Pipeline diplomacy, and much more, is the need of the hour.

The Investment Summit on Afghanistan, held in New Delhi, underscores two key aspects of India’s policy towards Afghanistan. First, there is an emphasis on economic engagement.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, India has sought to cultivate strong political ties with Kabul and to reach out to the people of Afghanistan. The principal — if not the only — instrument deployed by India has been economic and developmental assistance.

India is the largest non-traditional donor to Afghanistan and has already extended aid to the tune of $2 billion. Much of this aid went towards the reconstruction of infrastructure (especially roads and electricity), health, education and community development projects.

The Investment Summit was aimed at encouraging private and foreign capital from the region and beyond to enter Afghanistan in a variety of areas: mining, infrastructure, hydrocarbons, agriculture, telecommunications, among others.

New Delhi hopes that this will not only give a fillip to the prospects of economic growth, but also create incentives for Afghanistan’s neighbours to work towards its stabilisation.

SCO platform

Second, India has underscored the need for a regional solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The US gave rhetorical support to this idea, but did little to help operationalise it. It is only recently that a regional forum on Afghanistan has emerged. Initially led by Turkey, the so-called Istanbul or ‘Heart of Asia’ process is now getting into shape. India has taken the lead in developing commercial Confidence Building Measures.

The Investment Summit was a part of this effort. The importance of this event also stems from the fact that it follows a significant development in India’s policy towards Afghanistan.

Speaking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Beijing earlier this month, the foreign minister observed that the SCO ‘provides a promising alternative regional platform to discuss the rapidly changing Afghan situation.’

India currently has observer status in the SCO and hopes to be a full member soon. But the prospect of membership does not by itself explain New Delhi’s views on the SCO and Afghanistan.

In many ways, the SCO — comprising the central Asian ‘stans’, Russia and China — is best placed to anchor a regional effort to stabilise Afghanistan. Its members, including Iran and Pakistan as observers, either share a border with Afghanistan or are key regional neighbours. As such, they play a key role in Afghanistan, both on the economic and security dimensions.

The fact that the SCO is dominated by the duopoly of Beijing and Moscow may have inhibited India’s enthusiasm for according it a greater role in Afghanistan. But, as the foreign minister rightly noted, the situation in Afghanistan is in flux.

Impact of US moves

For a start, the US’ diplomacy and military strategy are out of phase. Even as talks with the Taliban are being attempted, Washington has announced that it will transition from its combat role to a training, advisory and assistance role by mid-2013 and that it will pull out of Afghanistan almost entirely a year later.

The Afghan National Army (ANA), however, is far from ready to take the lead in combat operations. The size of the ANA has considerably increased over the last 18-24 months, but it continues to be plagued by poor training and assorted organisational weaknesses. In this situation, the Taliban may well conclude that the US is on the run. The Taliban leadership will merely string along its American and Afghan interlocutors and bide its time.

The Taliban’s Pakistani patrons will encourage them to refrain from any substantive political negotiations.

The Obama administration is already flailing around for a viable approach in dealing with Pakistan. It is unlikely that the US will be able to convince Pakistan to play along with its strategy for the end-game in Afghanistan.

Finally, the prospect of a negotiated end to the conflict is being undercut by American moves towards Iran.

The ongoing attempt to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions by imposing throttling sanctions on Tehran and by isolating it politically will have knock-on effects on Afghanistan.

Iran has adequate influence and resources on the ground to go down a destructive route in Afghanistan. If Washington hopes to leave behind a stable Afghanistan in 2014, it can hardly afford to keep Iran in the doghouse.

Economic efforts

The situation in Afghanistan is likely to remain volatile in the aftermath of the US drawdown and withdrawal. This will present challenges to India as it seeks to consolidate and build on the gains of the past decade. Take the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which aims to provide 33 billion cubic metres of gas a year to consumers in the region.

A gas sales and purchasing agreement was recently signed between Turkmengaz, Inter State Gas Systems of Pakistan and the Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL). According to this agreement GAIL will be responsible for the security of the pipeline from Turkmenistan’s borders right up to India.

Long sections of the pipeline will pass through the heartlands of the Taliban insurgency in Herat and Kandahar. In short, India’s economic efforts in Afghanistan are contingent on a stable security situation.

This may seem obvious, but New Delhi needs to synchronise the economic and security arms of its Afghanistan strategy. The Strategic Partnership agreement between the two countries provides a useful platform. India can play an important role in the training of the ANA as well.

India already trains Afghan officers in its military academies. New Delhi should be prepared to expand its training programmes.

If done in coordination with other SCO countries, this might help remove concerns about India’s role and ambitions in Afghanistan.

India should also push for a trilateral trade and transit agreement between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This would be a logical extension of the ongoing efforts to improve economic ties between India and Pakistan.

Such an agreement may also help convince Pakistan to avoid playing a destabilising role in Afghanistan. In engineering this change of calculus, India would do well to work with the SCO — above all with China.

(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

(This article was published on June 28, 2012)
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