India-Afghanistan Relations in Bilateral and Multilateral Contexts Strong and Still Growing

Perspective By Michael Kugelman

As ASEAN grows and attracts trade and investment from the rest of the world, there will also be enhanced intra-ASEAN flows in trade and investment, with Malaysia being the focal point for these transactions.

In June 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Afghanistan to inaugurate the Salma Dam, a $300 million Indian infrastructure project in Herat province. It is intended to irrigate more than 600 villages spread across 80,000 hectares of land, and to bring electricity to thousands of homes.

“India will not forget you or turn away,” PM Modi declared in a speech, televised live in Afghanistan, to mark the occasion. “Your friendship is our honour; your dreams are our duty.”

International diplomacy is known for its flowery and, at times, exaggerated rhetoric. Yet in this case, Indian PM Modi’s words accurately captured the essence of India-Afghanistan ties. It is a bilateral relationship invested with great warmth and depth, and one poised to expand even further—both on the bilateral level and within broader multilateral contexts.

The Big Picture: From Milestone Strategic Accords to Landmark Arms Deals

The India-Afghanistan relationship enjoyed a milestone moment in October 2011, when the two countries concluded a strategic partnership agreement. It is a remarkably comprehensive accord, with both sides pledging deeper cooperation in the areas of politics, security, trade, economics, education, civil society, and people-to-people relations.

In the nearly five years following that agreement, India-Afghanistan relations have continued to flourish — highlighted not just by the Salma Dam project but also by the formal launch, in December 2015, of another major Indian project in Afghanistan: a new Parliament building. In comments to mark its launch, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered his own soaring appraisal of the relationship, proclaiming it “bound by a thousand ties.” Over the last year or so, the two sides have also inked a new deal on visa-free travel for each other’s diplomats, and an MoU governing cooperation on textiles and other goods.

What has been particularly striking about India-Afghanistan relations of late is not just their overall warmth and depth, but also the major progress being made in areas where it has long lagged.

This is certainly the case with the Salma Dam, a scheme that was envisioned for many years, yet took much time to consummate. The project began in earnest in 2002, but because of a combination of factors — including war, poor infrastructure, and its remote location — delays were unending. In the blunt words of one Indian diplomat, it was a project that “nobody thought would be finished — nobody.”

Another example of new progress - one fraught with major consequences for the region — is that India-Afghanistan relations are breaking new ground in security cooperation. In the initial years after the 2011 strategic partnership accord, security cooperation was understood to be relatively limited in nature. The accord itself speaks of Indian assistance with “training, equipping, and capacity building” for Afghan forces. Critically, this was generally interpreted to mean that Afghan security forces will not be receiving major shipments of lethal arms from India.

However, in November 2015, India agreed to send several Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan—equipped with machine guns, rockets, and grenade launchers. The craft, manufactured in and transferred from Russia, were delivered to Afghanistan in the succeeding weeks. It marked the first time that India transferred offensive weaponry to Afghanistan. Previously, New Delhi’s military assistance to Kabul had been restricted to training and advising, and to the supply of military transport vehicles and other non-lethal hardware.

When the Mi-25 deal was announced, Indian officials claimed it was a one-time transaction. And yet, it is now clear that more lethal arms shipments could be on the way. Afghanistan’s army chief, Gen. Qadam Shah Shahim, will be visiting New Delhi in August*, and that his ‘wish list’ will include not just more attack helicopters, but also utility helicopters, tanks, artillery, and ammunition.

This emerging new era in security cooperation can be attributed not just to a mutual desire to deepen the overall bilateral relationship, but also to several key geopolitical developments in the region. Early in his tenure, President Ghani had reached out to Pakistan in an attempt to improve Afghanistan’s volatile relations with its eastern neighbour, which has long provided sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban and other groups that stage attacks in Afghanistan. He had wanted to make things work — or at least make things work better — with a country seen as critical to help kick-start peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. The focus on peace talks had also prompted President Ghani to direct greater attention to Afghanistan’s relations with China, another country envisioned to play a key role in sparking negotiations. These two incipient diplomatic tracks slowed down, to an extent, the increasing momentum in India-Afghanistan relations.

However, in the end, President Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan backfired, and efforts toward Taliban peace talks got nowhere. Kabul’s relations with Islamabad have plunged into crisis again, with the Afghan government accusing Pakistan of not doing enough to stop militants on its soil from organising attacks on Afghanistan. Such geopolitical realities give Kabul and New Delhi ample incentive to scale up security relations.

Another key factor explaining the expanding security cooperation between India and Afghanistan is New Delhi’s apparent decision to no longer let its relations with Kabul be held hostage to Pakistani reactions. In previous years, India held off on lethal arms shipments to Afghanistan to avoid provoking a Pakistani army that does not want an Indian military footprint in Afghanistan. The Modi government, however, has suggested it won’t let Pakistani concerns affect its policy decisions. Afghanistan certainly seems to believe this is the case as well. In July 2016, Afghanistan’s ambassador to New Delhi bluntly stated that concerns about Pakistan will not stop the two countries from conducting arms deals. “I hope that this perception is addressed by the cooperation between our two governments in various fields, including defence cooperation,” His Excellency Shaida Abdali said in an interview with The Hindu.

The Multilateral Picture: Ports and Power Projects

Moscow’s involvement in the Mi-25 helicopter deal, coupled with its increasing desire to take on a greater security role in Afghanistan—a desire driven by Russian concerns about the rising profile of ISIS in Afghanistan, and by Russian fears of increased refugee and drug flows in the event of further destabilization in Afghanistan—amplify the shared security interests of Russia and India in Afghanistan, and hint at the potential for some level of broader security cooperation between the three countries. Such cooperation has some precedent. Back in 2014, Russia and India signed a deal that called for New Delhi to pay Moscow to transfer small arms to Afghanistan. All this said, Russia’s newly growing ties with Pakistan — impelled in part by deepening relations between Washington and New Delhi (traditionally a close friend of Russia) and worsening relations between Islamabad and Washington (long a key source of arms for Pakistan) — could limit the extent of India-Russia-Afghanistan comity on security matters.

At any rate, when considering India-Afghanistan relations within the context of multilateralism and the Heart of Asia arrangement, it is arguably in non-security settings where there is the greatest potential — and very real progress. Just as new and big things are starting to happen in the bilateral setting, they are starting to happen in multilateral settings as well.

One major example is the Chabahar port project and broader transport corridor deal between India, Afghanistan, and Iran. In May, PM Modi travelled to Tehran to ink a major accord that provides $500 million to Iran to develop a port in the southern Iranian city of Chabahar. New Delhi also agreed to invest $16 billion in a free trade zone around the city. There will also be new roads and a railroad stretching northward from Chabahar to the Afghanistan border. The objective is to generate new trade routes to and from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond. It marks a major achievement for regional relations, and, if completed, would go a long way toward fulfilling the spirit of the Heart of Asia process to build connectivity and cooperation across the broader region (though, to be sure, two Heart of Asia member states and rivals of India—China and Pakistan — are likely not supporters of the project). Not only does the project entail India-Afghanistan cooperation with Iran, but it also presents future opportunities for the two countries to partner in the broader Central Asia region on energy and infrastructure projects.

Chabahar, like Salma Dam, had long been on the drawing board. While the dam project was delayed by problems inside Afghanistan, Chabahar was delayed by the international sanctions regime on Iran. With some sanctions now being removed thanks to the 2015 US - Iran nuclear agreement, New Delhi sensed an opportunity, and wisely pounced.

A second example of a breakthrough in India-Afghanistan relations in the multilateral context is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline deal. This is another much-ballyhooed infrastructure scheme that had made only limited progress—until December 2015, when a groundbreaking ceremony took place for the $10 billion project, which is envisioned to one day extend more than 1,400 kilometres. To be sure, TAPI, much like Chabahar, is by no means guaranteed to be completed anytime soon. The groundbreaking ceremony for TAPI sends a powerful message that India and Afghanistan are determined to push forward with the project, and in close cooperation with Pakistan — a nation with which each of them often struggles to get along.

India-Afghanistan Relations: Spark for Greater Regional Cooperation?

Indeed, the troubled Afghanistan - Pakistan and India - Pakistan relationships have contributed to the elusiveness of South Asia regional cooperation, and to the struggles of the SAARC organisation. What is often forgotten amid these political tensions, however, is that so many countries in the broader South and Central Asia region, including those involved in the Heart of Asia process, share many interests across many different dimensions. India and Afghanistan — one of the few Heart of Asia bilateral pairings, along with China and Pakistan, that enjoy a warm and stable relationship—should leverage their strong ties and work together to promote greater regional cooperation on a variety of issues on which so many countries see eye to eye.

These include, first and foremost, cooperation on combating ISIS. Though ISIS’s inroads in South and Central Asia haven’t been nearly as deep as those in the Middle East, recent attacks in Dhaka and Kabul suggest that the terror group boast ssufficient brand appeal to compel local militants to stage attacks in its name, possibly with direct support from ISIS’s central leadership. Several thousand former Taliban fighters in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province have declared their allegiance to ISIS, while alleged ISIS recruiters have been discovered in India. Many Heart of Asia countries have very real concerns about the group. India and Afghanistan can seize on their deepening security cooperation to scale up bilateral intelligence-sharing mechanisms to better monitor ISIS’s influence and activities, and in so doing set an example for similar prospective intelligence cooperation between other Heart of Asia nations.

Similarly, many Heart of Asia countries, particularly those bordering Afghanistan, worry about the impact of increased refugee flows and drug trafficking in their countries. Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, and China either host significant numbers of Afghan refugees or suffer from epidemics of drugs sourced from Afghanistan (Pakistan and Iran confront both challenges). Regional information-sharing about patterns and drivers of refugee and drug flows would help inform policy deliberations in Afghanistan and other affected nations. Again, India and Afghanistan could take the lead by proposing mechanisms along these lines. It’s worth noting that counternarcotics, along with counterterrorism, are explicitly stated priority areas for cooperation in both the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement and the Heart of Asia process.

Furthermore, climate change is another key challenge that concerns many Heart of Asia countries. India and Afghanistan can set an example by pursuing clean energy initiatives (they have already held high-level renewable energy summits), in the hopes that other countries of the region follow suit with similar initiatives. Cooperation on climate change, like so many other non-security issues, can flourish even amid political tensions. Consider that in 2015, the Global Water Partnership convened a conference in Dubai that focused on boosting climate change resilience in the Indus and Kabul river basins — an effort that entails cooperation between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, one of the most politically volatile trilateral groupings in Asia.

In sum, India-Afghanistan relations are solid and continue to strengthen, both bilaterally and in multilateral contexts. Accordingly, the deep and ever-growing ties between New Delhi and Kabul should be leveraged to help improve relations between countries in the broader region and particularly those involved in the Heart of Asia process. Given the multifaceted and overwhelming challenges in this part of the world, the stakes have never been higher and the time has never been more right.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.