The Shahtoot Dam project will be India’s second-largest in Afghanistan after the Salma Dam project. This would invariably help mitigate water scarcity in the country, writes Amb Tahir Qadiry for South Asia Monitor
The signing of the Shahtoot Dam project in Kabul today (February 9, 2021) between Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar and Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar witnessed by Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, augurs well for the shared ambitions and aspirations envisaged by both Afghanistan and India regionally and globally.
This marks the continuity in the legacy of brotherly cooperation between the two nations but with ever-growing resoluteness and profoundness. The project, worth USD 286 million will bring relief to the residents of Kabul by providing safe drinking water for, at least, two million people. The Shahtoot Dam project will be India’s second-largest in Afghanistan after the Salma Dam project. This would invariably help mitigate water scarcity in the country. In addition to this, India will implement 150 High Impact Community Development Projects worth USD 80 million.
The venture is one in line with innumerable others that we have witnessed in the past few years; various other projects have been undertaken by India in Afghanistan in the fields of education, medical sector, trade, commerce, and so on. However, if one meticulously observes the underlying thread that defines our bilateral ties with India today, the transformational approach, guiding our current bilateral understanding, becomes apparent.
When I joined our embassy, first as a Minister Counsellor and later as a Chargé d’Affaires, to India in New Delhi, the scenario was different. Soon I assumed the responsibility of a Head of Mission to India in one of our biggest embassies in the world because of the absence of an ambassador. Further, the country for which I was responsible to engage to further our joint cooperation and national interests vigorously was, in fact, one of the most important and major players in the international sphere: India. It was no easy task. And the fact that I barely boasted of gray hair on my head two years ago, which is now brimful of that, says a lot. At the same time, it is pertinent to note that although a Chargé d’Affaires serves as an embassy's chief of mission in the absence of the ambassador, he/she doesn’t enjoy wide discretionary powers, and his/her ambit of operation and functionality is limited. I was also the non-resident Chief of Mission to Maldives, Bhutan, and Nepal. Further, as I have also been responsible for the Government-run Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan School in Delhi and a Co-Chairperson for India-Afghanistan Foundation. In such a scenario, my situation can be best described as someone who’s neither riding on top of a horse nor under it, but rather flying midway. Therefore, it’s interesting and worth discerning what truly transpired in the last two years between our bilateral diplomacy with India.
Afghanistan and the tale of Kabuliwala
In the initial period of my stint, I exposed myself to better comprehending Indian culture and society and it's understanding of Afghanistan in return. I was taken off-guard to realize that although Afghanistan and Afghans enjoy a status of a cherished friend of India, the common masses in India were oblivious to the current realities of Afghanistan and the transformation, it has gone through in the last two decades. In my interactions with the ordinary Indians, they almost always harked back to the tale of Kabuliwala, written by a Noble-laureate literary genius Rabindranath Tagore in 1892. Besides the tale, their comprehension of Afghanistan was very little, mostly relied on international news channels. I immediately devised a strategy with our diplomatic machinery to facilitate free and efficient flow of information about Afghanistan in India because I always believed that our bilateral ties could only be strengthened if there’s a genuine understanding of each other’s culture and society.
We filled this void by acquainting Indian masses about new Afghanistan and its contemporary realities and ambitions by appearing on various Indian national TV channels. I even attended an event in FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) to screen a documentary I had previously done on Kabul, which was from a different perspective. This was accompanied by innumerable write-ups explicating various aspects of Afghan society in various Indian newspapers and think tanks as India has the second-largest number of think tanks in the world after the US; these think tanks help policymakers to deliberate on vital issues and make policies accordingly.
We further prepared dedicated magazines and circulated them among academia, media, and other institutions of India. The main aim of all these strivings was to set up a new narrative among the masses of India about Afghanistan, which reflects the contemporary realities, practicalities, and aspirations of the nation.
Afghanistan’s cultural ambassadors
As Afghanistan is among one of the youngest nations in the world, and the majority of our youth who enroll in foreign institutions for educational pursuits choose India as their preferred choice, it is vital to note that our demographic dividend is dependent on our bilateral ties with India. Therefore, we put equal emphasis on our engagement with our students studying in different colleges and universities across the country. India has been providing scholarships to Afghan students for over 14 years now, and currently, there are about 16,000 Afghan students studying in India. So, to capitalize on the latent potential of this exchange in education with India, we actively encouraged our students to showcase Afghanistan’s culture and society through their engagement with Indian people in the academic institutions and also elsewhere. That is precisely why I refer to our students in India as the cultural ambassadors of Afghanistan because they get thoroughly exposed to Indian culture and in reciprocity they showcase Afghan culture and society.
To compliment, commend, and encourage these students, we also distributed certificates of excellence to them from our embassy acknowledging their vital contributions in personal, professional, and bilateral spheres. Recently, I participated in the event organized by the Confederation of Young Leaders (CYL), one of the foremost chambers for youth organizations and young leaders in India, to further consolidate our efforts to promote the voices, opinions, and participation of Afghan students in India. We have also teamed up with Raisina House, another youth-led think tank to help them launch the “Rejuvenate Afghanistan” project, a platform to provide multi-lateral youth dialogue, capacity building and engagements.
Build and cure
Additionally, although much progress has been made as far as our bilateral educational exchange is concerned, there are certain areas of engagement that could buttress and boost our efforts to deepen this exchange. As most of the scholarships provided by India are in humanities-related fields, it could be diversified to include professional fields like engineering and medicine as Afghanistan needs more medical experts to cure the country and more engineers to build the country. We are already negotiating for the same with our Indian counterparts and we are positive that soon, we would witness such initiatives. We have already finalized 10 educational exchange agreements between various Indian and Afghan universities.
Because of our proactive diplomacy, the Indian side agreed to increase the number of annual scholarships for Afghan students from 1000 seats to 2500 seats. India now also allows Afghan students to appear for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance examination in India to get admitted to the most prestigious engineering institutions in India.
Saffron diplomacy - a cultural and commercial canon
After taking charge as the Charge d’Affaires of the Afghan Embassy to India, one of the earliest initiatives I took was with regard to Afghan saffron a.k.a. the Red Gold of Afghanistan for its best taste and fine texture as the Belgium-based International Taste Institute credited it for the 8th consecutive year. Although, Afghanistan is the third-largest producer of saffron after Iran and India, its demand in India is surging continuously as it is widely used in the country. I launched an initiative called "saffron Tea with the Afghan Embassy,” in which various traders, businesses, journalists, and economic experts were invited for a cup of an Afghan saffron tea. It was party symbolic and partly literal. The initiative was meant to harness our soft power to engage with our Indian allies; at the same time, it was meant to promote this unique Afghan spice. Keeping in line with President Ghani’s approach to strike the right balance between developmental engagement and deepening of bilateral ties, I could effectively deepen our understanding with our Indian counterparts. The impetus concentrated on creating a cultural common ground between Afghans and Indians.
In addition to the above-mentioned enterprise, I launched an initiative called “#AskQadiry,” in which on a specific day of a week, anybody could directly approach me and ask questions through Twitter and Facebook. Our students, traders, medical tourists, and other Afghans residing in India, and even Indians could directly bypass any probable hurdle and put forward their queries to which I had been responding and addressing immediately.
This was undoubtedly an unconventional approach; however, it led me to immediately take stock of the grassroots-level realities and connect with people effectively. Further, it acted as an accountability mechanism for our mission to resolve all issues of Afghans residing in India at the earliest. The endeavor was welcomed at a large scale, and people capitalized on it to expedite the resolution of their queries. Being a student myself (as I am pursuing my doctorate in India), I could very well empathize with the woes that students face. That’s why the extra focus was being paid on students’ issues.
Traditionally, the job of a diplomat hovers around three functionalities: representation, information, and negotiation. However, the 21st century has influenced and impacted diplomatic enterprises in a huge way. Now, you’re not merely representing a specific institution, but rather you’re representing the heterogeneous elements of your nation that comprise officials, students, traders, farmers, tourists, ministries, and so on. And since the flow of information takes place at a lightning speed, you cannot bide your time and let processions unravel based on conventional style. You need to do whatever it takes to be done and that too, instantly. This is highly challenging, often risky. That’s why I incorporated the usage of social media in our diplomatic dealings, which worked effectively and efficiently at a much faster pace.
Besides, the negotiations are not limited to ministerial engagements because the corpus of information is exponentially huge. In such a scenario, you have to take a call that is pragmatic and judicious, and in line with your national interests. Therefore, modern diplomacy requires public diplomacy to rely less on the conventional modes of operation and think out of the box and find and apply new and efficient means in diplomacy.
Moving from aid to trade
To facilitate trade and commerce, over the last two years we organized 20 large-scale international- and national-level exhibitions across India with the support of our Indian friends, which helped in the promotion and marketing of our products in the Indian and global markets. It also helped Afghan traders and businesses to strike new deals and open, widen, and diversify their business operations both in India and in other countries. This in turn, reaped millions of dollars of trade operations. Our facilitation efforts were derived from the Afghan government’s economic policies. During the same period, we facilitated the export of 75,000 metric tonnes of onions to India, especially at a time when the onion prices were skyrocketed in the Indian domestic market.
The export to India helped India tackle that, and commensurately, it helped our traders and farmers reap huge dividends out of this export. The total value of our bilateral trade, which was USD 1.1 billion in the financial year 2017-2018, reached USD 1.5 billion in 2019 and 2020. Our exports to India reached from USD 433 million in 2017-2018 to USD 530 million by 2019-2020. It is worth noting that this progression is realized despite medical emergencies created by the Corona pandemic. Furthermore, we managed to prepare a Certificate of Analysis for Afghan Hing (Asafoetida) for exporting it to India, arresting what otherwise would have been a colossal loss of USD 87 million for our traders and farmers.
One thing worth mentioning is that for all our mission’s successful endeavors, I got steadfast and continued support from both Afghan and Indian governments. Besides, our own collective efforts also deserve commendation. It was not an easy job to work on a mission to engage with one of your strategic partner nations, where the possibility of engagement is unlimited, and where no matter how much efforts you put, there’s always a long way to go to realize the potential, which is rather like an ever-expanding and ever-widening horizon.
Despite the limitations accorded to my functionality by my post as a Chargé d’Affaires, I managed to successfully engage with the most important officials and ministries that would otherwise not entertain unless one is an ambassador. I managed to keep the strategic partnership at its all-time best.
Bridging the gaps
Conterminously, our cultural engagement was given special focus and emphasis with renewed commitments from our mission. In the last two years, we organized 30 cultural programmes, and through India-Afghanistan Foundation, we continuously promoted those projects and works by individuals or groups that would further our cultural and social exchange with India.
Every year, we celebrated our Independence Day at a grand scale, inviting eminent governmental officials, the diplomatic community, media, and other influential personalities and experts. We also established an Afghanistan Cultural House inside the embassy’s premises, dedicated primarily for the furtherance of bilateral cultural exchanges with India. We launched programmes from the Afghan food festival to the Afghan handicraft show, from cricket matches to celebrating Sufism, a bridge between Ajmer and Herat.
Connecting Afghanistan to southern India
During the same period, we also opened our consulate in Hyderabad to facilitate the mission's services to Afghan students, traders, and tourists from the south of India. At a personal level too, I didn’t restrict myself to the metropolis of Delhi. I traveled a lot to broadly covering every nook and corner of the country to truly understand Indian polity, society, and culture. And in Delhi, I oftentimes used to take an auto ride to travel to old Delhi and converse with the locals. This is how you will know the real India.
Our diplomatic efforts and efficiency were invariably tested during corona crises. As it caught everyone off guard, even we were not prepared for this medical emergency. It was extremely difficult for us to find ways to navigate through to help our stranded citizens in India and to also facilitate any possible assistance from India.
Even during those testing times, we kept engagement with our Indian counterparts active and because of the cooperation and coordination of the Indian government, we were finally able to repatriate 15,000 of our stranded citizens in India. However, our diplomacy was not limited to repatriation, and during the same period, our Indian friends gifted 75,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan to tackle any food scarcity amid the pandemic.
Further, India also sent essential medical supplies, masks, sanitizers, PPE kits, and hydroxychloroquine tablets. Recently, India became the first country to send 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine that once again symbolizes our bond and signifies our diplomacy.
Working in India as an Afghan Chief of Mission for almost two years has been a 24-hour job to me, but it helped me to comprehend and tackle various aspects of public life better. Despite the limitations imposed by my post, I feel privileged that I got unwavering support guidance of both Afghan and Indian officials throughout my diplomatic undertakings. Being a strategic partner of Afghanistan, India is very important for us with innumerable possibilities of engagements.
It is an opportunity as well as a challenge to efficaciously tap and exploit these possibilities. Furthermore, India is like a second home for Afghans because of shared cultural, democratic, and social values that run much deeper than any political or economic joint exercise between the two countries. My diplomatic pursuits were not only limited to bilateral engagements and deals; rather, I was fortunate enough to make various tri- and multi-lateral engagements with various diplomatic missions to further our national interests and to set the new narrative of new Afghanistan.
There are certain areas where we laid the foundation and awaiting them to be materialized, which includes the establishment of an inter-parliamentary body for better political exchanges, the establishment of a joint chamber of commerce to easily facilitate and expedite commercial transactions, diversification of operation at Chabahar, and widening capacity building and knowledge transfer initiatives. My main mission here has been to further our diplomatic foothold, to strengthen our partnership and mutual understanding, and to lend a helping hand to our people residing in India and find a healthy and quick resolution for their issues.
My stint in India also helped me grow at an emotional level as well, and I believe that our Indian counterparts could peek through our various enterprises and see our genuine intent to deepen our unique bond. I hope that this legacy will not only be replicated but rather emulated by future diplomats and officials. '
“All I met were friendly faces;
One were all religions, genders, and races;
I forwarded my hand but got embraces;
Let our bond ride new heights, new places.”
(The writer, Chargé d’ Affaires of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to India, is going as Afghan Ambassador to Poland. He is also a co-chairperson of the India-Afghanistan Foundation (IAF). The views are personal)