As the Taliban takes over Afghanistan following the exit of the United States and the NATO forces from the country, all those who worked for remaking Afghanistan for the last two decades are in a major conundrum. This includes not just NATO collaborators of the US, but also India.
India and Kabul had been sharing strong economic and trade links, however, the Taliban crisis has left India's investments in Afghanistan in limbo.
India's prime interest in Afghanistan has been its significance for regional connectivity. The whole concept of the New Silk Road Strategy was to link Central Asia and South Asia (especially India) via Afghanistan through trade, transit and energy routes. From the Indian side, among many, investments at the Chabahar port in Iran and the Zaranj-Delaram Road in Afghanistan were part of this strategy.
Taking note of what India invested in Afghanistan, India has taken an active role in constructing vital roads, dams, electricity transmission lines and substations along with schools and hospitals in Afghanistan. India’s development aid is now estimated to be worth over $3 billion. A strategic partnership agreement committed to rebuilding Afghanistan was taken up by India in 2011. The agreement enacted Indian support to help restore infrastructure and institutions, education and technical assistance for capacity-building in many areas while encouraging investment in Afghanistan. The assistance was purposed to create an "institutional framework" so that India could help in Afghan "capacity building" in the areas of education, development and people-to-people contacts while also providing duty-free access to the Indian markets.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had in the Afghanistan conference in Geneva in November 2020 stated that no part of Afghanistan has been left untouched by more than 400 projects that India had undertaken across all the provinces of the country. However, now with the Taliban insurgency, the fate of these projects seems bleak.
The Afghan Parliament in Kabul was built by India with an estimated cost of $90 million. It became operational in 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated the building. PM Modi had described the building as India’s tribute to democracy in Afghanistan. Eminently, a block in the building had been named after former PM Vajpayee.
Another significant project was the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram highway built by the Border Roads Organisation. Zaranj is located close to Afghanistan’s border with Iran. The $150-million highway goes along the Khash Rud river to Delaram to the northeast of Zaranj, where it connects to a ring road that links Kandahar in the south, Ghazni and Kabul in the east, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, and Herat in the west. With Pakistan denying India overland access for trade with Afghanistan, the highway is of strategic importance to India, as it provides an alternative route into landlocked Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port. India had transported 75,000 tonnes of wheat through Chabahar to Afghanistan during the pandemic. Among the 300 Indian engineers and workers who worked alongside Afghans to build the road, 11 Indians and 129 Afghans lost their lives during the construction in incidents of terrorist attacks and accidents, the MEA had stated.
A significant contribution of India in Afghanistan includes the revamp of power infrastructure such as the 220kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri, capital of Baghlan province to the north of Kabul, to increase electricity supply to the capital. Notably, Indian entrepreneurs and mechanics restored telecommunications systems in the provinces.
A children’s hospital India had helped build in Kabul in 1972 named Indira Gandhi Institute for Child Health was rebuilt in 1985. Indian missions dedicated to medical assistance had held free consultation camps. Victims who lost their limbs after stepping on leftover landmines of war were helped with the Jaipur Foot, an inexpensive, water-resistant, and quick to fit prosthetic limb. India has been instrumental in building clinics in the border provinces of Badakhshan, Balkh, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Nooristan, Paktia and Paktika.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated the revamped Stor Palace in Kabul in 2016. The monument was originally built in the late 19th century. The building had been used for official purposes of the Afghan Foreign Minister and the ministry until 1965. In 2009, India, Afghanistan, and the Aga Khan Development Network signed a tripartite agreement for its restoration. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture completed the project between 2013 and 2016.
Also noted as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, the hydropower and irrigation project was completed against all odds and was inaugurated in 2016. The Taliban during the past few weeks have launched several attacks in nearby areas, killing security personnel. The Taliban have claimed the area around the dam under their control now.
India had gifted 400 buses and 200 mini-buses to Afghanistan for public transportation. A total of 105 utility vehicles for municipalities, 285 military vehicles for the Afghan Army, and 10 ambulances for public hospitals in five cities were also provided by India. Afghan national carrier Ariana had also received three Air India aircraft when it had restarted its operations.
India at the 2020 Geneva conference had declared that they had set an agreement with Afghanistan for the construction of the Shatoot Dam in the Kabul district. The dam was supposed to provide safe drinking water to 2 million residents. EAM S Jaishankar had also announced the start of some 100 community development projects worth $80 million at the conference.
Meanwhile, last year, India had pledged $1 million for another Aga Khan heritage project, the restoration of the Bala Hissar Fort south of Kabul, whose origins go back to the 6th century. Bala Hissar went on to become a significant Mughal fort, parts of it were rebuilt by Jahangir, and it was used as a residence by Shah Jahan.
Despite Pakistan's denial of an overland route, the India-Afghanistan trade had increased with the establishment in 2017 of an air freight corridor. In 2019-20, bilateral trade crossed $1.3 billion, Afghan government officials had said in a recent interaction with Indian exporters in Mumbai. As per reports, exports from India are worth approximately $900 million, while Afghanistan’s exports to India are about $500 million. Afghanistan exports mainly fresh and dried fruit. Some of this comes overland through the Wagah border as Pakistan has permitted Afghan trade with India through its territory. Indian exports to Afghanistan take place mainly through government-to-government contracts with Indian companies. Exports include pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, computers and related materials, cement, and sugar.
On the other hand, India had contributed furniture for schools and built solar panels in remote villages, and Sulabh toilet blocks in Kabul. New Delhi has also played a role in building capacity, with vocational training institutes, scholarships to Afghan students, mentoring programmes in the civil service, and training for doctors and others.
As the Taliban surge continues in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen what the country's outlook will be towards India's investments and years of assistance.
(Image Credits : AP/@pradeepshetty26/@JananMosazai/@AkbaruddinIndia)