| ||Can India ‘Fix’ Afghanistan?|
The New York Times
By Heather Timmons
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As the United States winds down its military engagement in Afghanistan, optimism is growing about the role India can play to stabilize and develop the country.
This week, visiting United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta encouraged Indian leaders to take a more active role in Afghanistan, involvement once considered by the United States as merely an opportunistic way for India to antagonize Pakistan.
The United States’ encouragement is hardly needed. India plans to “intensify” its already “high level political engagement and broad-based development assistance in a wide range of sectors,” India’s minister for external affairs, S.M. Krishna, told Afghanistan’s visiting foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul, in a speech in New Delhi last month. With assistance from Europe and the United States expected to drop substantially, India may be left as one of Afghanistan’s most prominent aid partners.
Here on India Ink, we have been asking: Does this make any sense? On first glance, at least, India seems an unlikely provider of development assistance because of the serious issues troubling it at home. Many of the same things that Afghanistan needs, from infrastructure to education, India is having troubles providing for many citizens, even without the regular threat of attacks from the Taliban.
India’s state-run power industry struggles to get enough fuel thanks to mismanagement and bureaucracy, even its brightest youth can’t land a spot at a good university and about third of its citizens live in destitute poverty, with hundreds of millions malnourished. The current central government is grappling with a growing deficit, shrinking economic growth and an increasingly dissatisfied voter base.
It’s no surprise that India’s Afghanistan plans have been greeted with some skepticism.
“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Rajeev Malik, an economist at CLSA, a research and brokerage house, who has been a sharp critic of India’s fiscal policy and government. “India has not managed to fix these issues itself,” he said, but added that the country “probably has more experience than Afghanistan.”
India’s on-the-ground aid record, though limited, has been decent.
India has committed some $2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, of which $1 billion has been spent, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. Indian public and private companies have built a highway to Iran, put up transmission lines to bring power to Kabul, are constructing a new Parliament building and working on a hydro-electric project in western Afghanistan.
India sent one million tons of high-protein biscuits to Afghanistan, and plans to follow that with an additional 250,000 tons this year. There are 1,000 Afghan students on scholarships in Indian universities right now.
More ambitious plans are in place. In October of last year, when Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, visited India, the two countries signed a strategic agreement that said India would train and equip Afghan security forces. This month, India is holding meetings for regional investors interested in Afghanistan in New Delhi.
Invitees include Turkey, China and Pakistan. Over a dinner in May in New Delhi, Mr. Rassoul told Indian government advisers Afghanistan would like India to concentrate on building up governance, law courts and health care.
“We don’t want a fundamentalist Afghanistan, just like everyone else,” explained Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in a recent interview. “We don’t want an Afghanistan that slides backward.”
The two countries share ties cemented long ago, he said, citing the well-known Rabindranath Tagore story “Kabuliwala,” about an Afghan fruit seller who befriends an Indian girl. India has a limited physical presence on the ground in Afghanistan, he said, which should quell concerns that India is focused on containing or antagonizing Pakistan. “What do we have in Afghanistan that is a threat to Pakistan?,” he asked rhetorically.
India’s aid to Afghanistan comes without any conditions, unlike aid to India from foreign countries in the past, he said. India is not pressuring the Afghanistan government to improve, say, education for girls, or rights for women, but is focusing on infrastructure and other concrete projects, he said.
India’s projects in Afghanistan are “replicas of what India has been able to successfully implement in some part of India or the other,” said Mr. Akbaruddin. “They have been incubated in some part of India.”
Staunch supporters of India’s involvement say sheer practicality of the alliance makes it work.
“Today the average Afghan knows that for many of the things that would lead to an improved quality of life, India offers the most viable option,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a security analyst based in New Delhi.
To explain, he offered an example: The quality of higher education in Britain or the United States or Australia might be better than in India, he said, but most Afghans can’t afford Western universities, and if even they could, they probably wouldn’t get a visa to go anyway.
Much of what is on Afghanistan’s “wish list” can be “enabled in a considerable degree by India,” Mr. Bhaskar said. President Karzai himself attended an Indian university, doing his postgraduate studies at Himachal Pradesh University, in Shimla.
Others note that the “aid” relationship is not new. “People forget this has been going on quietly for a long time,” said K. Shankar Bajpai, a former ambassador to China, Pakistan and the United States, who is now an analyst with Delhi Policy Group. For six decades, India was “very much engaged” in Afghanistan, working on everything from building tunnels through the mountains of the Hindu Kush to education and health programs.
Recently, the two countries have built up a “friendly relationship without some of the imperial hang-ups that spoiled Delhi and Kabul’s relationship in the past,” he said. In a sign of this friendliness, in March, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Mr. Karzai to congratulate him on the birth of his daughter.
Another factor to consider is that while India’s development problems weigh heavily on the country’s poor and middle class, facilities for the wealthy in India are often world class. Many of Afghanistan’s wealthy are already beneficiaries, and these upper-class industries and ties are only expected to grow.
Take health care: India’s private hospitals, and especially those in New Delhi, serve as de facto doctors’ offices for wealthy Afghans, who are just a two-hour flight away. Hospitals like Max Healthcare’s giant facility in Saket have special facilitators for Afghan patients who come for everything from in vitro fertilization treatments to heart trouble, doctors say. Often, their Afghan patients pay in crisp United States dollar bills.
On the other end of the economic spectrum, at least one Indian charity has also been successful in Afghanistan.
The Self Employed Women’s Association(SEWA), which starts women’s self-help groups, has been running vocational training programs in Afghanistan since 2008, teaching women to make jam and sew clothing, among other skills. The group said it has trained 3,000 Afghan women so far, despite two fatal terrorist attacks on the team in Kabul. The women, who are often orphans or widows, use the training to earn an income outside their home.
Whether the ambitious plans in industries like mining and manufacturing will work out remains to be seen. In November, a consortium of public and private Indian companies, led by the state-owned Steel Authority of India, won a bid to mine in three states in Afghanistan, which includes the construction of a six million-ton steel plant, an 800-megawatt power plant and 200 kilometers each of road, rail and transmission lines – as well as a pledge to set aside one percent of profits for establishing educational and medical facilities.
“We are very bullish about this,” the chairman of SAIL said when the deal was announced. Total investment by the Indian companies is pegged at $10.8 billion.
The big numbers, heavy-duty infrastructure plans and optimistic outlook are a stark contrast to SAIL’s India performance. In February, SAIL said quarterly profits fell by more than 40 percent from the same period the year before, thanks in part to higher raw material costs and SAIL’s inability to get coal from another state-owned company.