It says something about the immutable realities of the India-Afghanistan-Pakistan triangle that a 62-year-old speech by India’s first prime minister remains just as valid today. “Because of the great tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan over various matters, we are continually being charged with having secret intrigues with Afghanistan and bringing pressure upon her to adopt a policy in regard to Pakistan,” Jawaharlal Nehru complained in 1950.
India’s current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, might have said as much, except now New Delhi mentions Pakistan as little as possible when it talks about Afghanistan.
Consider the talks among India, Afghanistan and Iran on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran last week. They studiously ignored Pakistan while focusing on India’s planned investment in Iran’s Chabahar port, which would reduce India and Afghanistan’s dependence on the land route through Pakistan, to trade with each other and beyond.
No one should be surprised by India’s new assertiveness in Afghanistan. In a decade, it has moved from a low-profile humanitarian footprint to a nuanced development-orientated one, and now, to a multi-layered strategic partnership that covers trade, investment and training of the Afghan security forces.
In 2008, in preparation for the Chabahar agreement, India financed the completion of the Delaram-Zaranj highway, which links major Afghan cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz with Zaranj on the Afghanistan-Iran border. From Zaranj, a recently refurbished road leads straight to the Iranian port.
In October 2011, India signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, unblinkingly stressing “civilisational links” and promising it was “here to stay”.
A month later, a consortium of companies backed by the Indian government won mining rights to Afghanistan’s biggest iron ore deposit at Hajigak, placing India alongside China as one of the country’s main foreign investors.
In June, it held an international investment summit for Afghanistan in Delhi, which had the India foreign minister SM Krishna exhorting businessmen from 40 countries to “let the grey suits of company executives take the place of olive green or desert brown fatigues of soldiers [in Afghanistan]”.
Senior Indian officials admit to a welcome change of pace in Afghanistan, arguing that the international community had been “hypersensitive to Pakistani sensitivities”. New Delhi, they recount, was consequently limited to the anodyne supply of medicines and wheat to Afghanistan.
The strategic realities of 2012 are different from back then. Pakistan’s truculence and the impending US-Nato drawdown of forces have allowed India to put forward what is described as an “idea of hope” for Afghanistan. It embraces the concept of the “New Silk Road” and involves a new “civilian surge” led by private business rather than US government officials.
To some extent, Chabahar, a free-trade zone in south-eastern Iran, exemplifies the possibilities of India’s new plan. About 50 hectares near the port have been earmarked as a hub for Afghan trade. Chabahar would give landlocked Afghanistan ready access to a port, as well as plentiful supplies of oil and manufactured goods. India, meanwhile, would be able to bypass Pakistan and reach Afghan and Central Asian markets unhindered.
Could it work? Perhaps. Economics often has its own logic, independent of geopolitics and regional rivalries. India would like it, sanctions-hit Iran needs it and poor, undeveloped Afghanistan dreams of just such an economic lifeline. But an abundance of aspiration never promises success. Realpolitik, rather than the desire for three square meals a day, caused Mr Singh to express the wish to “some day soon” partake of breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. He didn’t mention a snack in Tehran.
So perhaps this is the point at which the Indian-sponsored “idea of hope” must reckon with Pakistan’s fear of strategic encirclement and China’s efficiently executed ambitions in the region. And also Afghanistan’s suspicion of Iran, a country that many Afghans place last – after India and Pakistan – on a list of regional friends.
Islamabad built its Gwadar port with Chinese help as a foil to Chabahar and is unlikely to be pleased at the Iranian port’s imminent importance. The US is unsmiling about India’s new project with Iran and China is warily watching developments.
So, what of security guarantees? The Indians bravely, if foolhardily, say they will pursue their blueprint for Afghanistan with the support of the Afghan National Security Forces and Afghan people. The Afghan army and police, however, have a patchy record.
In the last decade, India has been one of Afghanistan’s largest donors, investing in humanitarian, educational and development projects, not least the Salma Dam in Herat and crucial power lines in the provinces. In financial terms, India is already one of Afghanistan’s biggest players, as well as a cultural power. Many Afghans have a sentimental attachment to the country that simultaneously represents Bollywood and the best medical services in the region.
But it is a moot point if “people protection” can never be adequate, considering the Indian diplomats and workers killed in Afghanistan over the last few years.
The dangers are magnified with India’s new posture in Afghanistan. Raising one’s head above the parapet is a risky business.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is the former editor of the Sunday Times of India
On Twitter: @rashmeerl