By: Nava Thakuria

As the United States and the western coalition backing it seek to wind down their presence in Afghanistan after 17 years of futility, India is among the nations contending to fill the vacuum, at the same time seeking to thwart Pakistan’s interest in the war-torn country.

The recent activation of a major Iranian port on the Indian Ocean that connects Afghanistan with India tells the story of New Delhi’s growing embrace of both Kabul and Tehran. New Delhi’s takeover of the port enables India to ship supplies directly to Afghanistan while bypassing Pakistan.

It also tells the story of India’s belated efforts to counter China’s huge multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across much of Asia and reaching all the way into Africa and Eastern Europe. As China’s infrastructure projects with India’s neighbors including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal have come into existence, India has belatedly started to look for its own ways to extend its influence. The Chabahar port years in gestation, is perhaps the country’s biggest such initiative. 

Iran formally handed over the port during a meeting of a committee for the implementation of the Chabahar Agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and India after the US quietly agreed to exempt the Chabahar operations from the stringent US-initiated boycott of Tehran.  Commercial operations began shortly after with the arrival of a Cyprus-registered bulk carrier carrying 72,400 tonnes of corn.

India is just one of several nations seeking to establish a significant presence in Afghanistan including China, Russia and Iran. Its diplomatic facilities have been attacked repeatedly in operations that many Indians believe were planned by the Pakistan Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI. The inevitable departure of the US-led coalition is expected to create a vacuum India fears would leave it facing battle-hardened Islamic militants under Pakistan’s patronage who could be deployed against them.

Relations between Pakistan and India reached their lowest point in decades in February with a suicide bombing attack on a convoy of Indian security forces that killed more than 40 personnel. India charged that the bombing had been engineered by Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which officially accepted responsibility. 

According to diplomats in India, Delhi has received strong support from Iran, which was also targeted a day before the Pulwama attack by a Pakistan- based terror group, with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards threatening action against Pakistani security forces.

The bombing generated a massive wave of anger among millions of Indians, with emotionally charged nationalists demanding action. The hardline Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces national elections in April and May, ordered aerial attacks by Indian air-forces in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan.

Both Delhi and Islamabad have backed away from further confrontation, apparently at the urging of the US in part to allow the Afghan peace process to run on a smooth track.

Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, a Kabul-based senior Afghan radio journalist, told Asia Sentinel that the initiative to open a trade route between Afghanistan and India through the Chabahar port reestablishes the importance of Kabul as an international business center, based on an agreement New Delhi signed with Tehran in 2016.

Nevertheless, he said, the turmoil in Pakistan has severely affected the ongoing peace process between the Taliban and the western coalition, which has been unable to eliminate the fundamentalist rebels from Afghanistan. Both sides have faced huge losses in what essentially is a stalemated war.

India has been pushing billion-dollar developmental initiatives in Muslim-dominated Afghanistan since 2001 when the western coalition invaded in an effort to get their hands on Osama bin Laden, who planned the attack that brought down the World Trade Towers in New York.  Kabul is the second-largest recipient of aid after Bhutan from India. Hundreds of community development projects by Indian agencies are in progress there involving education, health, agriculture, rural development, roads, hydroelectric power stations, hospitals and training for hundreds of medical students at Indian colleges.

Soft power is also on display. Indian film actors from both Bollywood and Hindi tele-serials continue to be popular among Afghans, Khalvatgar said, adding that large numbers of rural women are glued to their television sets running the dubbed versions of Indian serials in local languages. The films and serials mean many Afghans, Khalvatgar said, see India as a land of fairytales where women are empowered to pursue education to hold powerful positions in government and business.

Describing the state of the education and health sectors in Afghanistan as “pathetic,” Khalvatgar said young Afghans now prefer to go to India for pursuing higher and professional educations. In addition, he said, many patients, primarily suffering from hypertension, blood sugar, liver ailments and cancer opt to leave for Indian hospitals, some of which are acquiring an international reputation.

Despite numerous threats to the media in Afghanistan, where journalists are often killed with impunity, he claimed that Afghanistan still supports a good deal of journalism in comparison to its neighboring countries. Media may not have a direct strategy for peace and conflict resolutions, but the Afghan media fraternity significantly contributes for various peace building measures in the country, he affirmed.

It is not without cost. Since 1992, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 48 media members have been killed, 23 of those targeted for murder and another 19 killed with impunity.