In scramble for Afghanistan, India looks to Iran
Diplomats like to stress that Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game, that if only the many regional players — including Pakistan and India – can settle their differences, they can find common cause in seeking a political settlement that will offer stability. That view comes complete with an appealing historical template – the British in India were able to extricate themselves from their failed Afghan wars in the 19th century in part because they agreed with Tsarist Russia that Afghanistan should be allowed to remain neutral.
Yet in the feverishness of the 21st century Afghan war, the perception (right or wrong) of a likely early American disengagement may be encouraging more, rather than less, zero-sum gamesmanship. The danger then is that far from moving towards a settlement for Afghanistan, regional players back different sides in the Afghan conflict, leading to de facto partition and renewed civil war.
With India now convinced Pakistan is pushing for a political settlement in Afghanistan which could return its former Taliban allies to power in Kabul, New Delhi in turn has renewed a drive to work with Iran to offset Pakistani influence there.
“I would today reiterate the need for structured, systematic and regular consultations with Iran on the situation in Afghanistan,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said in a speech this week to Indian and Iranian think tanks, posted on the Ministry of External Affairs website.
“We are both neighbours of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have both long suffered from the threat of transnational terrorism emanating from beyond our borders. India, like Iran, is supportive of the efforts of the Afghan government and people to build a democratic, pluralistic and peaceful Afghanistan. Neither of our countries wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups.”
India has bad memories of Taliban rule when Afghanistan was used as a base for training camps for militants fighting in Kashmir. Along with Iran and Russia, it supported the then Northern Alliance which opposed the Taliban government when it was in power from 1996 to 2001. It has since invested heavily in Afghanistan – raising hackles in Pakistan, which fears encirclement by its much larger neighbour. In particular, it built a road from Afghanistan’s Nimroz province to Iran’s Chabahar port, offering landlocked Afghanistan an alternative supply route and thus reducing its dependence on trucking goods through Pakistan.
Rao, the country’s top diplomat, said India was particularly keen to see the development of the Chabahar Port Project. “Improving the connectivity of Chabahar Port to the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, (which – still according to the MEA website – was built with Indian assistance despite threats and with the sacrifice of Indian and Afghan lives, and has transformed the economy of Nimroz Province in Afghanistan), will open up the Indian market to Afghan agricultural and other exports. It will also help in combating the scourge of illicit drugs production and export which has affected Iran more than any other country, and assist the trade, transport and transit network of Iran. It will help India transport its goods, including humanitarian supplies, to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond.”
In other words, it is not just any road – it is a road which can redirect trade flows and in turn affect the balance of political influence in Afghanistan.
So how will Iran respond? India’s once warm relations with Iran soured somewhat in recent years after Delhi gave some limited support to a U.S.-led drive to impose sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear programme. It has since begun to chalk out a position that is more independent of Washington, and spoken out against unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Pakistan meanwhile has been working to improve relations with Iran, including saying it helped Tehran with the arrest earlier this year of Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of the Baluch Sunni rebel group Jundollah, who was hanged in Iran last month. Yet relations between Tehran and Islamabad are also hostage to any fall-out in the row over Iran’s nuclear programme, particularly given Pakistan’s close ties to Iran’s main rival Saudi Arabia.
With fresh sanctions being imposed on Iran, some of the most explosive issues in global politics — from rivalry between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, to the row over Tehran’s nuclear programme, to the fate of Afghanistan and the battle against Islamist militants – are converging. We have known for some time that these issues would run into each other sooner or later – but maybe not quite so soon, and at a time when U.S. policy on Afghanistan is so uncertain. Predicting the likely outcome is harder than ever.