Recently India managed the fallout from its deadly clash with China—the first border skirmish since 1975 involving troop fatalities —this incident necessitates India to take a step back and assess its broader regional situation. New Delhi would realize that its problems are by no means limited to Beijing: India’s relations with most of its neighbours have worsened. Things could so easily have been different. In the year 2014, shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to office, he invited his counterparts from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)—to his inauguration. It was a brilliant move in public diplomacy, as no previous prime minister had made such a grand gesture. It was also in accord with his Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign manifesto, which had promised to improve ties with India’s neighbours.
Prime Minister Modi used the occasion to announce his “neighbourhood first” initiative, a new focus on prioritizing relations with SAARC member states. The plan initiated, had it come to fruition, would have given a much-needed boost to regional trade and investments and led the way in addressing geopolitical tensions. In addition to that, it would have rendered a natural—and lasting—defence against China’s relentless attempts to expand its footprint across the region, especially with its Belt and Road Initiative.
The Modi government’s initial steps certainly signalled his commitment to this new policy. However, government’s promising initiative for regional relations went on to somehow worsen relations across the border: India nearly went to war with Pakistan in 2019 and has had frequent and high-profile border conflicts that could easily get out of hand; relations with Bangladesh, a country India helped birth into existence, have deteriorated sharply; the parliament of Nepal recently approved a new map that includes land claimed by India, putting relations at their worst in years; Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both historically allied with India, are now siding with China.
On the other hand, democracy in Afghanistan has been in crisis, with the Taliban continuing to rise in power and influence—a development that sets back decades of Indian investment and diplomacy. The only neighbouring country that still has a reasonably cordial relationship with India remains Bhutan, but even this friendliness stems mostly from the tiny Himalayan country’s bid to gain support in its border dispute with China.
The question that arises is how a policy welcomed by most of India’s neighbours unravelled so completely since 2014. After all, Modi devoted—at least at the start of his first term—a considerable amount of time, attention, and energy to regional foreign-policy issues. He visited many international capitals and made much of his rapport with a variety of national leaders.
It can be said that India’s relations with each of its neighbours are in shambles due to New Delhi’s incoherent and ill-structured foreign policy that lacks a long term action plan. However, in this article, we focus mainly on India’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan.
India’s policy towards Afghanistan
India and Afghanistan have a long history of cultural and bilateral relations. India’s engagement with Afghanistan has become multidimensional since 2001. From India’s viewpoint, the most important factor in its ties with Afghanistan is Pakistan which incorrigibly frames any kind of Indian engagement in Afghanistan as a threat. Nevertheless, Afghanistan is India’s natural partner, not just to balance Pakistan but also for the fulfilment of energy-economic interest.
India’s policy towards Afghanistan can be described as the dichotomy between its aspiration for a larger role in its northwestern neighbourhood and the real constraints on it. Until 2011, India was following U.S. demand for India’s limited cooperation with Afghanistan. However, in 2011 India became the first country Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement. This agreement formalized a framework for cooperation in various areas between the two countries: political & security cooperation; trade & economic cooperation; capacity development and education; and social, cultural, civil society & people-to-people relations.
India asserts that the tripartite relationship between India, Pakistan, and Afghan are mutually independent – in both the 1965 and 1971 wars, Afghanistan was non-committal and did not support India. Even on the Kashmir issue, Afghanistan has not publicly supported India. India has not entered any debate on the Durand Line, the international land border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. India’s stake in Afghanistan is more than merely controlling Pakistan and reflects its aspiration to be considered as a regional power.
In the year 2018, India gifted a Mi 25 attack helicopter which marked the first time India gifted a major offensive combat capability to Afghanistan, a sensitive topic in the past due to strong objections by Pakistan. Under the agreement, India will also train Afghanistan defence personnel on operations.
India-Afghanistan: Economic and Security interests
India-Afghanistan ties are at the developed phase and continuous efforts are required for greater achievements to live up to the expectations of the two nations. It is of utmost importance for India to safeguard its investments and personnel in Afghanistan as Indian investment in Afghan amounts to more than $3 billion. India also wants to build economic ties with Afghanistan for its mineral wealth of about $1-3 trillion of Iron ore, Lithium, Chromium, Natural Gas, Petroleum, etc.
During the 1990s, India faced many security challenges from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan raised and supported several militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen/Harkat-ul-Ansar, and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami among others, which operate in India. All of these groups were trained in Afghanistan, with varying proximity to the Taliban and by extension al-Qaeda. As a result, India is absolutely adamant that Afghanistan should not again become a terrorist safe haven. Radical ideologies and terrorism spreading in this region are a major security threat for India.
Pakistan’s increasing strategic depth in Afghanistan is concerning for India as it can reverse the gain of India in Afghan brought through much cost. The golden crescent, Asia’s principal areas of illicit opium production comprising Iran, Afghan, and Pakistan is a worry for India, especially concerning the issue of drug abuse in Punjab.
As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, India must find ways to maintain its presence. Despite New Delhi being an important stakeholder in Afghanistan, it finds itself increasingly marginalized in negotiations involving the key regional players. Indian decision-makers are concerned about the vital role that all the powers are giving to Pakistan. Russia and Iran, two of India’s closest states during the Northern Alliance’s battle against the Taliban regime in the 1990s, seem out of sync with New Delhi’s interests.
India’s developmental approach has earned immense goodwill among the Afghan people. However, the “soft power” strategy has its limitations. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent mockery of New Delhi’s role in war-torn Afghanistan is a manifestation of this limitation. Nevertheless, there is a domestic consensus in India that boots-on-ground is not an option. Consequently, India is caught in a dilemma between continued soft-power or to aggressively push its hard power.
The Trump government’s recent decision of engaging with the Taliban without the consideration of India has cast a shadow over the US’s role as a strategic ally of India in the region. While India’s principled position that it will not directly or publicly talk to the Taliban until it engages the Afghan government remains valid, it is necessary that India stays abreast of all negotiations and isn’t cut out of the resolution process. It is hoped that a robust channel is open between Indian intelligence agencies and all important groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, to ensure that Indian interests, development projects, and citizens are kept secure.
Indian policy-makers must engage with regional and global stakeholders, and impress upon them that any dialogue with the Taliban must not come at the cost of the hard-fought victories of the Afghan people in the past two decades: on establishing constitutional democracy and the rule of law, and securing the rights of women and minorities. Not only is the time for India to engage with the Taliban to secure its interests but also to reevaluate its policy choices in close coordination with Russia and Iran, constantly reminding them that complete surrender to the Taliban’s demands will be detrimental to their security as well.
To conclude, India has already missed out on several potential gains: Trade and investment could have been expanded with collaborated efforts within the SAARC nations; countries could have united around common regional problems such as environmental degradation and food and water security. Each of these developments could have also limited China’s long march into the region.
There’s little doubt that Modi’s initial move to boost relations with India’s neighbours was both commendable and timely; it represented a clear shift from the failed policies of previous governments. However, New Delhi’s inability to follow through with a sustained plan has left India worse off than before it conceived of a grand gesture for its neighbours, each of whom now seems to be following what we can now call a China-first policy.