Afghanistan has always been the playground of the ‘great game’, with different nations battling ideologically and strategically to control and guide Afghanistan. While the players of the game have changed over time, the nature of the game has always been not only about exercising hard power but also about soft power influence and its significance in winning the game in Afghanistan. Between India and Pakistan, the soft power great game has played out in favour of India, leaving Pakistan unquestionably behind in the race to gain dominance and extend influence in Afghanistan.
While Afghanistan is known for its geo-strategic importance and abundance of natural resources, India and Pakistan wish to strengthen their relationship with the nation due to various other factors. A stable Afghanistan is crucial for regional and domestic security and stability for India and Pakistan. Both countries feel that exercising their influence in Afghanistan will enhance their strategic space and significance.
To acquire a worthwhile image among the global powers and gain regional hegemony, India believes that first it must exert influence in South Asia. India has for long exercised and extended its influence through art, culture, music, films etc. India’s soft power diplomacy, particularly in Afghanistan involves winning “hearts and minds” and strengthening its cultural as well as political relations with Afghanistan, backed with the ideas of nation building and political stability. While one might say that India’s ulterior motive is to gain regional hegemony or become a global power, it cannot be denied that focusing on soft power methods has benefitted India in Afghanistan and is helping it build trust and support in the nation.
As a knee jerk reaction to India’s success, Pakistan has become overly concerned with the India-Afghan friendship. Although, Pakistan wishes to reduce the Indian influence and tilt Afghan support towards themselves, her narrow state visions have turned out to be self-defeating. Besides, being Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan has century old ties with the nation which it could use to influence Afghanistan. These include historical, cultural, religious, ethnic, linguistic and trading links that naturally tie Pakistan to Afghanistan. Pakistan has failed to capitalise on these advantages in order to strengthen its relations with Afghanistan. Pakistan primarily relies on military means and hard power and completely neglects the use of soft power methods such as art, culture, education to promote their foreign policy objectives. Moreover, the fact that various terrorist and extremist outfits harbor in Pakistan and the state is believed to support these organisations, plays to its disadvantage and tarnishes its image among other states including Afghanistan. As a result, Indian impact and the sway of soft power has resulted in a much greater acceptance and support in Afghanistan as compared to that of Pakistan.
India’s involvement and contribution to the development of cricket in Afghanistan has been one of its primary means of soft power influence in the nation. Interestingly, cricket in Afghanistan originated in the refugee camps in Pakistan that were occupied by Afghans escaping the war against the Soviets in the 1980’s. While Afghans took to cricket in a big way, the game faced the hurdles of development, funding and proper infrastructure. Indian contribution to the development of cricket in Afghanistan has been boon for both nations. Due to disturbed conditions within Afghanistan, the Afghan team was quite eager and grateful to choose India as their home base.
The relationship between Bollywood and Afghanistan is joined at the hip for a long time. The nature of this relationship is such that it creates a people-to-people bond that is greater than any governmental efforts. As a society that has been suppressed by the harsh rules of the Taliban, the Afghans love and cherish Bollywood films that display exaggerated images of Bollywood hero’s and revolve around fighting injustice. These films allow the Afghans to engross themselves into the fantasies of Bollywood and enjoy the extravagant lifestyle portrayed in the films. Stories such as the Kabuliwala by Rabindranath Tagore, display the cultural links between India and Afghanistan, further increasing the bond between the two nations. Indian cinema has always been a large market in Afghanistan. Moreover, Bollywood has always portrayed Afghans and particularly Pashtuns as the ‘good guys’
India has been heavily involved in and has largely contributed to the educational development in Afghanistan. The education sector in Afghanistan lacks proper infrastructure, suffers from a huge gender disparity and shortage of trained teachers. India has provided multiple scholarships to Afghan students with thousands of Afghan nationals studying in India. Vocational training and skill development classes are also provided to Afghan women and youth. India is currently building and upgrading the Habibia High School, a project that is worth more than 1 million USD. Through educational development, India has also tried to build ties with the ethnic communities of Afghanistan, specially the Pashtun community that is present on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and serves as a buffer between Pakistan and India. Education as a soft power has worked in favour of India with regards to building trust and influence among the people of Afghanistan.
Another important Indian contribution has been in health and medical care in Afghanistan. India has bestowed an amount of 5 million USD for the Afghan Red Society Programme to treat congenital heart disease in children. Medical tourism has become a large market between India and Afghanistan, enhancing the people-to-people interaction between the two. New Delhi adopted a more liberal visa policy in 2014 for Afghan nationals making it easier for Afghan patients to travel to India due to lack of proper facilities in their own land. Both private and government hospitals in India welcome the inflow of foreign patients and provide them with complete assistance. There are various interpreters who help the patients converse with the hospital staff and some of the staff is also well trained in foreign languages. India’s hospitable and welcoming approach to Afghan patients has increased the influx of patients from Afghanistan. Simultaneously, Pakistan has been losing Afghan patients to India. Afghans have stopped seeking medical care in Pakistan due to their strict border management policy, stringent visa policy for Afghans and constant security checks at the border. Moreover, although the cost of medical treatment is increasing in India, the increase is more rapid in Pakistan. Thus, India’s comparatively liberal polices in terms of healthcare have attracted Afghans, further widening the relationship between the two nations.
To a large extent, India‘s approach towards Afghanistan has been a function of its Pakistan policy. It is important for India that Pakistan does not get a foothold in Afghanistan and so historically India has attempted to prevent Pakistan from dominating Afghanistan. India would like to minimize Pakistan‘s involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan and to ensure that a fundamentalist regime of the Taliban variety does not take root again. Pakistan, on the other hand, has viewed Afghanistan as a good means of balancing out India‘s preponderance in South Asia.
Good India-Afghanistan ties are seen by Pakistan as detrimental to its national security interests as the two states flank the two sides of Pakistan‘s borders. A friendly political dispensation in Kabul is viewed by Pakistan as essential to escape the strategic dilemma of being caught between a powerful adversary in India in the East and an irredentist Afghanistan with claims on the Pashtun dominated areas in the West.
Given its Pashtun-ethnic linkage with Afghanistan, Pakistan considers its role to be a privileged one in the affairs of Afghanistan. Given these conflicting imperatives, both India and Pakistan have tried to neutralize the influence of each other in the affairs of Afghanistan. Both are stuck in a classic security dilemma in so far as their policies towards Afghanistan are concerned. Any measure by either Pakistan or India to increase its own security causes the other to act in response, thereby causing a deterioration in the overall regional security environment.
India is a developing country, still it is providing large amount of aid to Afghanistan. There are many political reasons behind this aid program. All major regional actors are occupied with the task of making their places in the territory by using different ways and means; India is trying to do this by involving itself into Afghanistan. There is race going on between India and China for dominance in the region. China is an emerging superpower; India‘s intensifying efforts in Afghanistan make it prominent in region and to limit China‘s influence in the region. China is growing its influence in Afghanistan to utilize unexploited resources. India is providing assistance in many projects of reconstruction to counter the influence of China in the region. After 9/11 attacks and launch of ―Operation Enduring Freedom‖ by US, provides India an opportunity to pursue its foreign policy goals of attaining hegemonic position in the region.
India‘s other major interest is to make sure that extremism remains under control in its neighbourhood and its struggle against extremism is also closely intertwined with the rise of extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Any breeding ground of radical terrorists has a direct impact on the security of India, resulting in a rise in infiltration of terrorists across borders as well attacks. It is vital for both India and Afghanistan that the latter would never again emerge as a safe haven for terrorism and extremism.
A friendly Afghanistan where religious extremism continues to flourish is seen by Pakistan as essential to keep the pressure on India in Kashmir by providing a base where militants could be trained for fighting against the Indian forces. The Militants fighting in Kashmir have not only drawn inspiration from the Afghan resistance against the Soviets but has also drawn resources and material support from Pakistan. Kashmiri militants were among the thousands of ―volunteers from various Islamic countries that participated in the war against the Soviet forces. They went back indoctrinated in a version of Islam that destined their victory over the ―infidels as well as with important knowledge of guerrilla warfare. India rightly perceived that the victors of mujahedeen against the Soviet Union would fundamentally alter the direction of Islamic extremism as Afghanistan would end up playing a crucial role in the shaping of an Islamic geo-politics sitting as it does astride the Islamic heartland involving South and Central Asia as well as Middle East
Afghanistan is also viewed as a gateway to the Central Asian region where India hopes to expand its influence. Afghanistan is the gateway of oil rich Central Asian Republics (CARs) but India does not have direct land passage towards CARs; it has to depend on Afghanistan to access CARs. The penetrating influence of India has advantage for India that it acts like a bridge to enter into CARs. Convivial relations with Afghanistan and its association in almost each field of Afghanistan give prospect of developing good ties with CARs. ―India‘s diversifying and developing economy demands exploration of energy resources, and CARs have rich oil, gas and hydrocarbon resources.
Furthermore, Central Asia is crucial for India not only because of its oil and gas reserves that India wishes to tap for its energy security but also because other major powers such as the US, Russia and China have already started competing for influence in the region. The regional actors view Afghanistan as a potential source of instability even as their geo-political rivalry remains a major cause of Afghanistan‘s troubles. India was forced to increase its military profile in Central Asia after the diplomatic humiliation it had to endure in 1999 when an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu was hijacked by Pakistan-backed terrorists to Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan.
India had to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that involved the release of the aircraft in exchange for three hardened militants held by India. India then decided to set up its first military base abroad in Farkhor in Tajikistan, close to the Afghan border, that was used to provide assistance to the Northern Alliance fighters and later to provide assistance to the Post-Taliban government in Kabul. This base has been operational since May 2002. This military base shows India‘s strong physical presence in the region to keep check on Pakistan and China. As the geo-political importance of Central Asia has increased in recent years, all the major powers have been keen to expand their influence in the region and India is no exception.
It shares many of the interests of other major powers such as the US, Russia and China vis-à-vis Central Asia, including access to Central Asian energy resources, controlling the spread of radical Islam, ensuring political stability, and strengthening of regional economies. But unlike China and Russia, its interests converge with that of the US in Central Asia and some have even suggested that it is in the US interests to have a greater Indian presence in Central Asia to counter growing Chinese or Russian involvement
A major factor behind India‘s pro-active Afghanistan agenda has been India‘s attempt to carve out for itself a greater role in regional affairs, more in consonance with its rising economic and military profile. India wants to establish its credentials as a major power in the region that is willing to take responsibility for ensuring stability around its periphery.
By merging as a major donor for Afghanistan, India is trying to project itself as a significant economic power that can provide necessary aid to the needy states in its neighbourhood. It has been contended that India‘s ―proactive foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been predicated upon New Delhi‘s keenness to be of use to American regional policy ―to the detriment of a traditional ―independent Indian approach towards its neighbours.
It is not clear, however, what alternative policy India can pursue given that America‘s ―war on terror– its strategic priority–has at its centre the goal of achieving Afghanistan‘s stabilization. Though India‘s interests are best served in helping the US achieve that aim, India will have to make some difficult choices now that the US commitment to create an enduring environment in Afghanistan has waned and it plans to leave before achieving its long-term objectives. India will find the going tough if the US decides to revert back to its policy of the 1990s when despite convergent security interests, it failed to develop an effective counter-terrorism partnership with India.
Afghanistan is of crucial for Indian expanding economy. Geographically, Afghanistan provides the path way to CARs. Good bilateral relations with Afghanistan will be beneficial for India‘s steel industry because of huge and precious iron reserves of Afghanistan. India‘s future energy security largely depends on Afghanistan, which is the gateway to energy-rich Central Asia.
New Delhi has been playing a significant role in the process of reconstruction and development, building and strengthening state institutions, capacity building and skill enhancement in Afghanistan. By pledging around US$ 2 billion for reconstruction and development, India is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. New Delhi believes inclusive development is essential to establish a viable and peaceful statehood in Afghanistan
Clearly, India’s use of soft power over hard power in Afghanistan has greatly benefited the nation and its relationship with Afghanistan. Soft power plays an important role in developing friendly and diplomatic relations with nations and cannot be neglected. This is not to say that hard power should be completely neglected. A balance and combination of hard and soft power is required to achieve the required goal. If Pakistan wishes to influence and have stable relations with Afghanistan, it ought to use soft power means rather than solely relying on hard power and military tactics.