Soon after 9/11, India decided to open four consulates in Afghanistan, of which three—in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat—were to be located in the southern and eastern provinces neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, while the fourth, in Mazar-e-Sharif, would border Uzbekistan in the north. The idea was to reclaim the historical relationship between Delhi and Kabul dating back to when Mahmud of Ghazni defeated the Hindu king Jayapala one thousand years ago.
And then the Americans threw a spanner in the works. The Pakistanis, the Americans told Delhi, were upset that India was seeking to re-establish its presence in such a big way in southern and eastern Afghanistan, an area they considered part of their own, that is Pakistan’s, sphere of influence. Washington, then, requested India to reconsider its decision to open its consulates in these parts.
Of course, Delhi didn’t listen. India and the US were at the time in the throes of their strategic talks, post-Pokhran, between then foreign minister Jaswant Singh and then deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, and neither side wanted to make too big a deal of the request and the refusal.
The fact is that Afghanistan has always been such a lucrative prize, as it sits on the crossroads of both geography and strategy, between gas- and mineral-rich Central Asia, on the one hand, and India, on the other. This is the original Great Game territory, where passions of empire run high and are generally considered worth the risk.
V. Venkateshwara Rao, the first Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer ever to have died in the line of duty, from a suicide bomb attack in front of the Indian embassy in Kabul earlier this week, must have known all this. The son of a retired employee in Andhra Pradesh’s medical and health department, Rao was writing a thesis on “India’s relations with South Asian countries” when he decided to join the IFS 18 years ago. Of his five postings abroad, he had already served in three neighbouring capitals, Colombo, Kathmandu and finally Kabul.
So even as the inquiries and post-mortems into the failure of intelligence that resulted in Rao’s death—and alongside him, of the deaths of Brigadier R.D. Mehta and two members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police—are launched, Afghanistan’s interior ministry has already hinted at Pakistan’s involvement in the blasts. “Terrorists have carried out this attack in coordination and consultation with some of the active intelligence circles in the region,” an Afghan official said.
The fact that Pakistan resents India’s growing presence in Afghanistan is not new. Much has been made of Pakistan’s loss of “strategic depth,” after the Americans bombed Afghanistan in November 2001 and threw the Taliban out. After all, Pakistan was only one of three countries—the others were the UAE and Saudi Arabia—to have recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. After the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in December 2001 carved up the restructuring duties in Afghanistan, India was allowed to undertake developmental projects, such as building of roads and repairing of bridges, training journalists and the Afghan police. Never once, in deference to Pakistani sensitivities, was Delhi asked to help train the Afghan army.
The low profile worked in India’s favour. The bazaars of Kabul were soon full of pirated Hindi movie CDs and local TV stations began to run Hindi serials like Kyunki saas bhi... with gusto. (When singer Sonu Nigam visited Kabul some years ago, so many Afghans got on to the stage to shake his hand, that the stage broke). Significantly, India began to build a 200km road from Zaranj to Delaram, which connected the southern Afghan provinces with Iran on the one hand, and towards central Afghanistan, on the other. The idea was to establish a sea-and-road route to Central Asia from India, via Iran, while circumventing Pakistan.
Electricity transmission lines from Kabul to the trading town of Pul-e-Khumri in central Afghanistan are well on their way to meeting deadlines, consignments of protein biscuits are said to be hugely welcome and Kabul’s renowned Habibia School (for girls too) has been restored with Indian aid. The short point here is that India transformed its post-9/11 mandate to promote development that would display its friendly face, spending about $750 million so far. So when the Islamists, very recently, “ordered” local TV stations to pull Indian television serials (like Kyunki...), because they were promoting un-Islamic values, the privately-owned TV station Tolo refused, point-blank. According to a Tolo TV spokesman, God-fearing Afghans did not wear their religion so superficially that they would lose it by watching “Hindu” television serials. At last count, India had 3,000 civilians working on several projects in Afghanistan, all of them wearing their “Indianness” like a talisman.
Rao didn’t deserve to die, but if his death has to have meaning, it is clear that India has no alternative but to keep faith in the historical relationship. The Afghans want India to stay. Delhi must find the nerve to hang in there.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Your comments are welcome at betweenthelines @ livemint.com
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