As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan continues to diminish, Kabul is bolstering regional alliances to shore up its security and economic future.
That would explain Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s four-day visit to India that ends on December 15 and comes after recent meetings with neighbors Pakistan and Iran.
New Delhi has poured billions of dollars into the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan and trained hundreds of Afghan officers. And Karzai is expected to plead for further assistance, including lethal military hardware, during his trip.
But any expanded Indian role in Afghanistan after the drawdown of international forces next year will set off alarm bells in neighboring Pakistan, which is already suspicious of New Delhi’s activities in the country.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says as a regional military and economic power, New Delhi can play a key role in terms of regional security and developing Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy.
Kugelman says New Delhi has a long-term stake in Afghanistan: countering the influence of archrival Pakistan while exploring trade and business opportunities.
“India has a very strong stake in the Taliban not returning to power, and the Taliban having no influence or significance in any post-2014 dispensation," Kugelman says. "That’s because the Taliban and its allies are extremely hostile to India. In Afghanistan, India also has business interests in natural resources, particularly in the mining industry.”
India-educated Karzai has forged close ties with New Delhi. The two sides signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2011 and are expected to deepen their military, economic, and political ties.
Karzai, a frequent visitor to India, is expected to use his trip to push for progress on a “wish list” of military equipment he handed New Delhi in May. Afghan officials have said they want tanks and heavy artillery to boost land-based firepower and helicopters and jets to bolster air capabilities.
But India has so far stopped short of sending lethal weapons. Instead, it has increased its training of Afghan officers and its flow of nonlethal military equipment.
Kugelman says New Delhi is treading carefully for fear of being drawn deeper into the Afghan conflict and because it does not want to provoke Pakistan, which he says could use anti-India militant groups inside Afghanistan to target Indians.
"India is very sensitive to the fact that Pakistan is extremely concerned about any role or any activities India has in Afghanistan," Kugelman says. "The idea of India providing huge weapons to Afghanistan would certainly not go down well in Islamabad. As much as it would like to support the Afghan security forces more, India draws the line in those cases."
Pakistan And 'Certain Groups'
Afghanistan has long been a geopolitical playground for India and Pakistan. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, India supported the Kabul regime while Islamabad provided arms and training to the opposition. During the 1990s, India funded the Northern Alliance which was waging war against Pakistan’s proxy, the Taliban.
Shamila Chaudhary, a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, says fears of Indian influence in Afghanistan run deep within Pakistan’s security establishment.
“Whatever the Indian presence in Afghanistan is gets translated in Pakistan into this fear of encirclement," Chaudhary says. "Because of that, Pakistan thinks, 'We must support certain Afghan groups, we should make sure the government in Kabul is not too pro-India, and indirectly support groups that can, if need be, conduct violence against Indians in Afghanistan.'"
New Delhi's expansive diplomacy in Afghanistan has already been the target of attacks. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been bombed twice in the past 12 years, and earlier this year, the Indian consulate in the eastern city of Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border, was hit by suicide bombers. Kabul has accused Pakistani-based groups of involvement in the incidents.
While India might be reluctant to expand its military footprint in Afghanistan, it has been keen to increase its economic links and help Afghanistan’s economic integration with the rest of South Asia.
New Delhi recently accelerated development of the Chabahar port in southeast Iran -- a move that could have significant geopolitical ramifications in the region.
The project would lessen Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan and allow India to open up a sea route to landlocked Afghanistan. New Delhi would also get access to the oil-rich Central Asian republics.
New Delhi has committed $200 million in upgrading facilitates at the port and building a 220 kilometer road linking western Afghanistan to Chabadar. Afghan and Indian officials are expected to sign an agreement to develop the port during Karzai’s trip to New Delhi.
The Chabahar port would rival the Gwadar port in Pakistan that is being currently developed by China, India's regional rival. The two ports, in fact, would be less than 80 kilometers apart.
Kugelman says the project could be crucial to Afghanistan's stability and economic future.
"If it's constructed, it would certainly increase Afghanistan’s trade possibilities," Kugelman says. "When you're talking about Afghanistan after 2014, you need to also talk about economic progress because without more development it's going to be hard in the long term to have security."