India's Economic Interests In Afghanistan

India's Economic Interests In Afghanistan
In the first week of this month, Taliban attacked and took control of the outer check posts at Salma Dam in Western Heart Province of Afghanistan—a dam that was constructed by India in 2016 as part of more than $3 billion development assistance to the war-torn country. “At least 16 security personnel were killed in an attack by the Taliban on a security checkpoint at the Salma Dam in western Herat province. Salma dam located on the Hari River in the Chishti Sharif District of Herat Province in western Afghanistan was attacked on Sunday night by the Taliban," reads a report in Indian media. “Taliban militants have fired dozens of mortars on the Salma Dam, a major source of electricity and irrigation in the Chesht district of Herat province in Afghanistan.”

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi had jointly inaugurated the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam) with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani at Chist-e-Sharif in Herat province in Western Afghanistan in June 2016”.

The Indian media reported that Salma Dam was a landmark infrastructure project undertaken by the government of India on river Hari Rud in Herat province. The project was executed and implemented by WAPCOS Ltd, a government of India undertaking under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

“In 2005, India funded the project and the Indian water and energy company was then commissioned to complete the dam. In December 2015, the Indian government approved an estimated cost of about $290 million for the dam. It is the largest project of the Afghan government in the last 20 years”.

India has a visible footprint on the Afghan soil in the form of $3 billion developmental assistance to the war torn country. Indian officials waste no opportunity to remind the world that it had made a large scale investment in the future of Afghanistan by generously investing in development projects across the South Western country with which it had no land link, “No part of Afghanistan today is untouched by the 400-plus projects that India has undertaken in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces” said Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar while addressing a conference in Geneva.

Two other major development projects completed by Indian government indicate its desire and intentions for a long term plan in Afghanistan.

“Zaranj-Delaram highway built by the Border Roads Organisation. Zaranj is located close to Afghanistan’s border with Iran. The $150-million highway is of strategic importance to New Delhi, as it provides an alternative route into landlocked Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port. Jaishankar told the November 2020 Geneva Conference that India had transported 75,000 tonnes of wheat through Chabahar to Afghanistan during the pandemic. The second major project, the building of Afghan parliament has been dubbed by Indian Prime Minister Modi as India’s tribute to Afghan democracy. Indian invested $90 million in the project. During the period of US presence in Afghanistan India-Afghanistan trade reached $1.3 billion mark. The balance of trade is heavily tilted in favour of India — exports from India are worth approximately $900 million, while Afghanistan’s exports to India are about $500 million.

This was the story of Indian investment in Afghanistan till the time US military presence in the country ensured everything was hunky and dory for India. With the signing of a peace deal between the US Administration and Afghan Taliban for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, India ran out of luck. There was a palpable sense of betrayal felt among Indian strategic community in New Delhi. There were voices in New Delhi who were now predicting that a situation might arise where India would not even have a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, what to talk about developmental footprint.

US officialdom started to project India as a major player in post-withdrawal Afghanistan—an act which increased nervousness among the Pakistan security establishment. But soon there arrived a time for India to be more nervous when the Taliban started their military advances across Afghanistan. In case there is a civil war in the country, there is hardly any prospect for India to continue investment in Southern, Eastern and Western Afghanistan. In fact economic activity itself will take a plunge in the war torn country.

India started on a two pronged strategy in this situation: firstly, it started negotiations with the Taliban groups. Many strategic thinkers in New Delhi were silently advising Indian government since signing of the peace agreement that it should start talks with the Taliban. In early June, the Indian media reported that New Delhi has started talking to certain factions and leaders of the armed group. A few days later, India’s Ministry of External Affairs confirmed these reports, when he publicly said “we are in touch with various stakeholders … in pursuance of our long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction of Afghanistan”.

The second prong of Indian strategy is to make itself heard on every forum across the world that would be organised to discuss Afghanistan. This started with the meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on Afghanistan was one such forum where India made its presence felt. There is all likelihood that India diplomacy will be proactive as far as forums related to Afghan situation are concerned.

But this will hardly solve India’s problems: US withdrawal will leave India without a powerful mentor in Afghanistan, its traditional allies like Iran and Russian—which were bound with India by their common animosity towards Taliban and Pakistan—are sending different vibes towards Pakistan and Taliban. A big debacle for India in Afghanistan will force Indian strategic community to rethink India’s too much reliance on Super power, since BJP came to power in New Delhi, for its regional strategy. Emerging situation in Afghanistan may become a factor in future India-US strategic ties.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.