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India eyes increased role in Afghanistan

As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual summit in Beijing concluded today, what to do after international combat troops leave Afghanistan dominated the discussion. While the talk centered around China’s increased involvement in Afghanistan, India has been quietly expanding its footprint there.

Afghanistan and India have longstanding cultural and economic ties, and though they don’t share a direct, geographic border, the two consider themselves neighbors. Aside from assisting in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, India has worked to strengthen economic ties and will soon begin training members of the Afghan security forces. 

“One of the problems that we’ve had for a long time in Afghanistan is the lack of a regional policy, a regional strategy on the part of the international community to solve the Afghan issue,” says Barry Salaam, an independent analyst in Kabul. His sentiments echo that of many analysts and policymakers who increasingly recognize the importance of regional players like India.

However, given India’s adversarial relationship with Pakistan, some Afghans worry that India could use an increased role here as means to challenge its foe. 

India’s role

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently called on India to take on a bigger role in helping Afghanistan. Mr. Panetta’s encouragement seemed almost unnecessary, however, given many of the commitments India has already made.

India signed a strategic partnership with Afghanistan in October. The south Asian nation did not commit any troops to help fight in Afghanistan, but the agreement has committed India to help train Afghan security forces.

Compared with the United States’ $100 billion in appropriated aid for Afghanistan, India’s $2 billion commitment may seem relatively minimal. However, it's one that hasn't gone unnoticed by many Afghans. While India has conducted a number of small-scale projects, the brunt of its aid has gone to major projects including a dam in Herat Province, a new Afghan parliament building, and a 135-mile road to Iran.

India has also taken an active role in developing Afghanistan’s mining sector, viewed by many politicians as the key to Afghanistan’s economic survival. Last fall, a consortium of Indian state-owned and private companies won rights to begin exploiting the Hajigak iron-ore mines in Bamiyan, northwest of Kabul. This spring, Indian firms also bid on mining rights on Afghan copper and gold mines. So far, China is the only other nation that has won mining contracts in Afghanistan.

Skepticism

After dealing with foreign involvement for generations, many Afghans are cynical of foreign nations who take an active role in their affairs.

The interests of the region are becoming more interconnected as Central and South Asia increasingly share similar development goals, says Najib Mamalai, an independent analyst in Kabul.  But, he says, “all foreign countries who want to be involved in Afghanistan, they put their own interests first, not Afghanistan’s. India is no exception in this regard. India is looking for its own interest in Afghanistan.”

Given India’s longstanding animosity toward Pakistan, some Afghans say they fear that their country could be become a proxy battleground for the two nations as they vie for influence here.

“Pakistan says it wants to use Afghanistan as a backstop against India. They’re using this kind of justification for their interference in Afghanistan,” says Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, director of Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan. Still, he says, Pakistan would likely be involved in Afghanistan regardless of India. “This is only a political game.”

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