India Woos Afghanistan as Influence Wanes

May 22, 2011
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Can New Delhi protect its strategic interests and keep Kabul on its side in an unfriendly and volatile neighbourhood?

A few years ago, the Indian Embassy in Kabul entertained a curious request. Afghan counter-narcotics officials, despairing that poppy-eradication efforts weren’t working, came up with a novel idea. They proposed to hire an Indian soap opera star, Smriti Irani, to record anti-poppy public service announcements for television and radio.

Given Afghans’ obsession with Irani’s character, Tulsi, on the show ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ (The Mother-in-Law Was Once the Daughter-in-Law), Afghan officials believed the public service spots could have broad appeal. At the time, viewing the show was a national obsession: Even wedding ceremonies were sometimes suspended so that guests could watch the daily telecast. In the end, the proposal never took off, but it did demonstrate the depth of Indian soft power in Afghanistan.

These days, Afghans have many more television options. India’s influence, meanwhile, remains strong, but the dividends of the feel-good relationship are wearing thin. The ebb in relations was evident during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s May 13-14 visit to Kabul. Singh pushed for more security and political cooperation, including a clear role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process, but his gestures yielded nothing concrete.

869 India woos Afghanistan


India has the chips to be a major player in Afghanistan. It has aid commitment that makes it Afghanistan’s sixth-largest donor (New Delhi has spent $1.5 billion on aid projects from 2001-2011). In addition, there exists plenty of goodwill among Afghans toward Indians, and there’s a history of friendship between the two countries. But India, according to Afghan analysts, has not made efficient use of its assets. New Delhi has not, for example, cultivated relations with an assortment of Afghan political players in the post-Taliban era. “They are missing from the political space,” said Waliullah Rahmani, the Director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “This is a major shortcoming in the Indian foreign policy in Afghanistan.”

In a search for explanations, critics point to the understaffed Indian Embassy in Kabul, where only one officer handles aid programs. Another lone diplomat looks after the political and media portfolio, as well as chancery issues. In sharp contrast, most Western embassies in Kabul are brimming with diplomats. The British Embassy, for example, has around a dozen officials in the political section alone. The reason for the discrepancy, the critics say, is India’s naïve expectation that good relations with both Kabul and Washington means both will protect and promote Indian interests in Afghanistan.

Sensing that India has no other diplomatic options, the Afghan president has become a hard bargainer.

India has traditionally acted as a counterweight to Pakistani-Pashtun influence in Afghanistan. Most notably, New Delhi became a strong backer in the 1990s of the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which battled the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. In the process, New Delhi helped check Pakistan’s efforts to project its authority across all of Afghanistan.

Though it initially continued supporting the Northern Alliance after Taliban militants were driven from Kabul in late 2001, India has shifted in recent years to a policy of strong support for President Hamid Karzai’s administration, says Kabul-based analyst Haroun Mir. In doing so, India backed itself into a diplomatic corner, and, as a result, its influence with Karzai waned. Sensing that India has no other diplomatic options, the Afghan president has become a hard bargainer. At the same time, the Indian government has lost credibility with the opposition, which includes members of the Northern Alliance.

India’s position could erode further in the event that a reconciliation intiative brings pro-Pakistan figures into government, Mir explained. “It was a mistake for India to invest so completely in the government of President Karzai. They have to balance their activities and aid to Afghanistan. They kept away from their natural allies, the Northern Alliance, for fear of how President Karzai might react,” said Mir, a former Northern Alliance associate, currently director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Of late, the Karzai government and its supporters have kept up pressure on New Delhi to sever ties with his political opponents. “India needs to cut its ties to all groups and have relations only with [Karzai’s] government,” Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, president of the Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan, a government-affiliated think-tank, told

New Delhi has caved too easily, says Mir. “India should not have given a blank [aid] check without conditions. Other [donors] have conditions. It is not as if India is not familiar with this culture. It has the same culture,” he told, critiquing India’s inability to leverage its massive spending.

“They [Indians] have completely failed to cultivate individuals with political power, as all the other countries have done, and it is those individuals who are making decisions now,” said an analyst close to the government who asked not to be identified.

Meanwhile, India’s relationship with the United States, while strong, has not produced the returns New Delhi had hoped for in Afghanistan. Despite fears of a pro-Pakistan government appearing in Kabul, for example, India has found itself sidelined in reconciliation talks. India’s cozy relationship with the United States also has taken a toll on ties with traditional allies Russia and Iran, two countries that have stakes in Afghanistan and which could have expanded India’s leverage. As it is, Iran, according to a source close to the government, “has been complaining about India’s role in Afghanistan and the region to us.”

Even though the discovery that Osama bin Laden hid for years near the Pakistani capital suggests some members of the Pakistani establishment supported the terrorist-leader, the terrorist mastermind’s death may not be the game-changer that India hopes for. “We could go down the other route of just having a flaming great row with Pakistan over this. I think that would achieve nothing,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said in response to allegations some members of Pakistan’s intelligence service protected bin Laden. His comments support fears in India that the West will overlook any Pakistani betrayal.