India has begun maneuvering to fill the potential power vacuum in Afghanistan.
As an earlier post argued, the quickening U.S. disengagement from the Afghan conflict that President Obama signaled four months ago will inevitably spark an intense regional scrimmage for influence as that country’s neighbors scramble to fill the resulting vacuum. The last few weeks have witnessed India making its opening moves in this jockeying by signing a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and by repairing strained relations with Iran.
The strategic partnership that India and Afghanistan sealed last week – the first of its kind that Kabul has entered into – will significantly enhance New Delhi’s profile in Afghanistan. The arrangement provides for increased cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, as well as for expanded Indian training and equipping of Afghan security forces. It opens the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth (which may be worth nearly $1 trillion) and newly-discovered hydrocarbon resources to Indian companies. New Delhi also pledged to work with Iran to develop trade routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who signed the agreement during a two-day trip to New Delhi – his second visit this year – praised India as a “steadfast friend and supporter” of his country, while Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised that India would “stand by the people of Afghanistan” even after the 2014 pull-out of U.S. and NATO forces.
Although Karzai insists that the partnership is not directed against Pakistani interests, it coincides with a serious deterioration of relations between Kabul and Islamabad. In the past week, the Afghan government has accused Pakistan of being behind the September 20th assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Karzai’s chief envoy to the fledgling peace negotiations with the Taliban, as well as a foiled plot to kill Karzai himself. Standing in New Delhi, Karzai termed Pakistan a “twin brother” to his own country, but that was hardly enough to disguise the fact that his government was openly spurning Pakistan’s professions of friendship in favor of a wide-ranging covenant with its arch-nemesis.
The partnership underscores that New Delhi, unlike Washington, has no exit strategy in Afghanistan. Since the start of the Afghan conflict ten years ago this month, India has emerged as the country’s largest regional donor. It has invested more than $1 billion in assistance, mainly in infrastructure and development projects, including constructing the new parliament building in Kabul. It has also undertaken small-scale training of the country’s police, army leadership and bureaucrats. Prime Minister Singh traveled to Kabul this past May seeking to broaden India’s engagement. There he unveiled a significant expansion of Indian aid, committing an additional $500 million over the next few years.
Besides shoring up the precarious Karzai government, New Delhi is also moving to patch up strategic ties with Tehran, whose interests in Afghanistan are roughly congruent. India has traditionally relied upon Iran to help blunt Pakistan’s influence in Central Asia and to serve as a bridge to trade and energy opportunities there. Relations between New Delhi and Tehran have been strained for the past few years as India, at America’s behest, supported several international censures of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Prime Minister Singh turned down a number of invitations for a state visit to Tehran, and his government engaged in a convoluted exercise to avoid having Indian payments for crucial energy imports from Iran run afoul of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
Yet the prospect of a geopolitical vacuum in Afghanistan is driving the two countries closer again. Singh met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly annual conclave in New York last month and pointedly accepted a renewed invitation to visit Tehran in the near future. The two countries have also established a new payments mechanism for Iranian oil exports and are setting up a joint commission to explore even closer economic and security links.
Pakistan has long considered Afghanistan to be its strategic backyard. With so much of its national security posture driven by an obsessive focus on India, Islamabad is bound to regard New Delhi’s growing involvement there as a grave provocation. Pakistan regularly charges (see here and here) that India is using its large diplomatic presence in Afghanistan to funnel covert support to separatists in the restive province of Baluchistan, and the new India-Afghanistan partnership will be taken as further confirmation that New Delhi is intent on encircling and dissecting the country. Likewise, the renewed coordination between New Delhi and Tehran will be interpreted as a return to the role they played a decade, when their support for the Northern Alliance helped frustrate the Taliban regime. (Indeed, there are increasing signs that the remnants of the old anti-Taliban movement are being reconstituted.)
Given the region’s geopolitical dynamics, India has strong strategic interests in ensuring that any government in Kabul is capable enough to be a bulwark against Pakistan. And so India’s maneuvers are predictable enough. Inevitable, too, is the blowback from Islamabad. The nascent thaw in bilateral relations that has developed in the wake of the mid-July visit to New Delhi by Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar is now in jeopardy. Also expect increased attacks by Pakistan-based jihadis targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan, like the bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 that killed 58 people, including the Indian defense attaché, and in October 2009 that left 17 Afghans dead.