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Import of Afghan President's Visit to India

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 26, 2006

    Afghan President Hamid Karzai's four-day state visit to India from April 9-12, 2006 was the fourth since he was appointed Chairman of the Afghan interim administration in December 2001. His visit assumes significance in the backdrop of heightened violence in Afghanistan, the inclusion of Afghanistan in SAARC with India's facilitation, the recent political row between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the issue of cross-border terrorism, and the March 2006 visit of President Bush to the Subcontinent. It may also be mentioned here that Karzai's visit was a follow-up to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's landmark visit to Kabul on August 28-29, 2005, which was in consonance with the growing significance of Afghanistan in India's strategic calculus. To say that the strong ties between the two countries since the overthrow of the Taliban are redefining the regional security and economic complex would be somewhat far-fetched, given that Pakistan remains a strong factor in the Indo-Afghan relationship and vice versa.

    During Karzai's visit, India and Afghanistan signed three MoUs on education exchange programme, rural development, and on standardisation between the Bureau of Indian Standards and Afghanistan National Standardisation Authority. The first two MoUs are somewhat add-ons to the agreements signed earlier during the Indian Prime Minister's August 2005 visit to Kabul. It is noteworthy that during Manmohan Singh's visit, it was announced that India would adopt and develop 100 Afghan villages. This was apart from an agreement on small development projects. Similarly, with a view to providing Afghan students and professionals greater access to Indian academic and technical institutions, Singh had also announced 500 scholarships for Afghan students for university education. This was in addition to 500 short-term training fellowships under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme for Afghan men and women. The objective of the new MoUs was to probably further consolidate and institutionalise the expanded cooperation between the two countries in this sphere. Similarly, much of the political statements made, be it on the issue of joint fight against terrorism or the 'trilateral cooperation' between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, were a reiteration of what was agreed upon during the Singh's August 2005 visit to Kabul.

    Given Afghanistan's need for long-term reconstruction assistance, Karzai's visit had a strong economic component. The visit was apparently more interactive and explorative in the economic sense. Apart from his senior cabinet ministers and members of the Afghan Parliament, Karzai was accompanied by a high-level delegation of Afghan businessmen who attended a joint business meeting hosted by FICCI, CII and ASSOCHAM. Karzai also visited the Hi-Tech City, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., National Remote Sensing Agency, and the National Institute of Rural Development, all in Hyderabad.

    India, which has been the largest donor among the regional countries to Afghanistan, pledged an additional US$50 million taking the total Indian assistance for Afghan reconstruction to $650 million. The Indian Prime Minister also offered to consider extending a $50 million Line of Credit facility to Afghanistan in order to promote bilateral trade and investment. However, the volume of bilateral trade remains abysmally low and is not commensurate with their growing relationship. Indo-Afghan trade is approximately $200 million, a negligible amount considering Afghanistan's overall trade of $5 billion during 2005. It is also noteworthy that despite problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan, their bilateral trade currently stands at $1.2 billion.

    Given the denial of transit facility by Pakistan for Indian goods bound for Afghanistan, Karzai's proposal to Indian entrepreneurs to open production facilities in Afghanistan needs to be actively considered. Such a step would not only enhance trade between the two countries and open the way for Indian products to the large Central Asian markets, but it would also generate employment opportunities for unemployed Afghans. But at the same time the security of Indian nationals working in Afghanistan too needs to be considered.

    The joint statement of April 10, 2006 surprisingly does not mention anything about energy cooperation. It is noteworthy that the previous Joint Statement issued during Singh's Kabul visit on August 28, 2005 clearly stated that, "the two leaders endorsed the need for greater consultation and cooperation in a future project of a Turkmenistan gas pipeline to India that would pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan." In fact, during a joint news conference with the Afghan President in Kabul, Prime Minister Singh had said that India needs both the Iranian and Turkmen pipelines and that there is no question of preferring one over the other since "India's needs for commercial energy are increasing at an explosive rate." The silence over energy cooperation in the recent Joint Statement issued on April 10 could have been due to the ongoing complex pipeline politics in the region, particularly US ire over the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, which remains more feasible in terms of cost and security than the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAP) pipeline. Afghanistan's predicament here is that it cannot afford to antagonise either the US or an important neighbour like Iran. India too has stakes in the Iranian gas pipeline, which is considered crucial to fulfil the country's growing energy demands.

    Russia's efforts to control the energy routes and the pricing mechanism in the oil-producing former Soviet republics, and China's recent successes in accessing Central Asian energy resources, have exacerbated US-Russia rivalry in the region. Recently, Beijing and Turkmenistan signed an agreement to construct a gas pipeline between the two countries when Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov visited Beijing from April 2-7, 2006. China also pledged to buy 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas annually for 30 years from 2009, apart from jointly exploring and developing Turkmen gas reserves.

    Thus, the complexities arising out of the US-Iran stand off, US-Russia rivalry over Caspian energy, political instability in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's intransigence on the issue of regional economic integration, apart from economic and technical obstacles, have long denied India assured energy supplies from both the Caspian region and the Persian Gulf. Though progress on the proposed TAP and IPI pipeline has been made, particularly on the latter by Pakistan and India despite US opposition, it still has a long way to go. The US recently offered to grant funds and security guarantees for the TAP pipeline, provided Islamabad abandoned the proposed Iranian pipeline. The US is likely to keep up the pressure on Pakistan to drop the Iranian pipeline in favour of TAP pipeline. One would do well to remember that the US oil major UNOCAL had lobbied hard for this very pipeline in the early 1990s until the political upheaval in Afghanistan forced it abandon this project. Pakistan too would like to weigh its options between TAP, IPI and a pipeline from Qatar, and the consequences of its choice with regard to its relations with both Iran and US.

    In the above context, it will be prudent to view Indo-Afghan ties in the larger context of regional political dynamics including the role of extra-regional powers, particularly the US. Indo-Afghan relations, though traditionally cordial, remain beset with certain limitations. Pakistan is as much a geographical reality between the two countries as India and Afghanistan are for Pakistan. Karzai's proposition that "a trilateral structure of cooperation" among the three countries "would release the best energy of this region and bring quicker progress and economic betterment to it" is consonant with the Indian view on regional cooperation. India and Afghanistan will have to channelise their bilateral strength to push for a cogent regional economic cooperation wherein all three countries realise their true economic potential.

    Whether economic sense prevails or not in times to come in the countries of the Subcontinent, India cannot afford to remain tied within the confines of this region. Given that India's interests lie both within and beyond the frontiers of the Subcontinent, a strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan is an essential prerequisite.