Amid Afghanistan’s political churn, New Delhi and Kabul signed a $236 million dollar deal for the construction of Shahtoot Dam on February 9. This developmental project would provide safe drinking water to approximately 2.2. million people and boost cross-country irrigation facilities. The MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) was signed during a virtual meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Afghan counterpart, Mohammed Haneef Atmar. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani thanked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the “gift of life” with the signing of the agreement.
Plans for developmental projects have been a vital component of India’s foreign policy calculations in its neighborhood. Approximately 150 developmental projects in Afghanistan are underway, as announced by the Indian government in 2020. The new projects include better road connectivity, economic development, a water supply network for Charikar city and a hydropower plant, just to name a few. Infrastructure projects and developmental assistance to conflict-ridden countries have been an important tool to increase Indian presence in its neighborhood. New Delhi’s engagement with Afghanistan have been built upon historical, cultural and civilizational links. While many of India’s neighbors view it as a “big brother,” Afghanistan has welcomed the Indian presence in the region. New Delhi envisions itself as a key contributor to Afghanistan’s stability, and its objectives in the country have been three fold: to ensure that democracy in Afghanistan is sustained, pushing back against Pakistan’s influence in that country, and arresting the Taliban’s presence in the region which could potentially lead to the resurgence of terrorist activities.
Soft power has been a perennial instrument in India’s foreign policy toward Afghanistan. Since 2001, New Delhi has committed over a billion dollars for economic, humanitarian and developmental assistance. A landmark project initiated by India, known as the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, was completed in the western province of Herat. India’s soft power push in the country is not just limited to infrastructure; even in the backdrop of a pandemic where India is coping with a large infected population, the Modi government has dispatched vaccines to Afghanistan. New Delhi’s goodwill gestures toward Kabul are not new; in fact, small developmental schemes have been the mainstay of India’s post-Taliban policy in Afghanistan. As Afghanistan awaits a potential transition to a system where the Taliban might indeed need to be accommodated, India will continue to up the ante with its soft-power outreach. However, there are challenges ahead for New Delhi, especially given the perennial animosity between India and Pakistan which risks affecting India’s Afghanistan reach out.
Recognizing the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan, India has weighed in significantly in winning Afghan hearts and minds. Afghanistan has witnessed both hard power and soft power rivalry, as various actors seek to influence the situation on ground through a combination of instruments both savory and unsavory. As a neighbor, India’s desired outcome from Afghanistan would be continuation of a democratically elected government that leans more towardsNew Delhi than Islamabad. The fear of Afghanistan become again a haven for terrorists has provided India impetus to calibrate its efforts toward Kabul. India’s gambit in Afghanistan will be challenged by its long-standing rival Pakistan now more than ever, amid India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in 2019, its increasing diplomatic forays in the neighborhood and an upswing in defense cooperation with the United States.
India’s soft-power push can be viewed as amicable compared to Pakistan’s approach toward the region, reliant as it is on hard power. The fact that many terrorist organizations and outfits inimical to Afghan interests seek sanctuary in Pakistan diminishes Islamabad’s reputation as a responsible regional stakeholder. India’s approach, on the other hand, is to cultivate trust, without coming across as baring its fangs in protection of interests. This might ultimately prove to be what allows New Delhi an upper hand over Islamabad in the long run in Afghanistan.
Priyanjali Simon is a freelance strategic analyst and holds a Master’s Degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (Karnataka).