India’s appetite for Afghan nuts and Kabul’s love for Bollywood may be reframing the geopolitics of the region. When Afghanistan joins the South Asia Free Trade Agreement in February 2008, it can start exporting a wide range of products to India at zero import duty. India has offered $750 million in aid to Kabul (Reuters) since 2001, making it the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. Besides helping to rebuild Afghan roads, airlines, and power plants, and providing support to the health and education sectors, New Delhi also seeks to spread its own brand of democracy in Kabul. Not only will future Afghan parliaments sit in a building that India helped construct, but Afghan civil servants, diplomats, and police officials will have received training from their Indian counterparts.
India and Afghanistan historically have shared close cultural and political ties. India supported successive governments in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban in 1992, viewed then—as now—as a front for radical Pakistani interests in the region. Afghanistan holds strategic importance for India in more ways than one. India hopes for transmission lines bringing electricity from Central Asia, as well as a pipeline for oil and gas. There is also an Iranian-Indian venture to develop a port (Economist) in the Gulf of Oman, which will require road links across Afghan territory.
By helping to rebuild a new Afghanistan, India strives toward more regional stability, but also hopes to counter Pakistan’s influence in Kabul. India wants new land routes to be able to move goods to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. “Pakistan is wary of providing a land route to India, since the two countries are competing for the same consumer-goods market in Afghanistan,” says an op-ed in Pakistan’s Daily Times. Pakistan currently allows Afghanistan the transit rights for its exports to India, but does not allow goods to move from India to Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have a tumultuous relationship owing to their controversial shared border and ethnic populations. Afghanistan alleges militant groups spreading insurgency within its borders receive refuge in Pakistan’s tribal lands. As part of its Afghan policy, Pakistan always has sought to support a client regime in Kabul, explains a new Backgrounder. 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,” writes Afghanistan expert Barnett R. Rubin in Foreign Affairs.
It is no surprise then that Pakistan sees India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan as a threat. The opening of Indian consulates in Afghanistan was decried by Islamabad, which alleged that Indian intelligence agents in these consulates were funneling weapons and funds to opposition groups in Pakistan, in particular the insurgency in Balochistan. Pakistan is also suspicious (PDF) of India’s placement of troops in Afghanistan, writes Frederick Grare at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (The killing of an Indian employee by the Taliban in November 2005 prompted the dispatch of approximately two hundred Indo-Tibetan Border Police commandos to Afghanistan in March last year to provide security for Indians (RFE/RL) working in various construction projects in Afghanistan.)
Afghanistan now must walk a fine line to avoid becoming a pawn in a new proxy war between India and Pakistan. Given the geopolitical realities of the region, it can neither spurn India’s aid nor afford to antagonize Pakistan. A report by the United States Institute of Peace suggests India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan must “keep the India-Pakistan dispute out of Afghanistan’s bilateral relations with both.”