November 04, 2011

India in Afghanistan

India and Afghanistan are not just neighbours, joined together by history and civilisational contacts stretching over the millennia, but also strategic partners. Our close relations are based on cultural affinities, the shared values of multiethnicity and pluralism and the common quest of our peoples for peace and development have ensured that the relationship between our two peoples remains warm and friendly. A prime example of India’s partnership with the people of Afghanistan is the construction of a 218-km road between Delaram in Afghanistan to Zaranj on Afghanistan’s border with Iran which began in 2005. The road was an ambitious project and would link up to the “garland” highway stretching all the way to Kabul. The road would be Afghanistan’s “lifeline” to Iran, giving the land-locked country an extra avenue to reach out.

Over the next few years, India and Afghanistan totted up a grim statistic: roughly one human life was lost to Taliban attacks for every 1.5 km of road built. But when Pranab Mukherjee, then External Affairs Minister, handed over the road to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in January 2009, India kept the faith with almost a dozen Indians and 130 Afghans who sacrificed their lives during the project.

It was the strongest testimony to India’s commitment to helping Afghanistan find its feet after decades of being battered by war.

With the fall of the Taliban regime, India immediately reached out to the friendly people of Afghanistan involving itself with its civilian prowess: helping Afghanistan reconstruct itself, rebuild its shattered economy, infrastructure and institutions, help Afghans find a place for themselves, free of externally-imposed extremist religious ideology. As a large, diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic country with a millennia-old ethos of tolerance, India supported the Afghans in making their own religious, social and economic choices.

Over the years, India has become the sixth largest donor in Afghanistan, with a bilateral assistance programme of $1.3 billion. The bottomline for Indian projects is that they have to benefit the common man, and benefit all sections of the society.

Go to school, beat the hunger

The Indian assistance programme can be broadly classified into four categories. The first is humanitarian, which includes medical and food assistance. Among the first things that India sent to Afghanistan in the winter of 2001-2002, was protein-fortified biscuits. These were high-protein biscuits sent via the World Food Programme, which had the salutary effect of sending children, particularly girls, back to school in various parts of Afghanistan, because these biscuits provide children the necessary nutrients to prevent short-term hunger and encourage school attendance.

Every day, over 2 million children get a supply of 100 gms of these fortified biscuits under the WFP’s School Feeding Programme. It started, ironically, with a resource crunch by the WFP - India suggested converting its wheat donation into high-protein biscuits. It was done by an Indian biscuit company, and started a trend. By 2008-09, 32,000 tons of biscuits were supplied to children in 33 out of 34 provinces in the country.

In January 2009, as Afghanistan battled with a food crisis, India announced assistance of 250,000 metric tons of wheat, of which 150,000 tons would add to Afghanistan’s strategic reserves. The grain could not be transported overland through Pakistan because of that country’s intransigence, even in a humanitarian matter of this nature. Transportation proved to be a logistics nightmare, because the only alternate route would have involved movement by sea to Iran and then overland to Afghanistan, by the same road that India built.

Foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao elaborated on the rationale behind India’s assistance to Afghanistan. “India is engaged in developmental and humanitarian work to assist the Afghan people as they build a peaceful, stable, inclusive, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan. The landscape of destruction must change. India neither sees Afghanistan as a battleground for competing national interests nor assistance to Afghan reconstruction and development as a zero sum game.”

It is an important statement, because India’s efforts in Afghanistan are not aimed at undermining anybody. The bottomline for India’s involvement remains the fact that India considers extremist ideologies to be very dangerous and a national security threat. To that extent, India wants to utilize its development programme in Afghanistan to (deny such ideologies space to grow) help Afghanistan stabilize and emerge as an economic hub linking South and Central Asia through a network of trade and transit linkages that would benefit the people of the entire region.

Humanitarian Assistance

In 2002, when Afghanistan was still in the throes of war, India had rushed across 13 doctors and paramedics, which went on to give artificial limbs to war-wounded and landmine victims throughout Afghanistan. Since then, 5 Indian medical missions have been at work in Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif attending to patients and giving out medicines to over 30,000 patients every month. They target the poorest sections of society, even as they facilitate those better off to make the trek to India for further, more sophisticated treatment. In 2009, over 310,000 Afghans, particularly women and children have trekked long distances to avail of free medical treatment.

The Indira Gandhi Institute for Child Health (IGICH) in Kabul is a unique treasure - the largest pediatric hospital in Afghanistan. With a three-storied surgical block (completed in 2005), a polyclinic and now a diagnostic block with CT scan and MRI facilities, this is an important part of Kabul’s health infrastructure. To the extent that Kabul doctors (many being trained by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences) actually asked Indian engineers to change the colour of the walls from the standard issue pale green to a bright and happy pink!

Security imperatives

Foreign Secretary Rao stressed the security imperatives that underline India’s development assistance in Afghanistan. “The security of Afghanistan and what happens there impacts us, as a country in the region, as a close neighbour whose ties with the Afghan people stretch into antiquity. A stable and settled Afghanistan, where the rank and file of the Taliban has given up violence against the government, and the people, cut all links with terrorism, subscribe to the values of the Afghan Constitution and its laws, and where development is the hard rationale, is what we seek and quest for. It is important also that for such a structure to be durable and enduring, Afghanistan’s neighbours, and regional partners, will need to be in the picture – both by consultation and by adherence to the principle of non-interference in the country’s affairs, ensuring that it thrives as a trade and transit hub for the region, and by eradicating transnational terrorism.”

Underlining the Indian presence is India’s strong political partnership with the Afghan government. India has stood solidly behind the government, undertaking its development projects only in consultation with the Government and as per the wishes of its people. India is convinced that Afghans understand their nation and future best.

Roads to a better future

The Zaranj-Delaram highway will be a true logistical boon when it connects up to the Chahbahar port in Iran. That will give Afghanistan a shorter access to the sea, increase its attractiveness as a trade and transit hub as well.

But quite apart from the highway, Indian teams have built 58 km of inner-city roads, 40 km in Zaranj, 10 km in Gurguri and 8 km connecting Gurguri to Razai.

The road building itself was a huge exercise in logistics: 339 engineers and workers from India and many more in Afghanistan were involved. But they kept costs down – the project cost a mere $150 million.

As a result of the highway, land prices there have gone up now, while the population of Zaranj town increased from 55,000 in 2004 to over 100,000 today. Buses and taxis are always on the road, and the journey, which was comparable to a bone-crushing ride of over 12 hours, now takes barely more than a couple of hours. Trucks and containers are the heaviest users, as was expected, averaging over 50 trucks a day, which also means higher customs revenues at Zaranj.

As External Affairs Minister S.M Krishna said in January, “Afghanistan should emerge as a trade, transportation and energy hub linking together the countries of the region, from Central to South Asia. Unfettered transit and transport linkages between Afghanistan and the countries of SCO and SAARC could provide larger markets for Afghan products. Growing economic interdependence could catalyze peace and prosperity in the region at large and in Afghanistan in particular.”

Powering lives

In 2005, India began construction of an ambitious project – a 220 KV double circuit transmission line (202 km) from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a sub-station in Chimtala near Kabul. The line traversed heavily snowed-in areas and passes over the Salang range at a height of 4000 m. The project had been turned down as being too difficult by other countries, but it took intrepid engineers from India to step up to the task. Kabul was lit up with electricity from Uzbekistan with this project in summer of 2009. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna said, “This is an outstanding example of regional and international cooperation in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, after being requested by the Afghan government, India started construction of the Salma Dam Power project on river Hari Rud east of Herat. This will be commissioned in 2011 and will provide 42 MW electricity.

After the presidential elections of 2004, the Afghan constitution struck roots and the need was felt to build a parliament building that would be the expression of Afghan’s democratic processes. In 2005, Zahir Shah, Baba-e-Millat laid the foundation stone of the building. Among the art that will decorate the building will be examples of Gandhara school of Buddhist art, emphasizing Afghanistan’s ancient historical moorings. The design was approved by Afghan designers, but the contours are clear: the Kabul building, unlike the one in Delhi, the Kabul building will have three blocks, housing two houses of parliament and a secretariat.

The Wolesi and Meshrano Jirgas have maintained regular contacts with the Indian parliament, while officials are being trained in India’s Bureau of Parliamentary Study and Training.

In fact, as India’s cooperation with Afghanistan matures, India is now turning to assist building institutions within the country. For instance, the Afghan Election Commission has regular exchanges, studies etc with the Indian Election Commission.

With the people, by the people

The most innovative assistance projects by India are not the big dams or highways. Its the “small and community-based development projects” or SDPs that India has spread out across some of the worst militancy-affected districts in Afghanistan.

Started in 2005, these are small-scale, quick-impact projects in sectors like agriculture, rural development, education, health, vocational training, with budgets of less than $1 million. This is how they work: let’s say, a village wants a school building, or five tube wells, or a small bridge. These projects are based on what the local people want and often executed by local contractors. India funds them and provides technical assistance. This means development initiatives are organic and villagers take ownership of both conception, and execution.

These are designed as quick-impact projects typically taking not more than between 6-12 months. Most of these projects have been undertaken in the provinces worst hit by terrorist violence - Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nimroz, Nooristan, Badakshan, Balkh and Kandahar.

The first Mughal emperor Babur’s tomb in Kabul is a special tourist draw. India responded to requests from two specific NGO-supported projects each catering to different socio-economic needs.

With the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, India is contributing to renegeration of Murad Khane, the oldest surviving part of the historic city on the north bank of the Kabul river. It is a unique effort to preserve Afghanistan’s past because this area contains some of the finest surviving 18th and 19th century homes in Kabul, including the Ziarat of Abu Fazl. This should not only help to preserve Afghan history and culture but also provide avenues for income through tourism.

In Balkh, India is sharing its best practices in micro-finance though self-help groups, which is helping to mobilise rural people into common interest groups to promote savings and build entrepreneurship based on the experiences in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh. At the end of the project period, over 75000 people should have been mobilised and 15,000 jobs created.

SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), India’s largest union of self-employed women is imparting vocational training to 1000 women in the Community Learning and Business Resource Centre at Bagh-e-Zanana in Kabul.

Most of the women being trained are war widows, illiterate and destitute. They are being trained in making garments, embroidery, building nurseries, plantations, greenhouse plants and food processing. Interestingly they are being trained, not by Indians, but by 32 Afghan master trainers who have been trained by SEWA.

Since 2007, Indian civil servants have been deputed to Afghan government departments to assist in capacity building of professional bureaucratic skills in public administration. They guide and develop training modules for Afghan administrators - they neither advise nor perform line functions - thereby maintaining India’s resolve that the development be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. India has also conveyed its strong support to deputing Indian experts as part of UNDP’s National Institution Building Project in Afghanistan (NIBP).

Continue support

In April, 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Afghan President Karzai that India was “ready to augment its assistance for capacity building and for skills and human resources development to help strengthen public institutions in Afghanistan.”

In January, 2010, at the London Conference, External Affairs Minister Krishna announced India would provide 100 fellowships “every year for the next five years for Afghans to pursue Masters and PhD programmes in Indian universities (in agriculture studies). We will also support sending 200 fresh students to India each year, for five years, for degree programmes in agriculture and related areas.”

India is now a favoured destination for Afghan students, which is helped by Indian assistance towards Afghan capacity building. More than 1300 scholarships under the ITEC programme and the ICCR are being offered annually to Afghans in different disciplines for capacity building.

Hear Afghans say it (or sing it!)

It would be impossible to talk of India building equities in Afghanistan without acknowledging the influence of India’s music, films and TV soaps, which are quite popular in Afghanistan. It was the Amir Khan starrer Bollywood blockbuster, Lagaan, that a post-war Afghanistan asked for. India shipped over numerous copies of the movie which restarted Afghanistan’s love affair with India’s films and then moved over to Indian soap operas. The Afghan version of the wildly popular TV reality show, American Idol, has Afghan participants singing Hindi songs!

In November 2009, Gallup Survey polled Afghans for their opinions on a variety of subjects, but what was most revealing was how Afghans saw the world. India is by far the most popular country in Afghanistan. More recently, another opinion poll commissioned by the BBC, ABC and ARD found that India had the highest cache across all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. India topped the list of countries viewed favourably by Afghans at 71% outstripping other countries and organizations

Security imperative for development

As analysts see it, India at present provides the crucial second tier of a counter-insurgency strategy of “clear, hold, build and transfer,” with India providing the last two. But all of this is being done at India’s own expense, without being part of an international consortium, and within India’s means. India reckons this will be the most important facets of rebuilding Afghanistan, and better integration with SAARC.

Ultimately, of course, this development can only bear fruit if the international community adequately assists the Afghans in addressing the challenge of security and stability. The principal problem here is that Taliban are coming from an unending well of militants, funded, armed and given sanctuary outside Afghanistan. That’s the core problem that the world needs to address.

EAM Krishna put it most succinctly - “For Afghanistan’s stabilisation it is essential for the neighbouring and regional countries to ensure that support, sustenance and sanctuaries for terrorist organisations is ended forthwith.”


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