The Afghan Story in the History of Indian Geopolitics

Understanding the rise and fall of development politics and long-term structural challenges in Afghanistan will provide an outline of how India can wield influence in a multipolar Central Asia.

Nari District, Afganistan. Credit: Ricardo's Photography/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Nari District, Afganistan. Credit: Ricardo’s Photography/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi jointly pressed the “start” button to the Salma Dam in northwestern Afghanistan with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, New Delhi’s development aid projects in Afghanistan were on a roll. Before his June 3 visit to the dam outside of Herat, Modi made a visit to Kabul last December to inaugurate the new Afghan parliament building. A few years earlier, Indian engineers completed a road connecting the southwestern corner of Afghanistan’s ring road with the Afghan-Iranian border at Zaranj.

Together, projects like these have made India the fifth largest donor to Afghanistan following the US, UK, Japan and Germany. They also help explain why Afghans are generally more sanguine about Indian power in the region than they are vis-à-vis the US or China. All of this makes for a congruence of interests between perennially “underdeveloped” Afghanistan and an India eager to secure access to energy and mineral resources in Afghanistan and Central Asia – all while minimising Pakistan’s ability to scuttle such an arrangement.

Yet the history of foreign powers seeking to bank development aid into geopolitical dividends in Afghanistan has a checkered history that Indians would do well to learn from. Afghanistan is, of course, well-known as the “graveyard of empires,” since it was there that not only British East Indian forces (staffed mostly by Indians) but also the Soviet Army and, later, NATO forces foundered as they sought to maintain a pliant client in Kabul.

But it would be more accurate to view Afghanistan as a “graveyard of development”. That’s because for much of its 20th century history, Afghanistan was defined less by wars with superpowers and more by its status as one of the largest recipients of international development aid in the world. Most of this aid came from the Soviet Union, but the US, Germany and, later, a menagerie of transnational humanitarian NGOs from Europe and the Arab World played pivotal roles in building – and in some cases, supplanting – an Afghan state that would be held responsible for “developing” the countryside.

The real paradox, then, is why in spite of nearly a century of attempts at nation-building, the Afghan state remains a perennial contender for top spot in the Failed States Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Here, history can provide a road map for events. In recent years, historians have toiled in archives to understand why “development” became such an appealing rhetoric for post-colonial governments to legitimise themselves. They have also sought to understand why development aid became such a common means of inter-state ties after the end of empire.

But understanding the rise and fall of development politics in Cold War Afghanistan matters for understanding India’s future, not just the region’s past. The challenges New Delhi faces are very much the inheritance of those that Soviet, American, and, not least, Afghan actors confronted decades earlier.

Pro-Soviet villagers in Afghanistan, 1983. Credit: Ebay

Pro-Soviet villagers in Afghanistan, 1983. Credit: eBay

Understanding those long-term structural challenges would help to manage expectations for India’s role in the region. They also provide an outline of how India can wield influence in a multipolar Central Asian arena. What emerges from such an overview of development politics in Cold War Afghanistan is an appreciation of the profound impact of partition on Afghanistan, as well as the foibles of development-driven diplomacy in the Hindu Kush.

Building up to the present

The interwar period and the second world war have to be our starting point for understanding India’s present predicaments vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Afghans gained their independence from the British Empire following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, and Kabul received diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union in the same year.

But independence also meant an end to annual subsidies from the British. Hence, Afghan elites toiled to reduce their economic dependence on Indian merchant houses based in Shikarpur. The Soviets detested these Indian overland networks and a Soviet trading newspaper noted in 1929 that “all of the financial operations in Herat [near the site of the Salma Dam today] are carried out by the money changers, most of whom are Hindus who finance the enterprises, make investments, and engage in usury”.

Other powers skeptical of the British-centric world order, such as the Germans, Italians and Japanese, also sent develop aid to Afghanistan into these years to turn it into a pressure point on the Raj. By the late 1930s, this aid and Kabul’s mercantilist trade policy had reduced the role of Indian merchants, but not the importance of Indian markets, which absorbed perhaps a third or more of Afghan exports.

Yet once partition cleaved the subcontinent in two in 1947, Afghanistan was cut off from these export markets. And when Afghan elites championed self-determination for the Pashtuns living in northwestern Pakistan, Pakistan placed an economic blockade on Afghanistan. This devastated not only Afghanistan but also the Afghan-Indian economic connections reconfigured over the previous two decades. From the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Indian imports as a percentage of total imports to Afghanistan fell by 80% owing to Islamabad’s de facto blockade of transit of Afghan goods to India.

Afghan elites might have preferred to stick with regional trading markets, but partition’s deleterious effect on regional trade forced Kabul to turn to the Soviets and the Americans to subsidise development projects and absorb imports. The Soviets improved north-south connections across the region, while American consultants brought Afghan merchants on tours of the new hubs of the global economy in Western Europe and East Asia. But the damage to regional integration had been done. During the 1960s, the Shah of Iran successfully mediated between Kabul and Islamabad to reopen trade and transit between the two countries. Yet, the latter remained opposed to the idea of allowing Afghan goods to transit directly to Indian markets.

Lessons from the past (or the lack thereof)

Sadly, that remains true today. Revisions to the Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement allow Afghan (and Central Asian) goods to get as far as Wagah or Karachi, but they have to be re-containeriSed to reach Indian markets. Indian investments in infrastructure in Iran are welcome, given New Delhi’s interest in diversifying its energy imports. However, such alternative trade routes between Afghanistan, Iran and India are likely to bolster the impression of New Delhi attempting to encircle Pakistan, decreasing the likelihood of a breakthrough on the more traditional (and less costly) overland transit of goods to India.

So here is the first lesson: even if India were not also competing with China for influence in the same space, it would still be working against deep disruptions to regional trade patterns that represent existential issues to Pakistan. Islamabad may never reopen the old overland Afghan-Indian corridors by its own will, but a growing Indian economy plus brute Chinese interest in allowing their goods to transit to India could change the equation for Pakistani decision-makers. Expectations should be accordingly tempered, with the benefits of the Iranian transit trade with Afghanistan – which may ultimately require India providing security to guard investments – assessed on their own merits rather than in terms of scoring points against Pakistan.

The pitfalls of a second moment, namely that of high developmental politics in Afghanistan, make this clear. Seeking to outflank one another in a world of decolonisation, the US and the Soviet Union gave generously to Kabul in the 1960s. The southern half of the ring road to which India has built a southwestern artery to Iran, for example, was built by the Americans in the 1950s as part of an effort to integrate Afghanistan’s economy with Pakistan via the highways on which the Taliban later sped into Kandahar. 

The Soviets, meanwhile built the northern half of the ring road and the world’s highest tunnel through the Salang Pass in an effort to improve trade between the southern borderlands of the USSR and Kabul. Then as now, engineers built large hydroelectric dams like those in Kajaki (the US) and Naghlu (the USSR) to electrify the countryside and water irrigation schemes downriver. Then as now, little heed was given to what this meant for water-sharing rights between downriver nations.

Yet by the early 1970s, as the US led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger devoted less attention to development and more to strategic bilateral alliances, the Afghan President Mohammad Daoud Khan sought to diversify the stakeholders in Afghanistan’s development. He suceeded. The Shah of Iran pledged a $2 billion aid package – more than Afghanistan had received from all other countries to that point – to build a trans-Afghanistan railroad and other projects. Daoud coaxed Indira Gandhi to agree to build the Salma Dam. Less significant but also present were Yugoslavia, Iraq and China although these endeavors were tabled following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Looking back, it can be easy to view this first developmental moment as a lost decade in Afghanistan’s history. However, it bears recalling that Afghan elites turned their country into a developmental laboratory only after partition foreclosed their first preference of trade and much more limited modernisation. And the developmental projects that were touted as game-changers for Soviet or American influence in the country often yielded opposite results. Soviet archives reveal that Soviet economists dramatically overestimated Afghanistan’s ability to pay back the credits that Moscow had extended to it, and only the timely discovery of gas fields in northwestern Afghanistan eventually allowed Kabul to do so.

Worse, developmental projects aimed at accelerating the transition to socialism did nothing of the sort. And when Afghan socialists did eventually seize power from Daoud in 1978, they turned out to be more interested in dragging the Soviet Union into a war with Pakistan over Pashtun self-determination than the democratisation of the means of production. Once the Soviets invaded the country, moreover, they found that the fields watered by the American and Soviet dams had turned into opium plantations – the result of overpopulation and the soils’ exhaustion and oversalinity, owing to a lack of appropriate fertilisers and draining.

Indian president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed with the Afghan ambassador in 1977. Credit: eBay

Indian president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed with the Afghan ambassador in 1977. Credit: eBay

New Delhi tried to take advantage of the moment, but it lacked the means to match its ends. India was one of the few countries to recognise the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and Rajiv Gandhi’s government courted Afghan President Najibullah as an ally. Probably for the better, India in the 1980s lacked the wherewithal to join their Soviet allies in the game of militarised development, but following the collapse of the Najibullah government, New Delhi became a favoured adopted home for Afghan elites, while New Delhi has provided Najibullah’s relatives with an monthly stipend of Rs 100,000.

Such moves saved lives, but given the long history of Afghan diasporas returning home on the backs of foreign armies – Shah Shuja (1839), Nadir Shah (1929), Babrak Karmal (1979), Hamid Karzai (2001) – this shelter cannot but provoke unease among a Pakistani establishment smarting over the loss of a fifth Afghan expat to rule the country, namely Mullah Omar (1996).

So here a second lesson: enthusiasm over India’s (genuine) technical and engineering accomplishment at Salma might also be tempered by more sober reflections about means and ends. The Salma Dam took three times longer to complete than initially anticipated and cost 400% more than initial estimates. And Indian officials are bound to face questions from voters about the spending of money abroad by what remains a much poorer country than was the US or the Soviet Union of the 1960s or 1970s. More broadly, while the flow of electricity to businesses in Herat is something, introducing water sharing disputes between two anti-government groups (one upstream, one downstream), not to mention Iranian users further downstream, adds another element of unpredictability to the region of Afghanistan that must play a central role in Indian ambitions for Central Asia.

A healthier approach toward developmental aid might acknowledge India’s core interests in the region – namely, a diverse and competitive market for energy supplies and the destruction of safe havens for terrorist groups – and proceed from those. Such an approach would offer exchange caution for romantic claims about India’s “organic” relationship to Afghanistan, whether because of the shared Mughal heritage, Indian Sufi shrines near the Salma Dam or the long history of Afghans who have lived in India. Outmaneuvering Pakistan may offer short-term pride and prestige, but New Delhi could learn from its erstwhile ally in Moscow. What starts off as victories of development politics often becomes entangled in issues of inter-ethnic and inter-Pashtun conflicts that (alas) only Pakistan has the long-term energy or interest to engage in.

Better, then, to debate India’s long-term interests in what remains (alas, again) a poor country that accounts for less than 1% of India’s trade balance. Do Indian investments into Afghan iron mines merit Indian security commitments? How will New Delhi’s partnership with Iran and Afghanistan square with the expanding Chinese and legacy Russian presence in the region? Given the modest scales of trade involved, these questions should be answered from the point of view of what Afghanistan can do for India, not the other way around.

Histories of a world in which India figures as the recipient of developmental aid and object of regional integration schemes, not a donor and a subject, may only provide a rough roadmap fow how this is to be accomplished. But the challenges that previous powers have confronted in Afghanistan abide. May India’s policymakers learn from their forebears.

Timothy Nunan is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International Studies. His book on the history of nation-building in Afghanistan, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan, was published with Cambridge University Press this January.