issues. Mr. Karzai has been outspoken, as witnessed during his recent visit  which took place at a time when Indo-Pak relations had taken a marked dip after Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day oration where he made some observations about the situation in Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan. This has been a troubled place from the time Pakistan was first shaped, and there have been  persistent separatist movements within the province. India has observed these developments but kept aloof,  for it is not directly involved. However, Mr. Modi has now drawn attention to the troubles in Baluchistan, apparently in retaliation for Pakistan’s frequent interference in events taking place in India. Unexpectedly, Mr. Karzai made no bones about supporting India’s decision to bring the Baluch issue into prominence, on the ground that as Pakistan is prone to interfere at will in Indian affairs, there is no good reason why it should not face similar treatment from India when the need arises. This forthright statement will no doubt have gratified New Delhi’s policy-makers and put a positive gloss on India-Afghan relations.

With all that, Afghanistan has essentially kept its distance from contentious issues in its immediate vicinity, even though it has faced many problems from the actions of its immediate neighbour, Pakistan. Karzai and his successor have made an effort to bring the region into closer cooperation and to find regional solutions to the divisive issues that must be faced. Afghanistan was not one of the original members of SAARC but saw its value  when it started functioning and applied for membership, which was readily proffered.

Since then it has been an active and prominent member, and has played its full part in regional affairs. As the hinge  country between South and Central Asia it is uniquely placed to bring these regions closer and promote cooperation between them. It is also attached by land access to the Xinjiang province of China, which emphasizes its centrality to international plans for modernized regional transport systems.

These recent events that were highlighted during the visit of the former Afghan President come as a reminder of the many strong ties between India and Afghanistan. There is still a small, and decreasing, foreign military presence in that country, aimed at helping Kabul maintain peace and order. Regional security solutions will have to be found to underpin stability when the external forces are all withdrawn. This is an important task for the future, involving the entire region. India’s diplomacy has been able to rise to the challenge, and the country is well placed to continue to play a positive role in the future.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.