Afghanistan: India's Uncertain Road

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Sami Siva

Work continues on the Afghan parliament building, funded by India

From the fourth floor of an office building in Gurgaon, a northern Indian city of tangled highways, yammering call centers and wandering livestock, Sanjay Gupta plays a bit part in the Great Game. His company, C&C Constructions, first ventured into Afghanistan in 2002. It started with a road from Kandahar to Spin Boldak, and then another one from Kandahar to Kabul. Over the past eight years, C&C has built more than 700 km of roads — worth about $250 million — and has subcontracted with USAID, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. "It's good to see a country getting built," Gupta says. "We also feel we contributed."

C&C's grandest project is the $125 million, bronze-domed Afghan parliament building. Funded by the Indian government and scheduled to be finished at the end of 2011, it will be the most prominent symbol of Indian efforts to help Afghanistan. But it may also be, at least for the time being, one of the last sizable manifestations of India's $1.3 billion aid program. After a series of attacks targeting India's presence in Afghanistan — including bombings of the Indian embassy in 2008 and 2009 — India is scaling back. Pakistan resents India's presence in its backyard, and Indian companies like C&C fear they can no longer guarantee the safety of their workers. "There are elements who don't want the Indian presence there," says Gupta. "Maybe it's time to wind up."

Or maybe it's just the beginning of a regional power struggle. With the U.S. looking for an exit, India is trying to figure out what its role in Afghanistan's uncertain future will be. U.S. counterinsurgency strategy aims to "clear, hold, build and transfer" a stable Afghanistan back to its people. The Indian government hopes to aid the "build and transfer" part of that effort by helping to develop Afghanistan's infrastructure and institutions.

Whatever New Delhi does, it can expect truculent opposition from archrival Pakistan, which has long tried to influence what happens in Afghanistan, primarily to ensure that the country's power players are friendly to Islamabad. Its suspicion of India's regional intentions is plainly revealed in several cables released by WikiLeaks. In a September 2009 missive, Anne Patterson, then the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, wrote that a closer U.S.-India military relationship "feeds Pakistani establishment paranoia and pushes them closer to both Afghan and Kashmir-focused terrorist groups." In a cable describing a Feb. 16 meeting with U.S. Senator John Kerry, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is quoted saying that to gain Pakistan's trust India would have to "decrease its footprint in Afghanistan." Pakistan's press routinely accuses India of sending in spies in the guise of doctors and engineers, and Islamabad claims that India's four consulates are bases for espionage and for funneling aid to separatist rebels in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Pervez Musharraf, a former Pakistani President, is convinced New Delhi is responsible for providing insurgents with weapons. "The Afghans have nothing," he told Time, "so it must be the Indians."

Softly, Softly
The Indians deny those claims and counter that their presence in Afghanistan is actually quite small. There are no Indian troops in the country, other than paramilitary guards at the embassy and consulates. The number of Indian nationals in Afghanistan is fairly modest too: around 3,000. They work for companies like C&C, for international aid agencies or directly for the Indian government. Indians have built a 400-km power-transmission line that carries electricity to Kabul. They have also established field clinics, a midday-meal program for 2 million schoolchildren and a children's hospital, the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health. To New Delhi, this is all part of a long and evolving relationship with Afghanistan — what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls "enduring civilizational links."

Both countries fought for independence from Britain (won in 1919 in Afghanistan's case, 1947 in India's), and both at first tried to develop their rural economies using socialist central planning. India supported the Soviet-backed regime of Mohammed Najibullah, giving asylum to his family, as well as to thousands of other Afghan refugees, after he was executed by the Taliban in 1996. India then backed the Northern Alliance of mujahedin against the Taliban. Even when the Taliban won, India let the Northern Alliance maintain the only Afghan diplomatic mission in New Delhi. That has not been forgotten. In a region where so many great powers have come and gone, India has credibility as a country that sticks around. Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former member of the Taliban and a 2009 presidential candidate, believes that India, like Pakistan as well as Iran, "wants to play in the Afghan sandbox," but in the process "won't try to destroy Afghanistan."

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