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Last Updated: 05/05/2009
India’s Development Diplomacy: Re-Engaging Afghanistan
Medha Bisht

The present approach of engaging regional players in Afghanistan by the United States could be scuttled by the bargaining postures of Iran, Russia, Pakistan, India and China on various issues of mutual concern. Rather than overtly depending on United States for guiding India through its AfPak strategy, India needs to proactively engage regional players- Iran, Russia and China through pro-active diplomacy, which could lead to potential joint problem solving initiatives. Also Indian initiatives could help defining issues in Afghanistan more in terms of creating value and bringing stability and security for all the concerned state parties.

The interests of the state can be well-guarded by pursuing an active foreign policy. This seems to be extremely significant in context to the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, as India’s diplomatic engagement with the latter could potentially influence its security and economic interests. While a U.S. monitored ‘Af-Pak strategy’ cantered on dismantling terror outfits in Pakistan-Afghanistan border could lead to an influx of militant elements into Kashmir; on the economic front India’s gateway  to Central Asia could well be jeopardized if Afghanistan continues to be unstable. So far India has constructively engaged Afghanistan, investing more than US $1 billion in vital sectors such as education, infrastructure, and health. However, these development efforts have been revisited by the United States, which resonate the traditional Pakistani concerns over India’s presence in Afghanistan.

For instance, former State Department adviser Lisa Curtis echoed Pakistani sentiments in her address to the House of Representatives National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on April 1, 2009. She argued that, “I think it is India’s interest to ensure that its involvement in Afghanistan is transparent to Pakistan, and the US has a role to play in ensuring this.” Such statements become relevant in context to the announcements made by the Obama Administration, which call for “regional diplomacy” with key players in order to solve the Afghanistan issue. Richard Holbrooke, in a press conference (April 8, 2009) in New Delhi, pointed out that India, Pakistan, and the US face a common challenge and that India’s full involvement in “settling issues like Afghanistan” is indispensable. These contradictory statements made by Curtis and Holbrooke – symbolizing suspicion on one hand and cooperation on the other – has put a question mark on the role that India could effectively play in Afghanistan.

Thus the diplomatic response of India in handling the Afghan issue must now be determined. While the regional approach proposed by Obama appears promising at the outset, it could witness problems as workable solutions are formulated. India therefore needs to carve out a policy which is oriented towards stabilizing Afghanistan and at the same time is independent of Pakistani concerns over Indian involvement. The reason for proposing this argument emanates from the nature of United States interaction with the regional players, which could potentially give rise to a bargaining approach (emphasizing competitive engagement between key actors in the region) thus delaying effective response on the Afghan issue. Meanwhile, a pro-active engagement of India with the regional players could potentially give rise to a problem-solving approach which would entail an integrative, collaborative effort where the yard stick for cooperation would be the shared development of Afghanistan.

Player-1 (Iran)

Iran has always been concerned about developments in Afghanistan, the reason being that the shared borders are a medium through which opium and refugees find their way to Iran. According to United Nations estimates, Iran has the largest problem with opiates, with an estimated 2.8 percent of the population aged 15-64 using them. Thus, a stable Afghanistan and a weak Taliban has been of primary concern to Iran.

However, regional cooperation between United States and Iran could be problematic for certain reasons, particularly as Iran has been wary of the presence of U.S troops in the region. On its part, Washington has been concerned about a nuclear Iran becoming a regional power in the Middle East. The Obama administration has, however, been trying to create amicable relations between the two countries. This is evident in the speech he delivered on the Iranian New Year Day, where an emphasis was overtly laid on “pursuing constructive tieswith Iran. Afghanistan, therefore, has been considered as one issue area where a workable relationship between United States and Iran could materialize. However, a point to be reckoned with is the nature of this “working relationship”. Only a naiveté in diplomacy would think that Iranians would follow the road map designed in Washington DC and agree with the idea of a “good” and “bad” Taliban. On its part, Iranians would also want a major perceptual policy shift by the United States-a point which could be annoying to the United States allies in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The contours of diplomatic engagement between United States and Iran would therefore hinge on diplomatic calculus of balancing various American and Iranian concerns, with the possibility of the real issue of a stable Afghanistan being pushed to a corner.

Player II (Russia)

Similarly, an unstable Afghanistan is inimical to Russian interests too due to the proximity of Afghan border with Central Asian Republics. However, it needs to be pointed out that United States-Russia cooperation in Afghanistan is not a spontaneous one, and could potentially lead to Russian bargains on containing United States decisions on the installation of anti-ballistic missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Also, NATO's further eastern expansion toward Georgia and Ukraine could well be a strategic leverage which Russia could exercise for allowing supplies (both military and humanitarian) through the Russian territory. This is evident in the statement of the foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko, that “Russia has expressed its readiness more than once to co-operate and that the concrete parameters will depend on the willingness of the United States to co-operate." This statement was delivered on the occasion of the decision to allow several NATO countries to transport supplies via Russian territorial space. The point of concern, therefore, is whether the regional solution to engage actors could really be implemented when it comes to defining a workable solution. Any effort by the United States to approach Central Asian Republics could meanwhile antagonize Russia.

Player III (China)

China is another player which has been silent on the issue for some time. If one assesses the Chinese concerns in Afghanistan, the issue of energy security inevitably prevails. The fact that Afghanistan has unexplored reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals – especially iron-ore, copper, and gold – in the northern parts of the country speaks well of the Chinese interest in the region. A stable government in Afghanistan, well suited to Chinese interest would be a top priority for China’s foreign policy. This is also because the vast expanse of the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which is inhabited by the Uyghur Muslim minority, poses a potential security threat for China. Since the Uyghurs have strong religious and traditional ethnic links with Afghanistan and the neighbouring Central Asian Republics (CARs), China would be keen to contain the spill-over effects of a militant Islamic ideology of the Taliban into its territorial space.

While Pakistan’s active cooperation, to assist in the fight against terrorism would be needed on this front, could Pakistan employ linkages to the Kashmir card for shaping Chinese perceptions is an issue of concern. Establishing a causal connection between instability in South Asia to a durable solution on Kashmir could be sold to the Chinese, for shaping perceptions towards a stable South Asia. It would be interesting to note some arguments made by Pervez Musharraf’s lecture on 12 April, 2009 at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, Beijing. Urging the Chinese leadership to play a more proactive role in the issue, Musharraf pointed out that Obama's revamped AfPak policy is incomplete without India, and a solution to the Kashmir issue.


It is evident from the above analyses that the potential diplomatic engagement between key players in the region could be inclined towards a bargaining approach, which could be detrimental to the situation in Afghanistan. In fact, consensus on Afghanistan could represent a settlement of lowest denomination, lacking the much needed political will for effective cooperation amongst the key stakeholders. India, on its part, has already been questioning the regional approach because of the leverages that Pakistan could exercise by influencing opinion on the Kashmir issue and pointing out the inherent lacunae in the Af-Pak strategy to comprehensively deal with terror outfits other than al-Qaida.

The Indian interest lies in a stable Afghanistan. India’s diplomatic effort, therefore, should revolve around a problem-solving approach, where development engagement in Afghanistan is the driving force behind any diplomatic effort. This could help improve India’s diplomatic policy in Afghanistan in three ways.

First, it could lay down the framework for an active Indian foreign policy for engaging important players like Iran, Russia, and China, as a stable Afghanistan is of critical concern to all the three mentioned countries. This would also obviate India’s foreign policy being hostage to the relations that United States has with the concerned countries. India-Iran cooperation on the lines of developing physical infrastructure and connectivity through Iran could lead to effective partnership, thus also exploring ways for finding connectivity to Afghanistan via Iran. India’s engagement with Russia and China on the Afghan issue should also be explored, and a better forum for raising such issues would be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Second, a joint problem-solving approach with the concerned powers in question could also help in allaying Pakistani fears on the issue of encirclement, as Russia, China, and Iran would be partners in the effort towards stabilizing Afghanistan. It needs to be noted that Pakistan is not pointing fingers towards Russia, Iran, or China.

Third, India’s pro-active diplomacy with key players in the region would shift the focus from bargaining to that of a problem-solving one. It is to be noted that interests are often shaped by perceptions of individual actors. While a bargaining approach inevitably becomes functional with the United States entering the negotiation game in Afghanistan, due to the interests and perception of various actors towards the US; a problem- solving approach, which calls for joint initiatives could become operational with India’s involvement with the concerned stakeholders in the region. Therefore, more diplomatic visits by Indian envoys to Iran, China, and Russia on the Afghan issue have to be undertaken by Indian envoys.


India needs to closely monitor and engage actors jointly – especially Iran, Russia, and China. The formula of effective development should be the guiding formula for cooperation, as it would potentially shape the cooperation processes between actors.  Supporting institutional infrastructure, sharing practices of good-governance, strengthening civil-society groups and providing capacity building/training programmes to Afghanistan is what India should continue to strive for. In other words, a soft power approach would help India reap much wanted benefits in the long run.

India does have a shared concern with the United States on fighting terrorism. US Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chaimberlain has summed up the US approach through the much talked about AfPak strategy. She points out that, “Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the United States are all facing the same enemy in this region, and that enemy is al-Qaida and the al-Qaida-like terrorist networks that are attacking both us, the far enemy, and the local governments, the near enemy.” However, as many strategic thinkers have pointed out, the AfPak strategy needs to have a common thrust on all terrorist outfits, namely: al-Qaeda, Taliban, LeT, and JeM.

India, therefore, needs to be guarded against overt contours that are inherent in the “AfPak” strategy, along with an al-Qaeda centric approach against terrorism. For states in the region, all forms of terror outfits are a security threat; a holistic approach is therefore needed to address the problem. A regional approach to Afghanistan is in the Indian favour too, however, the formula lies in pursuing a policy of stable development in Afghanistan.

Medha Bisht is a researcher at the South Asia Cluster, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Her doctoral thesis was on Multi Stakeholder Negotiations on Security ad Development and was submitted to Diplomatic Studies Division, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research has revolved around issues pertaining to gender, role of civil society in international negotiations, and emerging security concerns in international relations. The views expressed here are that of the author and not that of the institute.