South Asia

Brussels Conference is India’s Chance to Assert Role in Future of Afghanistan

As international fatigue over the Afghan project grows, the US is looking for new partners in the region, giving India an opportunity to rise to the challenge.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

A major international conference on Afghanistan will take place in Brussels today (October 5), jointly hosted by the EU and the government of Afghanistan. Apart from top members of the Afghan and EU leadership, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, US secretary of state John Kerry, and representatives from 70 countries and 20 international organisations are expected to participate. The main objective of the meeting is to endorse the Afghan government’s reform programme, and ensure continued political and financial support over the next four years.

As the Afghanistan project is a joint international effort, these international conferences have played an important role in bringing all major players together periodically to renew their commitment. In the past, these meetings have also provided a platform to build a common agreed strategy for every new phase of the project.

After the fall of the Taliban, the first such conference took place in Bonn under the guidance of the UN in 2001. The Bonn Agreement charted the roadmap for transformation of the county into a democratic state. This led to the establishment of an interim administration under Hamid Karzai, which guided the process of presidential and parliamentary elections. In 2002, international donors gathered in Tokyo and pledged about $4.5 billion for the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. After a decade of the first major conference, the second follow up conference was organised by Germany in Bonn in 2011.

At the Tokyo conference in 2012, donors agreed to provide $16 billion until the end of 2016. Besides, a mutual accountability framework was also agreed on. This support was to be provided against concrete progress on reforms by Afghanistan. At the 2014 London conference, the Afghan government outlined its reform vision. The Brussels conference is a continuation of the same process. Earlier this year at the NATO summit in Warsaw, members agreed to provide $5 billion a year to Afghan National Security Forces till 2020.

Regional support

The Brussels conference is taking place at a time when there is international fatigue about Afghan project. The security situation in Afghanistan has also deteriorated further. In the last few conferences, the major focus was on two themes – reconciliation and regional cooperation. It was thought that success in these areas will take Afghanistan towards political stability and prosperity. Although an agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami has been signed, the overall peace process with the Taliban is in disarray. With increasing tensions between Kabul and Islamabad as well as between India and Pakistan, regional economic integration looks like a distant dream.

India is likely to build on announcements already made during Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to New Delhi. An additional $1 billion commitment has just been accounted for Afghanistan. This is over and above $2 billion already spent on projects covering roads, power transmission lines, hydroelectricity, parliament building, agriculture, telecommunications, education, health, and capacity building. Every year 1500 Afghan students come to India on fellowships. Another 500 training slots are provided to officials.

As Afghanistan ultimately has to stand on its own feet, trade and connectivity will prove more important than unsustainable foreign-funded development projects. Precisely for this reason, a major side event in Brussels will focus on regional integration, a favourite subject of the EU. For a regional cooperation project to succeed, linkages with the Indian economy are crucial. Last year, bilateral trade was $835 million with more than $300 million exports from Afghanistan to India. The main import items from Afghanistan were fruits, nuts and asafetida. For many years, India is the number one export market for Afghan products. As a result, Kabul is very keen for Pakistan to allow two-way traffic for India-Afghanistan trade.

Recently, when Pakistan closed the only land route for Afghan products destined for India, New Delhi helped Afghanistan airlift fresh fruits to India. This trade is so crucial for Kabul that Ghani is reported to have even warned Pakistan that if they do not allow Afghan imports and exports to India to cross their territory, Pakistan’s transit route through Afghanistan to Central Asia will be closed. The expeditious implementation of the Afghanistan-India-Iran agreement on converting the Chabahar port into a transit hub will also help Kabul to reduce its dependence on Karachi port.

Security concerns

As per the US’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, the Afghan government lost 5% of its territory to the Taliban between January and May this year. Similarly, according to the UN secretary general’s latest report to the security council, between May 20 and August 15, there was that 5,996 security incidents and 268 assassinations recorded in the country. During this period, the Taliban challenged government control in key districts of Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhar provinces in the north-eastern region; Faryab and Jawzjan provinces in the northern region; and Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces in the southern region. They tried to capture district administrative centres and cut key supply routes.

Although the security situation is serious, it is not worse than many projected before major troop withdrawals in 2014. As immediate Afghan concerns are related to security, India has also started to increase its defence cooperation. At the moment, about 800 Afghan soldiers are trained at different defence establishments in India every year. This number can be increased significantly. Although no official announcement has been made, some more military equipment from India could be in the pipeline.

Opportunities ahead

Overall, the Brussels meeting is important for Afghanistan to secure financial and political commitments for the next few years. The donors are expected to pledge about $3 billion a year till 2020. Some have pushed for political and electoral reforms, which may help the National Unity Government in Kabul complete its full term. The timing, however, is not very favourable.

The EU itself is grappling with major a refugee crises and the Brexit. After Syria, the Afghans are now the second largest group of asylum seekers in the EU; last year alone, close to 200,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe. According to a leaked report, the EU may try to push around 80,000 refugees back into Afghanistan in return for financial aid. Ahead of the conference, the EU and Kabul signed a political agreement to tackle irregular migration. But acknowledging that the security situation is worsening and still expecting refugees to go back to Afghanistan is not a reasonable argument.

After sacrificing 2,300 lives and $800 billion, the Americans are also looking for new partners and ideas. The meeting could be an opportunity for India to assert its increasing importance in Afghan affairs. In the prevailing negative discourse on Afghanistan in Europe, Indian experts and think tanks can also help in changing the narrative towards a positive outcome.

Gulshan Sachdeva is a professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Between 2006 and 2010, he headed the ADB and the Asia Foundation projects at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul.