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India-Afghanistan in 2016: The year in review
Posted:Jan 24, 2017
 
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By Chayanika Saxena
 
In the post-drawdown period, the year 2016 marked the revival of Indo-Afghan bonhomie - an association that had suffered as Afghanistan looked to Pakistan for assistance in dealing with the struggles it is facing, ignoring India as a result. This re-alignment of sorts was a consequence of a number of factors, chief among which were the heightened disillusionment of Afghanistan with Pakistan’s commitment towards the peace process and the gradual erosion of India’s coyness towards its bilateral ties with Afghanistan that had for long been affected by concerns for supposed Pakistani perceptions.
 
Assisting Afghanistan in its journey towards economic resuscitation, political redevelopment and cultural revival, the year gone by added depth to the civilizational association and strategic partnership that the two countries enjoy. Where the ties between the two countries continued to strengthen by way of regular cooperation in a variety of domains, the year 2016 was studded with extension of major commitments and the fulfillment of prior promises. Recalling such events and happenings, this review will provide an estimate of those major events and developments that placed the association between India and Afghanistan on an even solid pedestal.
 
Damning the way to heart: Salma Dam and the Ghazi Amanullah Khan Award
 
A significant part of Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy (ANDS), dam construction and through that generation of power and water-resource management has featured prominently in policies and actions undertaken by the governments in Afghanistan since 2001. Assisting Afghanistan in this process was India’s successful bid to re-construct and operate the Salma Dam built on Hari Rud River in the province of Herat.  
 
Inaugurated by Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi along with the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani on June 4, 2016, this dam became symbolic of the deepening ties between the two nations. Sending out a clear message about the salience of Indian assistance in the developmental aspirations of Afghanistan, the dam was rechristened by the Afghan cabinet  as the ‘Afghan-India Friendship Dam’. In fact, India’s efforts to restore the dam of about 20 km in length with the capacity to produce 42 MW of energy and irrigate 75,000 hectares of land were appreciated globally as a case of ‘tangible, low-cost’ deliverable. Affected by delays resulting from rising insecurity in the country along with reported threats and (foiled) instances of sabotage, the dam was built at a cost of USD 273.3 million. 
 
Apart from its contribution towards economic re-development and power-generation for Afghanistan, this dam, or specifically the inauguration of the dam, stood out for two other reasons. First, the flight of the Indian Prime Minister to a regional capital in Afghanistan sent out a clear message that India is committed to the re-development of this country as a whole, and that its political, economic and cultural engagements are not merely restricted to the seat of national power. Being the second visit by the Indian PM made in less than 6 months, it demonstrated that India is willing to invest its energy, money, manpower and time to promote rule of law, economic development and social harmony beyond its obvious partners in Kabul. Second, the Indian Prime Minister was accorded the highest civilian honor – Ghazi Amir Amanullah Khan Award  – at the inauguration ceremony, reflecting Afghanistan’s appreciation for India’s commitments towards it.
 
Visits of significance: Re-alignment of international and bilateral priorities
The year 2016 was also studded with visits of significance. Right from the President of Afghanistan to the Afghan Army Chief of Staff to the Head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, New Delhi became a port of call for many whose opinion and actions are of extreme significance to Afghanistan and its peace process. 
 
General John W. Nicholson, who is heading the US and NATO operated ‘Operation Resolute Support’, was the first in the line of top functionaries related to Afghanistan to have made a stop in New Delhi with the intent of seeking India’s ‘greater support’ (August 10-11, 2016). It was his second visit to New Delhi and in an evident ‘reversal’ in the American outlook vis-à-vis India, the General spoke in gleaming words about the “enormously valuable”  contribution India has made to Afghanistan, particularly in “strengthening Afghan security forces” . In fact, the American policy in Afghanistan, which till not so long ago had thought of the Indian presence in Afghanistan as a worrisome proposition that could have irked Pakistan, witnessed a change of heart as General Nicholson observed that US “favors India’s military support to Afghanistan” . And, the things did not stop at just that. Commenting on the (disappointing) role of Pakistan in the Afghan peace process, the General was reported saying that ‘Taliban enjoys sanctuaries in Pakistan’ and that the US “consistently encourage Pakistan to take action against terrorist groups that operate from its territory and close down their safe havens” , although he did also mention that the then Pakistani Army Chief was aware of his visit to India and that “he (Gen. Raheel Sharif) welcomes it” .
 
Another visitor who came calling, ostensibly to seek greater military assistance from India was the Afghan Army Chief of Staff, General Qadim Shah Shahim . On his maiden trip to New Delhi between August 29 and September 2, 2016, this visit by the Afghan Army Chief preceded that of the Afghan President by roughly two weeks. It was reported that the Chief’s visit was to provide a premise for the Afghan President to seek greater and deeper military and defence engagement between the two countries , including even demands for boots-on-ground and more military hardware supply. In fact, according to reports, the visiting Chief was assured of “further military assistance to Afghanistan”  by the Indian government.
 
On his second visit to India, the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani demonstrated a clear change in priorities as he moved to seek better association with India having been disappointed by Pakistan’s dilly-dallying. It is interesting to recall that the Afghan President, in his famous five-circle foreign policy , had relegated India to the outer circles, placing Pakistan in the closest ring. While the motivation for doing the same emanated from a rightly judged understanding of the centrality of Pakistan to the Afghan peace process, however this move did manage to upset India on various counts. This deliberate sidelining of India was a reminder of the snub it had received at the London Conference in 2011 when the Indian proposition to not create distinct categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban went unheeded. Also, apart from the strategic estrangement that it caused, such governmental indifference was taken as a moral dampener as India felt that it was not given its due for all that it had done for Afghanistan. Yet, even as it stared at the prospects of a distancing Afghanistan, India demonstrated strategic restraint , and which finally paid off.
 
Where the first visit by the Afghan President in April 2015 – just months before the (now stagnating) Pakistan-led Murree Peace Process – delivered little , the second visit in September 2016 came in the backdrop of a solid realization that Pakistan will hardly change its antics. As a result, it made sense for Afghanistan to move back to its Indian friend for support. It is undeniable that this revived closeness was dictated by Afghanistan’s changed strategic requirements, but so was the case with India as well. Both the countries decided to re-visit their ties with the intent of sidelining Pakistan - the success of which, however, is yet to be seen. In the same breath however, India did attempt to de-hyphenate the trilateral India-Afghanistan-Pakistan ties as it moved to assure greater economic, political, and reportedly even defence assistance to Afghanistan fully aware of the ‘concerns’ it will raise in the mind of the Pakistani deep-state. 
 
Apart from the fact that Pakistan exhibited a huge gap between its saying and actions, and which in turn had compelled the Afghan President to look beyond its immediate neighbor in the east, it was also the Indian side delivering its fourth and final Mi-25 helicopter  to the Afghan National Army after months of delay that demonstrated India’s willingness to re-calibrate its overly-cautious approach to Afghanistan. 
 
In fact, echoing Afghanistan’s concerns over India’s exceedingly restrained approach towards it, the Ambassador of Afghanistan to India had observed in an interview that “India needs to correct the perception that it is too worried about Pakistan’s backlash to assist Afghanistan in defence cooperation” . And perhaps, feeling a mutual need to separate the ties between India and Afghanistan from the triangular alliance it had long been a part of, both the countries moved to establish stronger relations, mindful, but not so much bothered about a concerned Pakistan.
 
To this effect, India on its part committed another USD 1 billion as development assistance aid to Afghanistan, geared to ‘promote capacity and capability building in Afghanistan’. This fresh avowal of support was made close on the heels of the inauguration of the Stor Palace  in Kabul – a site that would soon house Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – through video-conferencing between the Indian Prime Minister and Afghan President in August 2015.
 
The visit  also saw the two countries signing the Extradition Treaty, agreement on cooperation in civil and commercial matters and Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Issues related to trade-and-transit – an area that both India and Afghanistan feel is being increasingly challenged by an unyielding and uncooperative Pakistan – were also discussed, the outcome of which are the ongoing discussions between India and Afghanistan to establish a separate air corridor.  
 
Terrorism, and in particular the regionally grown and abetted actors and actions of terror, also featured prominently in the two-day visit of Ashraf Ghani. In an indirect attack on Pakistan, both the leaders maintained that “terrorism presented the single biggest threat to peace, stability and progress in the region and beyond” . Stressing that elimination of all forms of terrorism, without any discrimination, is essential, they called upon the concerned to put an end to all sponsorship, support, safe havens and sanctuaries to terrorists, including for those who target Afghanistan and India.”
 
Also, in pursuance with the commitments made under the ‘Strategic Partnership Agreement’ that of 2011, the visit also called for the meeting of “Strategic Partnership Council headed by the External Affairs Minister of India and the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan to review the recommendations of the four Joint Working Groups dealing with diverse areas of cooperation and impart further guidance” . 
 
Reinforcing ties through regional initiatives
 
Where the year 2016 brought India and Afghanistan closer bilaterally, regional initiatives involving the two countries – including the Chabahar Port, SAARC Summit, TAPI and Heart of Asia – added depth to their ties.
 
To begin with, the Chabahar  trilateral between India, Afghanistan and Iran, promises to provide access to Afghanistan through a distinct sea-route; one that will help it reduce its dependence on Pakistan for reaching the South Asian markets. In competition with Pakistan’s Gwadar port which is being constructed as part of China’s USD 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, the Chabahar port will establish a trade corridor with the Mumbai port in India. On Afghanistan’s side, the rail route between Zahedan in Iran will connect to the Indian-build Zaranj-Delaram highway, providing Afghanistan in turn, an alternate route to access the oceans and seas. 
 
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which is also dubbed as ‘peace pipeline’ has also been finalized. Drawing an economic commitment of USD 10 billion in total, it is expected that Afghanistan will gain USD 1 billion  in profits from the gas pipeline that will cross 700 km of its territory to reach Pakistan and India. In its ‘practical phase’  almost an year after it was formally inaugurated by the leaders of the four countries involved, this gas pipeline is expected to become operational by December 2018, providing hope that greater cooperation between the countries over Afghanistan would once again establish the country as a ‘regional round-about of trade’ .
 
SAARC Summit and the Heart of Asia summits were marked by moral and strategic show of unity between India and Afghanistan. Rallying behind India’s call to boycott the 19th SAARC Summit slated to happen in Islamabad, Afghanistan too decided to not to attend the annual summit, effectively calling upon Pakistan to abandon its ‘policy to use terrorism’ for furthering its national goals at the cost of other countries’ peace.  
 
The 6th Heart of Asia summit that was organized in the Indian city of Amritsar – which is reckoned as the gateway to Afghanistan – also saw India and Afghanistan come together to denounce the practices of their common neighbor that have, in all, promoted restiveness and instability in the South Asian region. In fact, delivering a direct, scathing attack on Pakistan’s double-dealings, Afghan President Ghani referring to the USD 500 million committed by Pakistan towards Afghanistan’s redevelopment said, ‘this money, Mr Aziz, can very well be used for containing extremism’ . Asking Pakistan to stop providing sanctuaries to Taliban leaders, Ghani reiterated that the ‘undeclared war’ on Afghanistan must stop. The Summit ended with the adoption of a declaration that called for action against terrorism and mentioned in specific names of Pakistan-based entities and outfits that have a proven track-record of abetting terrorism through the region. 
 
Conclusion
The ties between India and Afghanistan have witnessed their share of ebbs and flows. Having largely been a cordial affair, there were instances and times when the two nations felt let down by the other on many grounds. As these two civilizational partners work together to transform their cultural proximity into a flourishing strategic and developmental partnership, the year 2017 will become an important testing ground for their sincerity vis-à-vis the other. This relationship is bound to be tested by the emergence of new alliances (Russia-Pakistan-China trilateral); withering of old ones; domestic turmoil (particularly) in Afghanistan, and the ever-changing regional and international dynamics. 
 

[1]Gulati, M. & Saxena, C. (2016). Salma Dam: Making Afghanistan power-ready. South Asia Monitor. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://southasiamonitor.org/detail.php?type=sl&nid=17408

[2]Salma Dam Renamed Afghan-India Friendship Dam | TOLOnews. (2016). TOLOnews. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.tolonews.com/salma-dam-project/21105-salma-dam-renamed-afghan-india-friendship-dam

[3]Salma dam is a generator of optimism and belief in the future of Afghanistan: PM. (2016). Narendra Modi. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.narendramodi.in/text-of-pm-s-address-on-the-inauguration-of-afghanistan-india-friendship-dam-in-herat-june-4-2016-484016

[4]US favours India’s military support to Afghanistan: Top US General. (2016). The Indian Express. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/us-favours-indias-military-support-to-afghanistan-top-us-general-2966584/

[5]ibid.

[6]ibid.

[7]ibid.

[8]ibid.

[9]Afghan Army Chief of Staff visits India. (2016). Embassy of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in New Delhi. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://afghanembassy.in/en/media-menu/news/752-afghan-chief-of-army-staff-visits-india

[10]Gulati, M. & Saxena, C. (2016). Salma Dam: Making Afghanistan power-ready. South Asia Monitor. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://southasiamonitor.org/detail.php?type=sl&nid=17408

[11]Salma Dam Renamed Afghan-India Friendship Dam | TOLOnews. (2016). TOLOnews. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.tolonews.com/salma-dam-project/21105-salma-dam-renamed-afghan-india-friendship-dam

[12]Salma dam is a generator of optimism and belief in the future of Afghanistan: PM. (2016). Narendra Modi. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.narendramodi.in/text-of-pm-s-address-on-the-inauguration-of-afghanistan-india-friendship-dam-in-herat-june-4-2016-484016

[13]US favours India’s military support to Afghanistan: Top US General. (2016). The Indian Express. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/us-favours-indias-military-support-to-afghanistan-top-us-general-2966584/

[14]ibid.

[15]ibid.

[16]ibid.

[17]ibid.

[18]Afghan Army Chief of Staff visits India. (2016). Embassy of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in New Delhi. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://afghanembassy.in/en/media-menu/news/752-afghan-chief-of-army-staff-visits-india

[19]ibid.

[20]ibid.

[21]Saxena, C. (2016). India and Afghanistan: Recalibrating an old relationship. South Asia Monitor. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://southasiamonitor.org/detail.php?type=sl&nid=14139

[22]Singh, S. (2016). PM Modi’s ‘strategic restraint’ choice: A virtue or a necessity?. The Indian Express. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/web-edits/pm-modis-strategic-restraint-uri-attack-pakistan-a-virtue-or-a-necessity/

[23]Guha, S. (2015). Afghan President Ghani's first visit to India yields little ?but New Delhi isn't unduly bothered. Scroll.in. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://scroll.in/article/724142/afghan-president-ghanis-first-visit-to-india-yields-little-but-new-delhi-isnt-unduly-bothered

[24]Why India Transferred Attack Helicopters to Afghanistan. (2016). Indian Aerospace Defence News. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from https://iadnews.in/2016/02/why-india-transferred-attack-helicopters-to-afghanistan/#.WG1CYdJ97IV

[25]Haidar, S. (2016). ‘We hope Pakistan will change the narrative’. The Hindu. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/%E2%80%98We-hope-Pakistan-will-change-the-narrative%E2%80%99/article14506628.ece

[26]PM Modi Inaugurates Kabul's Stor Palace, Says India Will Help Afghanistan. (2016). NDTV.com. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/pm-narendra-modi-inaugurates-kabuls-stor-palace-says-indians-will-always-support-afghanistan-1446886

[27]Staff,. (2016). Ashraf Ghani meets Modi in Delhi: Full text of India-Afghanistan joint statement - Firstpost. Firstpost. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.firstpost.com/world/ashraf-ghani-meets-modi-in-delhi-full-text-of-india-afghanistan-joint-statement-3004118.html

[28]Roche, E. (2016). Modi, Ghani likely to discuss air cargo link bypassing Pakistan for bilateral trade. http://www.livemint.com/. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.livemint.com/Politics/bJeHVinOdL3jGI2lmiHaWM/Heart-of-Asia-PM-Modi-Ashraf-Ghani-likely-to-discuss-air-c.html

[29]Staff,. (2016). Ashraf Ghani meets Modi in Delhi: Full text of India-Afghanistan joint statement - Firstpost. Firstpost. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.firstpost.com/world/ashraf-ghani-meets-modi-in-delhi-full-text-of-india-afghanistan-joint-statement-3004118.html

[30]ibid

[31]Roche, E. (2016). India, Iran and Afghanistan ink trade corridor pact. http://www.livemint.com/. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.livemint.com/Politics/pI08kJsLuZLNFj0H8rW04N/India-commits-huge-investment-in-Chabahar.html

[32]Afghanistan to profit $1 billion annually for transit from TAPI pipeline. (2016). Khaama.com. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://www.khaama.com/afghanistan-to-profit-1-billion-annually-for-transit-from-tapi-pipeline-02436

[33]All eyes on imported gas to meet energy requirements. (2017). The Nation. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://nation.com.pk/islamabad/02-Jan-2017/all-eyes-on-imported-gas-to-meet-energy-requirements

[34]President: Afghanistan is Asian roundabout for goods. (2014). Anadolu Agency. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://aa.com.tr/en/world/president-afghanistan-is-asian-roundabout-for-goods/97452

[35]SAARC summit unlikely after India’s boycott, Pakistan says it will happen. (2016). The Indian Express. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/after-boycott-by-india-and-others-saarc-summit-likely-to-be-called-off/

[36]Subramanian, N. (2016). Afghan President Ashraf Ghani snubs Sartaj Aziz, quotes Taliban on safe haven in Pak. The Indian Express. Retrieved 4 January 2017, from http://indianexpress.com/article/india/afghan-president-ashraf-ghani-snubs-pak-foreign-affairs-advisor-sartaz-aziz-quotes-taliban-on-safe-haven-in-pakistan-4410391/

 
 
 
 
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