With an imminent pull out of Western troops in 2014 from Afghanistan, and no financial aid, technical assistance and military support to bank upon, Afghan political landscape is set to change. In an interview with Diplomatist’s Editor-at-Large Alankar Srivastava, H.E. Mr Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Ambassador of Afghanistan to India shares his vision on furthering the bilateral cooperation between the two countries
‘India has no Exit Policy in Afghanistan’
Q. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was among the SAARC countries’ leaders invited at the swearing-in ceremony of PM Narendra Modi, which is a reflection of the importance the new Indian government attaches to Afghanistan. How does Afghanistan intend to engage with India under Modi?
A. Afghanistan has been engaged with India as an important neighbour, a time-tested friend, and by the new bilateral instrument, an important partner in the region. The relation between India and Afghanistan are old and deep-rooted that transcends the political changes occurring in two countries, including the change of governments. It is a relationship that is derived more from people-to-people contact than a government-to-government.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and India is a reflection of the sort of unique relationship which provides a legal framework for a deeper and more extensive cooperation in the areas of shared interest, which the two steadfast friendly countries have decided to enhance. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Afghanistan will seek to further strengthen the areas of cooperation that the two governments regard as priority and key to achieving the shared goals, including security and economic growth.
Q. There are deep and historical ties that exist between the two countries. How do you think India and Afghanistan can build upon it?
A. As I elaborated in my answer to your first question, there is a great scope and solid foundation for an enhanced India – Afghanistan partnership. The stakes are much high for both India and Afghanistan to engage in a more strategic manner to respond to the evolving risky situation affecting the two countries, as well as the region as a whole. Given the geostrategic location of Afghanistan and India, the two can play a critical role, not only to address their own common problems, but also contribute to resolving the overall regional problems.
Q. Can you elaborate on the potential of the trilateral instrument signed between Afghanistan, Iran and India on Chabahar Port, which is referred as a game changer in the region?
A. I fully concur with the observation that the Chabahar transit trade agreement is going to be a game changer in the region. Despite this region’s immense economic potential, it is yet the least developed and least connected region in the world. It is precisely because we haven’t utilised this region’s great economic potential for collective regional economic development.
Given the obstacles in place, Afghanistan and India have reasonable scale of trade. The total annual trade currently stands at nearly $600-700 million. However, the potential of trade between the two countries is manifold of what it is right now. The new transit route through the Chabahar Port is envisioned to cut short the current route and enhance the current bilateral trade to the best of potential of both countries, and to facilitate smooth transit of Indian goods to the countries beyond Afghanistan.
It will unlock the underutilised great economic and trade potential between the two regions, and beyond.
Q. What steps you think are crucial for further strengthening bilateral cooperation between India and Afghanistan?
A. Afghanistan and India have a comprehensive strategic partnership document that underscores cooperation in economic, security, defence, political, social and cultural areas. We have made good progress so far in implementing key provisions of the agreement, but much remains to be done to achieve the key objectives of our strategic partnership agreement. We must enhance our cooperation in all areas, mainly in the security and defence sectors so that we can ensure the key ‘public good’ – that is security for our people. India and Afghanistan have common security problems that get aspiration from the same sources outside our borders. Thus, taking practical steps in ensuring preventive measures against activities of radicalised groups and ensuring comprehensive defence of the lives of our people, our shared interests and our boundaries would inevitably further strengthen the existing cooperation between our two countries.
Q. Security has been an overriding concern when it comes to engagement with Afghanistan. How is your government addressing these concerns?
A.In the context of security, Afghanistan has been playing its role to the best of its capability. The world is convinced about the fact that insecurity in Afghanistan is an external element victimising the lives of Afghans, posing a great challenge to the country’s progress and undermining the achievements we have had in promoting democracy, impeding the process of building democratic institutions, and affecting the day-to-day lives of our people.
Needless to recall where Afghanistan began its journey 13 years ago, the country, in cooperation with the international community, has come a long way. The progress included the rebuilding of the national security forces of the country. Being the direct victim of this external phenomenon, Afghanistan has heavily engaged in defending the nation against the threats posed by extremism and radicalisation across the borders of the country.
Convinced that the issue of insecurity cannot be solved solely through military action, the Afghan government engaged in reconciliation and reintegration process with the armed opposition groups including the Afghan Taliban. To prevent the spread of radicalisation, the government of Afghanistan has taken many short, medium and long term measures including raising awareness against radicalism in the remotest villages of the country, providing livelihood and employment opportunities, vocational courses and workshops, promoting education through building schools and universities, as well as granting scholarships for the qualified school graduates.
In so far as the external element of insecurity is concerned, the Afghan government has been engaged in many political processes at the regional level and with international allies. It has also engaged bilaterally with the countries in the region through various mechanisms.
Afghanistan has not hesitated to address the issue of insecurity through any means possible. Our close friendly countries are convinced that Afghanistan has done its best to overcome the challenge and that the country is fighting a regional war.
In order to address this concern more affectively, we continue to ask our international allies including India to offer our security forces their assistance in better training, and military equipment.
Q. There has been a long standing demand from Afghanistan that India must step up military aid and deliver lethal and non-lethal weapons. How feasible is that given the delicate geopolitical situation of the region?
A. Well, first of all let me reiterate that India and Afghanistan are two sovereign and independent nations which decide what is in their best national interests. On our part, Afghanistan, against all odds, decided to sign its first strategic partnership agreement with India in 2011. Therefore, no party or factor, in any respect including defence, should dictate our bilateral cooperation.
Afghanistan and the region can no longer afford to be the victim of what is deemed as delicate geo-politic. Unlike elsewhere, politics in our region is shaped by zero-sum games and short sighted agendas. Therefore, our region has been a victim of what could serve as its great potential. The weapons are not to target a third party, but to defend the realisation of our shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity. They are to enable our security forces to defend their share of responsibility, to help realise regional stability and major economic projects, which remain far from being implemented due to the security situation. I believe it is a legitimate demand for a legitimate cause, and it is feasible if we base our policies on the interests and concerns of our region.
We are happy that India, in line with the strategic partnership agreement, has pledged to assist Afghanistan in the security and defence sector within its own security and defence limits. As recognised, peace and stability in Afghanistan has a significant impact on the security situation in India and in the region; it is a collective responsibility of all peace loving nations in the region, Including India to assist Afghanistan in strengthening its security and defence institutions for safer and secure Afghanistan, and safer and secure region.
Q. You recently remarked that Afghanistan is fighting a war that is not entirely its own, but the region’s. Can you foresee countries like India, Pakistan, China coming together in order to bring stability and peace in Afghanistan? A. Absolutely, the war in Afghanistan is much more to do with the region than Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been the direct victim of extremism in the region, but on the other hand it appears that it is no longer the sole victim of the phenomenon. Look at the formation of various radicalised groups under various names and agendas in all these countries you mentioned. Therefore, I believe it is upon the key regional players to help bring peace and stability in Afghanistan, and by extension to the entire region. Afghanistan has repeatedly voiced its support of the roles of all the regional cooperation mechanisms including SAARC and the Istanbul Process, among others.
Q. The recent presidential elections made it amply clear that Afghans are willing to exercise their civil rights for a stable and sustainable future. What steps the government has taken to keep the momentum going?
A. Afghanistan has been in the process of experimenting the institutionalisation of democracy since 2001. The country has made tremendous progress in democratisation, but establishing a full-fledged democracy with effective supporting institutions is still a work in progress. The Afghan government has made sincere effort in achieving the level of awareness among the people of the country. Afghans have realised that it is their individual exercise of rights that shape their future, and demonstrated their full faith in respecting a democratic order in their country. The viabrant civil society along with the exercise of freedom of expression in the country stands unique in the entire region. Afghans, today, have access to all the social media available as well as independent media outlets, including over 40 TV channels which enjoy free air.
The new government in Afghanistan mandated by the people’s vote will remain committed to sustaining the democratic gains of the last 13 years, and consolidating them further into a more solid democratic system in the country.
Q. List out the investment opportunities in Afghanistan, which the Indian government and private sector can tap into?
A. Afghanistan has numerous economic opportunities. It has the most business/investor friendly environment throughout the region with reasonably higher profitability margins. That is why we have established the Afghan Investment Support Agency (AISA) as a one-stop shop to encourage regional and global businesses to make the first move and earn hand-out profits in our virgin markets. We have also introduced and begun implementing an Investment Incentive Policy, which focusses on developing five key sectors, including industry, construction, export promotion, agriculture and mining.
The Investment Incentive Policy provides special privileges such as extensive tax holidays for first movers, during and after the transition process to be completed by the end of this year.
Other major investment opportunities include the sectors of healthcare, minerals, agriculture/agribusiness, infrastructure, energy/minerals, transportation/logistics, aviation, banking, textiles, renewable energy, cement industry, telecommunications, entertainment, services, financial consulting, legal consulting, and computer software.
Q. Since India does not have a refugee policy and mostly deals on an ad hoc basis, has there been, if any, discussions regarding the issue of Afghan refugees between the two countries?
A. Afghanistan has become home once again for all Afghans wherever they had taken refuge to, following the Soviets’ invasion and the subsequent civil and other imposed wars. Millions have returned home since 2001 and others are in the process of returning. We want all Afghans to return to their home and partake in the reconstruction of their motherland. However, we are grateful to India for its liberal visa regime towards Afghans who visit India frequently, and for accepting a large number of Afghans residing in India. They consider India as their second home and expect the same for our Indian friends in Afghanistan. We are committed to encourage more people-to-people contact, which is an integral part of our strategic partnership agreement.
Q. With the pull out of Western troops in 2014, what expectations Afghanistan has from India as far as threat of terrorism is concerned? A. As you know India has asserted repeatedly that it has no exit policy in Afghanistan. It is based on the fact that the two are bound to stay together. Terrorism is a common problem to India and Afghanistan. Therefore, we expect the Indian government to engage proactively now, and together with Afghanistan and in collaboration with other terrorism-affected nations, foster a joint and more robust counter-terrorism strategy to ensure peace and stability in our two countries and in the region as a whole.