Delhi saw the arrival of first consignment of goods from Afghanistan last week which was a part of a developing air corridor between Kabul and Delhi. Though separated by thousands of miles, blooming warmth between the two countries is visible. Though we have a long way to go to strengthen our bond in future, let us have a look at our past which has been quite a wonder.
India and Afghanistan have historically shared a relationship of mutual respect. Ties have been warm, strong and friendly in most of the past two millennium, barring last few decades. In 1980s, Afghanistan got political support from India when the latter became the only South Asian country to recognise Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. There have been times in recent past where this bilateral relation froze, and thawed, and froze again. After India’s (and Pakistan’s) independence; the equations between the three nations have changed frequently. Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was as big an event as the rise of Taliban for Afghanistan, ghost of which is still haunting it. Kabul-Islamabad-Delhi has been called a deadly triangle by William Darlymple, an expert historian out of which Islamabad is fast losing significance.
If we try to trace back the relations of India and Afghanistan century by century; we would reach an era, well Before Christ, when they were one civilization. Kandahar might have been the Gandhar of Mahabharat; and what we know as modern day Afghanistan would be a melting pot of Indian and Greek cultures. The areas were often ruled, and certainly influenced by both the cultures which ultimately developed its own, in centuries to follow. Only after Islam arrived after 7th century, did Buddhists and Hindu rulers declined in power. Outsiders, especially Arabs still called the region ‘Al-Hind’. By 11th Century, Mahmud of Ghazni – the infamous Somnath iconoclast – had effectively Islamized the region. Relations between Hindu, Buddhist rulers in Bharat and local Islamic rulers became obscure.
Afghanistan then went to enjoy deep ties with Arab world and then the west in next few centuries prior to Soviet Invasion. If we fast forward to 20th and 21st centuries, India remains one of the most trusted countries for Afghans, and Afghanistan one of our most important strategic ally.
In the slugfest of Soviet occupation and United State’s bid to topple it down; the latter begot the Frankenstein’s monster which showed its face as Taliban. The beautiful region, blessed with natural resources and enterprising people now was challenged with years of oppression and violence. Now that Taliban may decline with renewed interest of Chinese in Pakistan and USA in Afghanistan with more troop deployment; Afghan economy is simultaneously getting a boost. One of the major disadvantages it faces is it being land locked. A large chunk of exports from Afghanistan that came to India and Far East, happened through roads which passed via Pakistan. With the growing camaraderie between India and Afghanistan, Pakistan has stopped supporting the road route.
In a meeting between PM Modi and Afghan President Ghani in 2016, this dedicated air corridor was envisaged and planned.
This saw fruition last week with the arrival of 60 tonnes of ‘heeng’ from Kabul; while PM Modi tweeting congratulatory message for the same. The same plane returned from India carrying pharmaceuticals, water purifiers etc. This air corridor will have numerous benefits. Export of perishable items would see a boost amidst increasing consumption in Indian economy. Local business is slated to thrive with this new corridor which provides a ready market to Afghan produces.
Lac, dried legumes, ginger saffron, apples are some of the consumables exported from Afghanistan to India which is its second biggest destination. Being landlocked had always troubled the nation and its businesses and it has to remain dependent on Pakistan to provide roads. This air corridor not just makes the dependence ineffective but also strengthens Indian support from Special Partnership Agreement (SPA) point of view – which was signed in 2011. This state of relations between the two nations, which is improving day by day, is a step in nullifying Pakistan’s attempt to interlock Afghanistan’s economy with its own.
As is obvious, any step in the direction of removing Pakistan from Indo-Afghanistan relations is a jolt to the former which always wanted to dictate terms to Afghanistan and wanted to steer latter’s foreign policy. Bolstered by the stability Afghanistan has achieved after elections in 2014 and support it has garnered from UN as well as other strategically important countries, it has found itself in a position to shrug off Pakistan’s patronising attitude towards itself. In December 2016, President Ghani in Amritsar criticised Pakistan and trashed its offer of USD 500 millions as aid. In an optimistic tone, Mr Ghani then took a dig at Pakistan implying that it should stop fomenting trouble in Afghanistan and bring to the books Taliban leaders or at least bring them to the negotiating table.
According to The Diplomat; such a stern attitude by Kabul evoked sharp reaction in Islamabad and in a bid to avoid embarrassment, Sartaj Aziz of Pakistan ended up terming this bold reaction by President Ghani as ‘an attempt to please India’.
The relations between Kabul and Delhi have seen its crests and troughs with Kabul calculating its moves and realigning the options. Temporarily, Kabul did try to sideline India ‘in a bid to please Islamabad’, for once, refusing to take help and ammunition from Delhi. It handed over wanted terrorists to Islamabad, broke the back of terrorist networks troubling Pakistan operating from its soil, and even stopped sending dignitaries to India. Only after all of this did not fructify in bearing any positive result, and Delhi subtly expressing its displeasure after its patience ran out; did Kabul realised the importance of India – which can be its all weather friend – Kabul willing.
A spate of actions by Kabul showed that it is ditching Islamabad and fast turning to Delhi. President Ghani first asked Pakistan ‘to stop undeclared war in Afghanistan’; which was a direct accusation on the latter of fomenting trouble in Afghanistan. March 2015 saw India visit of Afghan CEO, with President Ghani following the very next month. ‘Special Partnership Agreement’ had become cold by now, and it was requested by Kabul to be reinvigorated.
Then followed India visit by Afghan NSA and deputy foreign minister and the talks took off again, which primarily dealt with security. Indo – Afghan relations have taken off by now, and the Delhi – Kabul air freight corridor is a welcome step in a bid to not just strategically isolate Pakistan in the region, but also to stop its actions as a bully and a meddling menace in Afghanistan.