By Shakti Sinha
President Trump’s Afghan policy announced last month has been widely welcomed in Afghanistan and universally reviled in Pakistan. It was most unusual for a US President to so directly call a country, other than the old ‘axis of evil’ (Iran, North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq), as he did referring to Pakistan as a country giving ‘safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.’ And more. Significantly the only other country mentioned in his speech, but this time positively, was India which he declared as a key security and economic partner of the United States and with who strategic partnership would be further developed. He appreciated India’s important contribution to stability in Afghanistan and called upon it to do more in the area of economic assistance and development.
The government of India would obviously decide on whether to step up its involvement in Afghanistan based on its own assessment of what is in the country’s national interests, and not just because Trump is asking it to do more. That said, the public articulation of the US’ disenchantment with Pakistan does represent an opportunity of doing more in Afghanistan since it ties in with India’s own interest in strengthening the Afghan government. Further, Trump has repeated his AfPak formulation at the UN last week, which did not get much traction as it was drowned out what he said on North Korea. Defence Secretary Mattis and Trump’s chief of staff John Kelley are from the US army and are aware of the considerable negative feedback about Pakistan’s use of terrorist proxies in Afghanistan from US army officers. Kelley is a serving general and, in fact lost his son in action in Afghanistan. Further Trump’s clear indications, repeated several times in his speech, that the US army field commanders would have necessary freedom of action leaves open the possibility of cross-border action in trying to liquidate the Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s own reactions bordered on panic, and financially, China can hardly replace the US in terms of generous financial assistance, $ 33 billion since 2001 and running at $1.5 billion a year. Chinese investments in CPEC are strictly commercial loans or equity with guaranteed minimum investment. US regulators have also shut down operations of Pakistan’s Habib Bank in New York, levying a fine of $ 225 million .
Stabilising Afghanistan is in India’s national interest. The inability of governance institutions to deliver services and justice at minimum levels seriously weakens Afghanistan’s abilities to fight terrorism. Such weaknesses has adversely impacted economic growth and employment generation. It is in these two fields of governance and economic growth that India can add substantial value; assistance in security should necessarily be limited to training, stepped up in numbers no doubt, and supply of equipment.
Post-2001, western donors parcelled out the job of development of different government functions to specific countries. So one country took up the job of setting up the police, another of justice, yet another of counter-narcotics and so on. The context in which governance institutions in Europe and North America function are totally alien to Afghanistan. Consequently these efforts have substantially failed. Fortunately, the country’s own systems have mostly survived the decades of conflict, albeit at low levels. There is a serious need for rehabilitation and upgradation, but not of replacement.
Representing the United Nations in donor meetings with Afghan ministries, I was frequently asked to speak of the Indian experience as it was seen by the Afghans as most relevant. Fortunately, government of India partnered with UNDP and deputed Indian civil servants in different ministries. A number of these experts deputed were able to develop better decision-making capabilities unlike most western experts, who besides were paid in multiples of what it cost to deploy Indians. The Indians focussed on improving office processing and develop analytic skills. Running it as joint program meant that Indians could be paid more than what government of India rules prescribe with UNDP picking up the incremental costs. A similar programme, taking into account the experience of the previous programme, would add value and strengthen the perception that India acts in Afghanistan’s interests rather than pursue some other agenda.
The recent announcement that India would finance 116 high impact projects spread over 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is seen very positively. Hundreds of Afghan communities have benefitted from India’s Small Development Projects (SDP) programme. These have led to the creation of community assets like culverts over streams, minor irrigation works, classrooms etc. While important and locally useful, their contribution to sustainable economic growth is minimal. Details of the proposed high impact projects is not yet available, but looking at the numbers, obviously these would be small to medium projects.
Afghanistan’s irrigation potential is largely untapped. Indian assistance in construction of the Salma dam was highly appreciated and the locals had renamed it as the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam. Afghanistan’s lower riparian neighbours Pakistan (Kabul river), Iran (Helmand river and the Hari Rud) Uzbekistan (Amu Darya) have had more or less a free run off the country’s river waters. That India is choosing to get into other irrigation projects fits in with Afghanistan’s priorities.
The eastern province of Nangrahar presents a huge opportunity since the Kunar River flows through it before entering the Kabul River, bringing plentiful waters. Downstream of this river is a more or less flat valley, the traditional Gandhara (not to be confused with the modern city of Kandahar in the south). Nangrahar has traditionally been regarded as conflict-prone, particularly the districts of Shinwar and Khogyani. However, Jalalabad, its capital, is a big trading centre, and is the eastern gateway to the country leading to the Khyber Pass. A big dam on the Kunar/ Kabul which would create considerable irrigation potential and could emerge as win-win situation since it would spur the local economy and create a vested interest in peace and stability. The Taliban would also not like to be seen as creating obstacles for the dam since it would expose them as Pakistan’s proxies.
The third area where India could step up its involvement is in creating transit and related networks. Far from seeing the Chahbahar port and railway lines as only an India-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral, India should try and bring this within the ambit of the North-South Transit Corridor, centred now on Bandar Abbas. Iran is perceived to be dragging its feet on the Chahbahar project, but that seems tactical in view of the uncertainty of the continuance of the nuclear deal. Once the Central Asian States and Russia are in, and the project helps develop a broader, more geographically spread out network of rail lines, highways, special economic zones, it would become viable, attract global investors and create local champions who would push the associated projects.
India has a vital stake in stabilising Afghanistan, which would necessitate strengthening its democratic institutions. The Afghan State, while legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people, lacks credibility. Any steps that help increase its credibility would facilitate its efforts to counter negative external actors and stabilise the situation. India as an emerging leading power must step up its efforts. The Trump denouement creates a window that must be utilised.
Hindustan Times, September 28, 2017