Afghanistan’s Meticulous Balancing Act Between Indian Assistance and Pakistani Relations
On February 9, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened for a video conference to commemorate the signing of the Shahtood Dam Project agreement between the two countries. India will extend its hydro diplomacy efforts to support Afghanistan’s efforts to combat frequent droughts amidst rapid urbanization and the looming threat of climate change. India has extended its outreach among its South Asian neighbors to secure sufficient water sources for its rapidly growing population and has turned to Afghanistan to supplement its need and support its neighbor during its water crisis. India has increased its influence in the Central Asian country over the past years by sponsoring numerous infrastructure projects, including renewable energy facilities, hospitals, education centers, and transportation networks. While Afghanistan has reaped the benefits of an expanding strategic partnership, it is becoming another front in the sparring between India and Pakistan. India hopes to entice Afghanistan with financial gains to weaken its adversary while Pakistan hopes to hold on to its strong cultural ties with Afghanistan. While economic support from either power will benefit Afghanistan, it must be cautious to avoid becoming further ensnared in the rivalry of its southern neighbors.
India has also engaged with Afghanistan on other fronts. India’s development portfolio in the country exceeds $3 billion and includes over 400 joint projects in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. For example, India has financed the construction of Afghanistan’s Parliament in Kabul, the reconstruction of a children’s hospital, the building of a cricket stadium in Kandahar, the expansion of the national television network, the purchase of military vehicles and public buses for the transportation system, shipments of food to schoolchildren, and numerous other projects. However, India is allocating these funds to Afghanistan while recognizing its strategic interest in the landlocked country. Afghanistan is heavily reliant on Pakistan to acquire its goods through ports on the Arabian Sea. India is collaborating with Iran to provide Afghanistan with an alternative export route via Iran’s Chabahar Port. Afghanistan’s use of the port will diversify its access to lucrative trading routes to expand its economic influence without the need for Pakistan.
Pakistan is aware of India’s intentions in Afghanistan and is becoming increasingly concerned about recent hydropower projects. The Shahtood Dam Project and 12 others planned along the Kabul River could reduce water flow into Pakistan by 16 percent. Furthermore, Pakistan does not have a water-sharing agreement in Afghanistan, heightening fears of encirclement by India’s hydro diplomacy strategy. Pakistan has lost favorability among Afghans for its reluctance to thwart Taliban militia groups training within its borders. However, Islamabad has regained some international recognition for taking on regional peace initiatives, a move which was possibly adopted to challenge India’s rise in Afghanistan.
While Afghanistan must remain cautious not to become overly involved in the minefield of Indian-Pakistani relations, it is benefitting from India’s interest in financing infrastructure projects. Afghanistan has been grappling with severe power shortages during a turbulent pandemic and frequent attacks by Taliban militia groups. India has recognized this problem and has partnered with Turkey and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund a $160 million solar photovoltaic and wind-power project program that is projected to add 110 megawatts to Afghanistan’s power supply over the next 16 months. Pakistan’s complicated relationship with the Taliban makes it a poor ally for Kabul, but the Afghan government must also avoid alienating Islamabad.
Afghanistan is in a precarious position between India’s foreign policy agenda to encircle Pakistan and Pakistan’s interest in sustaining Afghanistan as a reliant partner. Afghanistan must be cautious as it works with both countries to advance its own domestic goals without becoming overly embroiled in the decades-old conflict between India and Pakistan. So far, Afghanistan has benefitted greatly from India’s investment and aid initiatives as well as its efforts to connect it with the Port of Chabahar, but it must also consider the consequences of embracing Indian foreign policy in its relationship with Pakistan. The COVID-19 pandemic and sporadic Taliban attacks in its frontier areas threaten the delicate balance that Afghanistan walks.