Afghanistan seems to have emerged as a platform providing new possibilities of India-China cooperation. An agreement reached at Wuhan in China during the recently held ‘informal summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping to work jointly on economic projects in Afghanistan has huge strategic implications for the two Himalayan neighbours. It is likely to reduce the trust deficit between them while contributing towards peace and development of war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Needless to emphasise that India has made considerable investments in many capacity-building projects at various levels for the Afghan state. And the Afghan government also believes that India’s involvement is crucial for the long-term viability of Afghan state institutions.
The Modi government has extended vital economic and political support to the regime led by President Ashraf Ghani. Moreover, New Delhi is of the opinion that any political negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban to end the conflict must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” without any outside interference. But Pakistan’s national security establishment has not stopped nurturing terror groups for pursuing its dangerous policy of having a puppet regime in Kabul.
Islamabad’s unfathomable paranoia that India wants to cultivate the Kabul government so as to trap Pakistan militarily has led it to resist Indian involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistan accuses both India and Afghanistan of stoking ethnic Baloch and Pashtun separatist movements in Pakistan. One should not forget that Islamabad’s wholehearted support for the Afghan Taliban has arisen from a longstanding policy of cultivating links with the fundamentalist sections of the Pashtuns. Rawalpindi has always viewed Afghanistan as a hinterland to provide Pakistan with ‘strategic depth’ in the West in case of an armed conflict with India in the East.
Since the removal of the Taliban in 2001, Pakistan’s security establishment has been worried about India’s presence in Afghanistan, though New Delhi had traditionally been Kabul’s main regional ally. Afghanistan is very much part of India’s extended neighbourhood, and its strategic location makes it a critical component of India’s national security calculations. India’s key aim in its engagement with the Kabul regime is to prevent the establishment of another safe haven for jihadist groups. While India may not be an immediate neighbour of Afghanistan, it must get involved in the Afghan end game.
India has wisely avoided ‘boots on the ground’ in Afghanistan as it is too tough a terrain. And even if India sends troops to Afghanistan, Pakistan is certainly going to retaliate in a big manner. Therefore, India’s choice of ‘soft power’ over the ‘hard power’ of a military presence in Afghanistan has served it well. But Pakistan has been fanatically adamant on reducing whatever presence India has in Afghanistan. There have been many instances of kidnappings and attacks on Indian workers in Afghanistan as a way to frighten India. A car bomb attack near the Indian embassy compound in Kabul in July 2008, which had killed fifty people including India’s defence attaché, was the handiwork of the ISI-linked Haqqani network, which is held responsible for increasingly deadly terror attacks in the country.
Far from acquiescing to the pressures to lower its profile in Afghanistan, India has upped the ante. India-Afghanistan relations continue to be on the rise as clearly exemplified by the start of an air corridor between the two countries to boost connectivity. On 6 May, the abduction of seven Indians working with a power company in Afghanistan has again brought to focus the role of Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ in applying more pressure on India to scale down its presence in Afghanistan. There are unconfirmed reports of the Afghan Taliban’s local unit being under pressure from the ISI to draw out the kidnapping, in an attempt to force out Indian power companies from northern Afghanistan.
China has its own security and economic interests in Afghanistan. Under any circumstances, Beijing does not want Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Uighur Muslim militant groups who are very active in China’s Xinjiang province. The impact of Afghan destabilisation will be felt as much in Kashmir as in Xinjiang. Beijing is also worried about insecurity in Afghanistan casting a destabilising shadow over Pakistan and other Central Asian republics where Xi Jinping’s grand geopolitical project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – is rewriting the rules of balance of power for a China-centric world order.
China is not contiguous to Afghanistan. So, Beijing’s primary instruments of engagement with Kabul have been China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral and Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is another matter that this strategy has not succeeded. Hence, China would like to involve India in its attempts to enhance its influence in Afghanistan. However, Sino-Indian joint projects in Afghanistan will not upset Pakistan, which is regarded as China’s all-weather-ally. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a centrepiece of the BRI, is strongly opposed by India on sovereignty grounds as the project passes through India territory currently under Pakistani occupation. With India’s firm refusal to change its position vis-à-vis CPEC, it is important for China to find other ways to engage with India.
India too has its own reasons for agreeing to joint economic projects with China in Afghanistan. It would be beneficial for New Delhi both economically and strategically. Besides protecting its nationals in Afghanistan, it may also provide security from terror attacks backed by Pakistan’s security establishment. Another important reasoning stems from US president Donald Trump’s ill-fated decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, and reimpose punitive sanctions on Iran. This unilateral decision has far-reaching effects, beyond Iran-US relations. There are genuine fears over escalation of military tensions in West Asia where the US and Saudi Arabia will further attempt to neutralise Iran’s predominant influence. Likewise, Iran could also apply more pressure on the Saudis and its Gulf allies by supplying the Houthis in Yemen with weapons that could pose threats to Riyadh. Tehran has hardened its posture with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani warning Trump of ‘historic regret’ if America scraps the nuclear deal.
But most importantly, the US is likely to become vulnerable if Tehran steps up its support to the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Tehran has historical ties with the Hazaras and Shias in Afghanistan, and it would like to disrupt stability in Afghanistan. If Pakistan and Russia also decide to join in the Iranian-supported disruption, the US presence in Afghanistan would become more complicated. If Afghanistan becomes a theatre of US-Iranian confrontation, politically negotiated settlement will become even more difficult. As India finds itself unable to do anything to prevent a dangerous escalation of regional tensions after Trump’s renunciation of the Iran nuclear agreement, New Delhi’s first priority is to safeguard its presence in Afghanistan. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and earning the trust of the Ashraf Ghani government is alone not sufficient in Afghanistan’s rapidly shifting political and strategic landscape.
Although both India and China recognise the need for developing convergence on Afghanistan, the bewildering complexities of regional geopolitics has prevented any forward movement so far. New Delhi and Beijing have previously held discussions on the Afghan scenario, but nothing came out of it. Critics would express scepticism of China’s commitment as being India’s partner in Afghanistan, but the idea is worth exploring on grounds of pragmatism. As the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate further, the decision by India and China to work in close coordination with each other in Afghanistan is understandable.