It’s Time to Shift Gears in Afghanistan

The stage is set for India to forge ahead on the India—Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement. Here are a few ideas on what can be done.

A year ago, we had written this with regards to India—US collaboration in Afghanistan:

The US still remains the most influential geopolitical actor in Afghanistan, but one that is in a mode of consolidation. If India lets go of this chance to act as a bridge between the US and Afghanistan, the US could find its options further constrained. In such a case, India would then have to shoulder more responsibilities in Afghanistan on its own, a situation that India is underprepared for.

Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, announced on August 21, has indicated that the principle of consolidation will not apply to Afghanistan just yet. The new strategy, which stresses on a ‘fight to win’ military effort aimed at ‘killing terrorists’, can open up opportunities for India to act, not only as a bridge between US and Afghanistan, but as a fulcrum on which the Afghan State can be built.

The Context

Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is different from recent American strategies on two counts: one, it makes South Asia a part of its Afghanistan policy and raises the level of direct warnings to Pakistan to an unprecedented presidential level. Two, the policy shifts from relying on the State department, which has traditionally been counseling restraint to the Department of Defense.

Specifically, Trump has made clear that the number of US troops present in Afghanistan will no longer be articulated publicly. The numbers will instead be modulated by conditions on the ground alone. It also makes partnership with Pakistan conditional to its actions against ‘militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials’ (a reference to the Haqqani network). Finally, the strategy also points at creating space for a bigger Indian role in Afghanistan.

How does this strategy impact India?

The continuance of US military presence in Afghanistan is comforting for India since it could well have gone the other way. After all, Trump himself admitted that his original intent was ‘to pull out’ of Afghanistan.

Trump’s Afghanistan policy, if implemented, hits the sweet spot that India was looking for. India has never been comfortable with suggestions that required Indian boots on the ground. Had the US chosen to walk away, Indian economic and development assistance in Afghanistan would have become untenable. Now, if the US takes responsibility of targeting terrorists of all hues — as the new strategy aims to do — India has much to offer.

Even though the implementation details of the new US strategy are unclear, this article has been written assuming the best-case scenario: a scenario where US stands up to Pakistan’s duplicity and tackles the terrorists relentlessly. Under such conditions, how India can contribute to the transformation of Afghanistan is what we aim to explicate.

The 2011 India—Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) is a bold vision for bringing peace and prosperity to Afghans, covering a broad range of areas to collaborate on. The new US Afghanistan strategy, if implemented in the fashion conceived, can be backed by a new Indian strategy that focuses on executing specific projects under the SPA.

The project executions would be centred around the Indian embassy in Kabul and the four consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat respectively. We contend that these symbols of Indian diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan can remodel themselves into hubs to spur economic development, state-capacity building, and people-to-people engagement provided the US stays the course.

Specific projected are listed in the paragraphs below.

On Trade and Economic Cooperation

The SPA aims to ‘create a favourable environment to promote trade and investment’ in Afghanistan. Here are a few ideas to translate this vision to reality.

One, every Indian consulate can refashion its commercial wing to build a small-business incubator that can connect entrepreneurial Afghans to the Indian business ecosystem. The incubator can offer three-month scholarships thrice a year for Afghan entrepreneurs, helping them in five areas – securing Indian credit for starting small business, providing Indian know-how on running businesses, linking Afghans to entrepreneurship training programmes in India, exploring partnerships with Indian companies, and helping create supply chains for Afghan goods to reach the Indian market.

Two, India can incentivise Indian companies to invest in Afghanistan in three critical areas: plastics industry, pharmaceutical packaging, and two-wheeler assembly. The first two sectors are relatively easy to set up. Consumption in these areas correlates strongly with rising income levels. Moreover, Indian companies have been extremely successful in these areas. The automobile sector on the other hand enables prosperity by creating a large number of jobs in core and ancillary areas of production. Again, India is one of the world-leaders in two-wheeler manufacturing and has the prowess to start one in Afghanistan from ground zero. For each of these areas, Indian government can incentivise Indian companies by providing tax breaks for investment into Afghanistan and by subsidising business travel into Afghanistan.

Three, India can help setup an optical fibre network for broadband communication across Afghanistan. Good internet connectivity has significant positive externalities in the information age and Indian companies are now proficient at creating dense optical fibre networks.

Four, Chabahar. This port is the key to fulfill the goal of ‘enabling free and more unfettered transport and transit linkages’ listed in the SPA. Sustained effort is needed to develop the port and road linkages from the port to cities in Afghanistan. This is a project India has long looked at but sanctions on Iran had put these plans on hold. The Trump establishment is unlikely to take kindly to this project. A pragmatic diplomatic approach is required to convince the US that if India is to take up greater responsibilities in Afghanistan, the US must not block Chabahar. We have long argued that Chabahar will be a game changer for Afghanistan. Not only will it help Afghanistan, US has much to gain from a connectivity project for Central Asia which does not have China at its core.

On Capacity Development and Education

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” reads an important section of Trump’s speech on Afghanistan. Both India and Afghanistan would find this approach promising. After all, the Afghan Nation is resilient. But what needs support is the Afghan State, which is battered and bruised, unable to assert a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.

India has already done much to strengthen the Afghan State. India’s contributions to the Delaram-Zaranj road, the Salma dam, the electricity transmission network, assistance to the Indira Gandhi hospital, student scholarships, and the Afghan Parliament are testimony to India’s efforts towards state-building. Yet there is more that can be done, but it would require greater security cover which only the US can provide.

One, higher education is a critical element for scaling up state capacity quickly. Every city with an Indian consulate can enable Afghan Institutes of Technology in collaboration with IITs/NITs and Afghan Institutes of Management in collaboration with IIMs. The faculty in these institutions can be all-Afghan, with Indian faculty offering lectures through VSAT systems. Afghan students can also be encouraged to spend one semester in their partner institutions in India.

Two, strengthening participatory democracy is critical for Afghanistan. The SPA explicitly states that ‘India offers the experience of its own institutional, administrative, political and economic systems as references that Afghanistan can study and benefit from in the light of its own needs and realities’. The Election Commission of India can share its expertise in developing Electronic Voting Machines, something which changed the landscape of political participation in India, making booth capturing a thing of the past. At a later point in time, a platform on the lines of Aadhaar can also be considered in Afghanistan for improving service delivery.

Three, there is much to be shared with Afghanistan about our own experiences and the structure of governance. The presidential democracy system, promoted by the West, has largely been unable to meet the expectations of a diverse, multi-ethnic country. There is a need to look around at other states in the neighborhood where a Westminster type is in vogue.

Finally, India can help strengthen Afghanistan’s nascent public healthcare systems. India can help construct more hospitals in each of the cities that has an Indian consulate. Telemedicine facilities can be provided to link Afghan doctors with their counterparts in India.

On Political Negotiations

A quiet and discreet Indian role is called for to build a political class instead of relying on warlords, something that all nations have followed in the past. Two opportunities on this front have sprung up.

One, India can encourage the North to transition from warlords to politicians. On June 30, Tajik strongman Atta Nur and Hazara Shia leader Mohammed Mohaqeq met the leader of the Uzbek and Turkmen community General Dostam in Ankara, Turkey.  They decided to form a political coalition called the “Etelaf baray Nejat-e Afghanistan (Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan)” to “prevent the collapse of the system, avoid political chaos and restore national trust” among the political classes within and outside the government. The coalition represents three broad political groupings, founded on ethnic lines – the Tajik dominated Jamiat -e Islami, the Hizb-e Wahdat of the Hazaras and the Jumbish comprising the Uzbeks, Turkmen, Ismailis, etc. However, the potent Tajik Panjsheri group and those Tajiks led by Ismael Khan of Herat are missing from this formation and need to be part of a broad coalition.

Two, in the South, a group of Karzai loyalists, mostly Pashtuns, met on June 16, to form the Mehwar-e Mardom Afghanistan (People’s Axis of Afghanistan) to oppose the government’s “failed and divisive policies”. Members include former National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former Intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, former chief electoral officer Daud Ali Najafi, and Shekiba Hashemi, an MP from Kandahar. New political formations are good news; they need to be included in the larger political process.

On the Implementation Mechanism

The SPA spoke about a Partnership Council, to be headed by the Foreign Ministers of both countries. Joint Working Groups on Political & Security Consultations, Trade and Economic Cooperation, Capacity Development & Education, and Social, Cultural and Civil Society, were to be formed as well. It’s time to put this Council into motion. A Special Envoy for Afghanistan can also be considered so that Afghanistan becomes a consistent theme in Delhi’s strategic outlook.

The Way Forward

After a long time, there is some clarity about the US position in Afghanistan. Collaboration in the areas suggested above rests equally on American, Afghanistan, and Indian governments. The US has a comparative advantage in getting rid of terrorists while India enjoys comparative advantage in state capacity building, economic development, and political negotiations. Provided that these countries stick to their comparative strengths, the India-US-Afghanistan trilateral can truly make a difference and not be just another formation that came, saw, and vanished.