2020 Afghanistan Conference: A reinforced commitment
As a quadrennial ministerial pledging conference, the 2020 Afghanistan Conference, co-hosted by the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Government of Finland, and the United Nations took place virtually.
The conference took place with the theme “Peace, Prosperity, and Self-Reliance” amid fluidity and uncertainty in global geopolitics.
While the contours of the talks remained more or less the same, the participation of representatives from 70 countries and 30 organizations discernibly highlighted the importance of the event.
Furthermore, the severe financial woes that the world is witnessing because of the pandemic didn’t deter the global community to come forward and pledge over $13 billion as part of their continued support to Afghanistan.
This also signifies that despite all the inroads that Afghanistan encountered, it successfully forged a global consensus.
United States: The US, which invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to pursue the Taliban, has contributed roughly $800m a year in civilian aid in recent years.
Germany: Another top donor, Germany, pledged 430 million euros ($511m) in 2021 and signalled it would keep contributing until 2024 but also stressed that progress towards ending almost 20 years of war was needed.
European Union: The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43bn) over four years on Tuesday but emphasized aid was conditional.
United Kingdom: The UK said it would pledge $227m in annual civilian and food aid.
France: France pledged 88 million euros ($104.5m ) and Canada 270 million Canadian dollars ($206.7m).
India: India announced about 150 projects worth $80 million (about Rs 592 crore)
What gains are made by Afghanistan over the period of time?
Since 2001, Afghanistan has traversed a long way in terms of broadening its democratic base with increasing independent media, active civil societies, skilled demographic dividend and empowered women contributing in every aspect of country’s polity.
The idea of the republic and the constitutional democracy have manifested in vigorously working government bodies and various social institutions.
The trajectory of Afghanistan’s progress in the last 19 years can be better comprehended by making an analogy with one of the prominent stakeholders in this year’s conference:
As a country which has one of the best World Human Capitals and which ranked first on the World Happiness Report consecutively in the last three years is also famous for one other reason: women empowerment.
The Finnish Parliament is made up of 47 percent of women MPs and has set a new yardstick for the entire world for gender equality.
Women empowerment: In comparison, Afghan parliament has around 27 percent of women MPs. Besides, women’s presence is ubiquitous in the country, ranging from media, education, civil society, governance, entrepreneurship and even the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
The orientation of this accomplishment is self-evident and justifies the need to continuously fortify the gains achieved over the past two decades.
Education: Further, the educated youth have been continuously strengthening the checks-and-balances in the administrative machinery of the country, improving the democratic set-up.
Economic development: In terms of economic developments, several outcomes have been observed since 2001 that include expanded access to water, sanitation and electricity, education, and health services.
Today, Afghanistan’s government is perpetually diversifying the economic and financial base of the country to change the region’s roundabout where ideas, money and people will flow.
Strong defence system: Besides, the ANDSF that is bravely defending the country at various forefronts have incorporated professional tactical training and weaponry in its cache.
Issues in the region
Political uncertainty: At the same time, Afghanistan continues to experience insecurity and political uncertainty.
Economic slowdown: Afghanistan’s economy has been hard-hit by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, due to negative impacts on consumption, exports, and remittances.
Poverty: Poverty is expected to remain high, driven by weak labor demand and security-related constraints on service delivery.
Conflict: Conflict is ongoing, and 2019 was the sixth year in a row when civilian causalities in Afghanistan exceeded 10,000.
Displacement crisis: The displacement crisis persists, driven by intensified government and Taliban operations in the context of political negotiations.
Why Afghanistan is important for India?
Geo-economically Afghanistan is very important for India, the foreign trade policy of India and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), hosts a tremendous promise that could help the country develop economic and strategic importance in Eurasia and Central Asia.
The INSTC has particular economic and strategic relevance to India given the increasing regional ambitions of China through its one belt one road initiative. Several MOUs have been signed between India and Afghanistan. Indian investors are interested in the “virgin markets” of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan also represents investment potential for Indian companies in several sectors. Indian private sectors are seen as a driver towards prosperity in Afghanistan.
The other important project is the building of Sister-City relations between major Indian cities and Afghan counterparts. The Sister-City relations will be connected through tourism, faculty exchange programs as well as through private sector investment. Several invitations have been extended to India to invest in Afghanistan. India has been invited by Afghanistan to join Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan Trade and Transit Agreement a very significant link wherein Afghanistan would act as a land bridge connecting South Asia and central Asia
High-value resources: Among the bigger bonanzas that Afghanistan promises are its deposits of energy raw materials and high-value mineral deposits. A substantial concentration of such resources is along Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan. Further, most Afghan resources remain untapped, so far.
What is India’s role in Afghanistan? India since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has emerged as a vital partner of Kabul, and helped in capacity building and built a number of infrastructure projects as well, which includes, the India Afghanistan friendship dam in Herat, the Afghan Parliament in Kabul. India’s contribution in Afghanistan is always acknowledged and hailed by the Afghan people.
Investment: Since 2001, India has invested over $US3 billion in Afghanistan, supporting almost every sector of Afghan society, polity, and economy.
Infrastructure: Continuing the legacy of this lionized bilateral bonhomie between the two countries, India in the current Geneva conference yet again pledged US$286 million for the construction of Shatoot Dam that will provide safe drinking water to 2 million Kabul residents and $80 million for 150 High-Impact Community Development Projects.
Resources for programs: Further, India has announced to continue providing resources for the existing programs in the country under the strategic partnership agreement, including 2,500 annual scholarships awarded to Afghan students by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).
Peace process: For peace efforts, India has always been steadfast in backing up the national narrative of the government of Afghanistan, where it time and again called for an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled’ peace process.
Such initiatives will bolster the domestic Afghan narrative for peace while strengthening the vital institutions and improving the essential service delivery in the country.
US-Taliban Peace Deal
India has been keenly following the evolving political situation after the US signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February.
The deal provided for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, effectively drawing curtains to Washington's 18-year war with Taliban in the country.
Besides, the exchange of Taliban prisoners with Afghan security forces and the removal of sanctions on the Taliban was also agreed upon.
India’s current development programmes
India’s current development programmes in Afghanistan are centered around five pillars:
large infrastructure projects
human resource development and capacity building
high-impact community development projects
enhancing trade and investment through air and land connectivity
Large infrastructure projects completed include construction of 218 km road from Delaram to Zaranj (on Iranian border) which provides alternative connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran; Salma dam; and the Afghan Parliament building which was inaugurated in 2015.
More than 65,000 Afghan students have studied in India under various scholarship programmes and 15,000 students are presently studying here; 3,000 scholarships have so far been granted to young Afghan women to pursue higher studies in India.
Is India finally shedding the hesitations of history?
While India did not invest in Afghanistan during the Taliban years from 1996 to 2001, the government’s decision now to invest in Afghanistan’s future, where Taliban is set to play a dominant role, is being seen as a major departure from the past.
It signals that India is finally shedding the hesitations of history.
New Delhi has had a bitter experience with the Taliban.
Now, with their return after the US exiting Afghanistan, South Block is quickly trying to adapt to the changed circumstances and reach out to the Taliban.
Issues raised by India
India has invested heavily in peace and development in Afghanistan. It strongly believe that the gains of the last two decades must be preserved and the interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections must be ensured.
This is one of India’s red-lines in the wake of the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan, as the Sikh community has faced attacks and hostility in the last few months.
The increasing level of violence in Afghanistan remains a matter of grave concern. India calls for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire.
The country also believes that the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.
What India should do to protect its interests?
An interlinked set of mitigation strategies could help India protect its interests:
Broader Diplomatic Engagement: India should consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to Afghan reconciliation. The envoy can ensure that Indian views are expressed at every meeting, broaden engagement with the Afghan government and other political actors, and reach out to certain Taliban representatives.
Continued Training and Investments: India should provide more military training to Afghan security forces and invest in longer-term capacity-building programs. It should actively support and invest in the National Directorate of Security (for example, by providing training and sharing intelligence). Finally, given the continued levels of violence and the impact of the coronavirus on the Afghan economy, India should expand its development assistance.
Working With and Through Others: India should look to broaden its engagements with Iran and Russia, explore opportunities for cooperation (as limited as they might be) with China, and find common ground with the United States on Afghanistan’s future. This does not mean forcing competing interests to align; it means investing in a wider diplomatic initiative with the view to carve out areas of convergence.
The way forward
The 2020 Afghanistan Conference yet again reinforced the global efforts in a concerted voice that will pave way to a secure, prosperous, and peaceful Afghanistan. And the successful execution of multitudinous projects envisioned for the future of the country will invariably open the gates of prosperity not only for Afghanistan, but the entire region and the world. Indeed, the international stakeholders of Afghanistan have been contributing unremittingly and vigorously to achieve the same. For we built upon the model painstakingly in the last two decades, let us continue striving for few more steps closer toward full realization of the potential.