India and Afghanistan historically have shared close cultural and political ties, and the complexity of their diplomatic history reflects this fact. India was among the first non-Communist states to recognize the government installed by the Soviet Union after its 1979* invasion of Afghanistan. New Delhi supported successive governments in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. But like most countries, India never recognized the Taliban's assumption of power in 1996 (only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban regime). Following the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan that resulted, ties between India and Afghanistan grew strong once again. India has restored full diplomatic relations, and has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for Afghanistan's reconstruction and development. But Pakistan views India's growing influence in Afghanistan as a threat to its own interests in the region. Experts fear for Afghanistan's stability as India and Pakistan compete for influence in the war-torn country.
Afghanistan holds strategic importance for India as New Delhi seeks friendly allies in the neighborhood, and because it is a gateway to energy-rich Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. "India is looking to ensure that other countries in the region favor or at least are neutral on its conflict with Pakistan," says J Alexander Thier, an expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Afghanistan, on the other hand, he says, looks to India as "a potential counterweight in its relationship with Pakistan." India's influence in Afghanistan waned in the 1990s after Pakistan-backed Taliban rose to power. During this period, New Delhi provided assistance to the anti-Taliban resistance, the Northern Alliance, comprised mostly of Tajik and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups, according to a 2003 Council Task Force report. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, New Delhi reached out to renew ties with Kabul. India-Afghanistan relations further received a boost from the fact that many current Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, studied at Indian universities.
Since 2001, India has offered $1.2 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction, making it the largest regional donor to the country. By helping rebuild a new Afghanistan, India strives for greater regional stability, but also hopes to counter Pakistan's influence in Kabul, say experts. For India, Afghanistan is also a potential route for access to Central Asian energy. India, an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has been pursuing better relations with Central Asian states for energy cooperation. It gave a $17 million grant for the modernization of a hydropower plant in Tajikistan, and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkmenistan for a natural gas pipeline that will pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Since 2001, India has offered $1.2 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction, making it the largest regional donor to the country.
According to Indian officials, there are currently about four thousand Indian workers and security personnel working on different relief and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Since 2006, following increased incidents of kidnappings and attacks, India has sent the country's mountain-trained paramilitary force tasked with guarding its border with China, to guard its workers; there are about five hundred police deployed in Afghanistan currently. India is involved in a wide array of development projects in Afghanistan: In January 2009, India completed construction of the Zaranj-Delaram highway in southwest Afghanistan near the Iranian border; it is building Afghanistan's new parliament building set for completion by 2011; it is constructing the Salma Dam power project in Herat Province; it has trained Afghan police officers, diplomats and civil servants; and it has provided support in the areas of health, education, transportation, power, and telecommunications.
Bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan has been on the rise, reaching $358 million for the fiscal year April 2007 to March 2008. India hopes its investment in the Iranian port at Chabahar will allow it to gain trading access to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Pakistan currently allows Afghanistan transit rights for its exports to India, but does not allow goods to move from India to Afghanistan.
But soft power is "India's greatest asset" in Afghanistan, writes Shashi Tharoor, former under-secretary-general at the United Nations. He says Indian television soaps and Indian films are very popular in Afghanistan and their particular strength is that they have "nothing to do with government propaganda." Thier says the positive thing about such influence is that it engages the population in a way that takes into account what they want.
"Afghanistan has been a prize that Pakistan and India have fought over directly and indirectly for decades," writes Robert D. Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly. Pakistan supported the anti-Soviet mujahadeen and then the Taliban "to ensure that in the event of conflict with India, Afghanistan would provide Pakistan with support and use of its land and air space if needed," write Afghanistan experts Barnett R. Rubin and Abubakar Siddique in a 2006 USIP report (PDF). Pakistani military planners, they write, refer to this as the quest for "strategic depth." In this Foreign Affairs essay, Rubin argues that Pakistan's military establishment has always approached the various wars in and around Afghanistan as a function of its main institutional and national security interests: "first and foremost, balancing India."
"Afghanistan has been a prize that Pakistan and India have fought over directly and indirectly for decades." --Robert Kaplan
It is no surprise then that Pakistan sees India's growing influence in Afghanistan as a threat. After India opened consulates in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kandahar, Pakistan charged that these consulates provide cover for Indian intelligence agencies to run covert operations against Pakistan, as well as foment separatism in Pakistan's Balochistan province. "Pakistan's fears of encirclement (PDF) by India have been compounded" by the new Indian air base in Farkhor, Tajikistan, write South Asia experts Raja Karthikeya Gundu and Teresita C. Schaffer in an April 2008 Center for Strategic and International Studies newsletter. This is the first Indian military airbase overseas, and is convenient for transportation of men and material to and from Afghanistan. It is also a move toward protecting India's potential energy interests in the region, say experts.
Pakistan also competes with India for access to consumer markets in Afghanistan. Pakistan sees Iran's Chabahar port, which India hopes to use as its route for trade with Afghanistan, as a rival that would compete with its new port at Gwadar, which was been built with Chinese assistance.
Endangering Afghanistan's Stability
Pakistan's concerns that India is trying to encircle it by gaining influence in Afghanistan has in part led to "continued Pakistani ambivalence toward the Taliban," argues a new report by the independent, U.S.-based Pakistan Policy Working Group. The report says Pakistani security officials calculate that the Taliban offers the best chance for countering India's regional influence. Pakistan's support for the Taliban has led to increased instability in Afghanistan, from the growth of terrorism to upped opium cultivation. But Islamabad denies any support for the Taliban and says it is committed to fighting terrorism. U.S. military and intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border continue to serve as safe havens for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to stage attacks against Afghanistan. Experts say Pakistan's cooperation in counterterrorism is vital to winning the war in Afghanistan.
Controlling this porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the central issue for the United States, write Schaffer and Gundu. As this Backgrounder explains, Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long-standing border dispute, in large part due to tribal allegiances that have never recognized the century-old frontier. But a "transformation of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties can only take place in an overall context of improved Pakistani-Indian relations" that enhances Pakistani confidence in its regional position, argues the Pakistan Policy Working Group report.
Indian officials also blame Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the ISI, and its support of the Taliban, for attacks on Indian personnel and assets in Afghanistan. There have been several attacks on Indian personnel working for reconstruction projects inside Pakistan, particularly those working on road-building projects. The deadliest attack came in July 2008, when a suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul killed more than forty, including the Indian defense attaché. Both the Afghan and Indian officials implied ISI's involvement in the attack. India's National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, in an interview with New Delhi Television, said: "We have no doubt that the ISI is behind this." Pakistan has denied these allegations. However, the country's army chief replaced the head of the ISI in September, which some experts say was aimed at easing accusations against the agency.
"A transformation of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties can only take place in an overall context of improved Pakistani-Indian relations … that enhances Pakistani confidence in its regional position." - Pakistan Policy Working Group report
Toward Regional Cooperation
Most policy experts support India's engagement in Afghanistan but recommend a three-way relationship between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. USIP's Thier says Afghanistan must reassert a neutral policy of pursuing strong relations with both India and Pakistan. In a 2006 Council Special Report on Afghanistan, Rubin writes: "The United States should strengthen its presence on the Afghan side of the border, and encourage India and Afghanistan not to engage in any provocative activity there." Rubin says Afghanistan should encourage confidence-building measures with Pakistan in the border area.
Some experts emphasize better regional cooperation on trade. A January 2008 report (PDF) by the Afghanistan Study Group, working under the U.S.-based independent nonprofit Center for the Study of the Presidency, recommended that Pakistan remove restrictions that inhibit the transportation of goods through Pakistan to and from Afghanistan, including from India. "With regard to trade, there should be a more concerted and energetic international effort to enable Afghanistan to take fuller advantage of its geographic position as a crossroads between central, southern and western Asia," the report says.
The Pakistan Policy Working Group report, penned by several former U.S. State department officials, says Washington will need to step up diplomacy in South Asia, and it needs to consider how to decrease Pakistan's fear of India and "how to improve U.S. ties with New Delhi without alarming Islamabad." It is in India's interest to ensure that its involvement in Afghanistan is transparent to Pakistan, argue these experts.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated the year of the Soviet invasion as 1989.