Afghanistan exported $1 billion worth of drugs last year. In contrast, its pomegranate exports amounted to only $1 million. Poppies or pomegranates, the Afghan farmers who grow them earn around the same amount of money — around $2,000 per hectare every year. If somehow they could be made to grow a lot more pomegranates, and a lot less poppy, Afghanistan, India and the world would be a much better place.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
That’s because growing pomegranates and other legitimate cash crops requires water, electricity and, most importantly, access to foreign markets. Now, much of the international assistance flowing into Afghanistan aims to build and repair dams and connect villages to the electricity network. India, for instance, is financing irrigation projects in north-west Afghanistan and power projects in Herat and Kabul.
But the one Indian project that could transform Afghanistan’s economic landscape is the just completed 218km road link connecting the town of Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj, adjacent to the border with Iran. From there, Iranian roads run to the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf. This will be Afghanistan’s fastest overland route to the sea. Last year, because they had to be flown, only 1,000 of the 40,000 tonnes of Afghan pomegranates made it to markets in India, Dubai, Singapore and Pakistan. With the new road, Afghan farmers can export a larger fraction of their produce to the rapidly expanding Indian market. The competition from this route will compel Pakistan to review its policy of throttling the Afghan transit trade. In time, the Zaranj-Delaram road can be expanded into a trade and energy corridor that connects landlocked Central Asia to Indian and global markets.
This sounds wonderful, and it is. The problem, however, is that its success hinges on two key factors: on Afghanistan’s stability and on the nature of relations between India, Iran and the US.
Unless there is an increase in the number of troops battling the resurgent Taliban, Afghanistan’s stability will go into a downward spiral. There is increasing awareness in Washington that the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre needs additional resources. But the US will be hard pressed to find them as long as it remains engaged in Iraq. Meanwhile, despite the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) being in command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), its member countries have neither been willing to increase their troop levels, nor, indeed, to allow their troops to engage in combat. The Afghan National Army is now around 80,000 strong, but it will be some time before it can emerge as a decisive force on the ground.
So far India’s military presence has been limited to around 400 troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). These troops are primarily tasked with protecting Indian nationals engaged in reconstruction efforts. Even they were supposed to pull out after the completion of the Zaranj-Delaram road. The suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul last month may have changed these plans, but the fact remains that India’s military presence is way too small to meaningfully secure the barest minimum of its interests. Pakistan remains committed to neutralizing Indian development initiatives. And along with China, it is unlikely to want the Zaranj-Delaram road to be too successful. The Taliban could either attempt to destroy it or control it. At stake is not just the $750 million that India is spending in Afghanistan. At stake is India’s ability to keep Afghanistan open and safe for bilateral trade and private investment.
If the international troops battling the Taliban are already stretched, they will face an additional challenge next year as Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections. It will be a major setback if the Taliban successfully undermine the electoral process. Even as the West considers increasing troop levels, India can make a major difference by sending combat troops to Afghanistan. Force levels must be carefully calibrated — to secure Indian interests, without being perceived as an “occupying” force. Such a mission will have three broad mandates: to safeguard trade routes, to secure Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and to prevent an unfavourable balance of power in the country.
The 1990s bear testimony to the cost of allowing Afghanistan to fall under the Pakistani army’s baleful influence. The Pakistani army, according to Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood, continues to think that the Taliban can be used as frontline options against US troops along the Durand Line, just as it uses other jihadis against the Indian army. Faced with the prospect of the Indian military presence releasing the US troops to take on the Taliban across the Durand Line, the Pakistani army will be forced to rethink this approach. More importantly, boosting troop levels is a very good way of signalling New Delhi’s commitment to not allowing a repeat of the 1990s.
For sure, India has an enormous store of goodwill among the Afghan population. It has been argued that this will be dissipated if India were to bolster its military presence. That need not be the case, not least if troop levels, deployment locations, duration and missions are well thought out.
A stronger military presence in Afghanistan will complement India’s air base in Farkhor, across the border in Tajikistan. Even as the US and Nato have joined Russia, China and Iran in shaping the balance of power in Central Asia, India cannot afford to be a mere bystander. Despite the fervent hopes of its advocates, mere “soft power” is unlikely to be sufficient to secure India’s interests in the region.
Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh are associated with Pragati — The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org