It’s a warm spring afternoon in the ancient city of Kandahar and the locals have gathered in large numbers to watch a cricket match. This is the first one to be held in the brand new stadium inaugurated earlier that day. The players, not unlike the upcoming cricket professionals from Afghanistan, attract a lot of cheer, especially the man wielding the bat in a smart Nehru jacket — Manpreet Vohra, the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan.
“The Indian administration, irrespective of who’s in the ruling party, has always had a consensus on Afghanistan and that hasn’t changed,” Vohra says, during an interview with Asia Times at this official residence. Nearby, workers help him pack belongings as he prepares to leave Afghanistan at the end of his tenure.
You don’t normally see foreign diplomats outside their blast-walled compounds in the Afghan capital Kabul, let alone joining a cricket match in Kandahar. The latter is a city often remembered as the birthplace of the Taliban, despite its long history before the five-year Taliban regime.
However, dedicated development efforts and thoughtful strategic policies have helped India carve a popular niche in Afghanistan.
There has been a drastic shift in regional geopolitics with a resurgent Taliban, newer insurgencies, plus the recent change in US policy towards Afghanistan.
“My time here has been a period of intense flux,” the Ambassador admits. “I got in [in Afghanistan] a year after the drawdown of the international troops. And the immediate impact of that was obvious,” he says. Recalling the period of uncertainty during the US elections in 2016, he says, “There was almost no policy decisions made during this period concerning Afghanistan. The drift continued and it turned out that 2016 became a record year for casualties of war.”
According to figures released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian casualties reached a record high in 2016 with 3,498 killed and 7,920 people injured. On several occasions, the target of these attacks were Indian affiliates.
“The strategy of the US, supported by much of the world, is that if they [the Taliban] don’t come to talks, they have to be dealt with by other means. We have to see where this [policy] goes; unfortunately, it hasn’t progressed well, and has worsened the security situation,” he observes. Civilian casualties saw a small dip in 2017 but continued to remain worryingly high with 3,438 people killed and 7,015 injured due to continued conflict in Afghanistan.
India is worried, Vohra admits. Terrorism and the security situation in the region threaten to knock on India’s borders. “Terrorism is a huge concern to us, especially terrorism in our immediate neighborhood. There are far too many groups operating here, supported by another country, which are enemies of India and Afghanistan,” he adds, in an oblique reference to Pakistan. The latter has often been accused of backing the Taliban and providing a safe haven for its leaders.
The Pakistan factor
Acknowledging US President Donald Trump’s candor over Pakistan’s role in the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, Vohra says, “Though much of the world may not articulate it as clearly, or bluntly, as President Trump did, I think they [international stakeholders] are all worried. However, most of them would not want to do anything to cause that country (Pakistan) to fall,” he says.
“We have a different take on this. We believe that the cost of patience is extremely high. And those counseling patience are not suffering the casualty rates that the Afghans are suffering… Do we really have the luxury of time?” he says, adding that Afghanistan has suffered a mounting death toll due to inaction by the rest of the world.
Vohra denied reports that the US has pressed India to be more involved in the war in Afghanistan, and said his country’s foreign policy remains wholly independent. “We make our own decisions regarding our foreign policies and our relationships. We made our own decision in 2015 to fill in a critical gap in the defense capacity,” he adds, justifying India’s recent defense provisions to the Afghan army.
He rejected the notion that the Indian government was cautious about triggering Pakistan to supply military hardware and conduct training in Afghanistan. “Why should it trigger Pakistan? Afghanistan is fighting terrorism here, and these forces and assets are needed. Why should any support be questioned?
“We don’t do anything here looking at Pakistan or looking through Pakistan,” he explained. “Our policy towards Afghanistan stands along and our friendship with Afghans and any strategic partnership stands on its own merit and its own ground,” he said.
Interestingly, Vohra served as a Deputy High Commissioner at the Indian High Commission in Pakistan earlier in his career. He has watched the change in relations between the regional partners very closely. “Pakistan’s policies have had a destructive impact here,” he says.
“I am not here to answer for Pakistan but the narrative of Pakistan certainly shows that they don’t share or do what we believe in. Their policies are somehow designed with India in mind and they try to spin this narrative,” he says, adding that Pakistan’s fears and accusations are baseless. “Nobody believes them; people have asked them for evidence, but none ever comes forth. But that is the narrative of lies and deceit that particular country is well known for.”
Vohra fondly recalls development projects during his tenure, the Kandahar cricket stadium being his favorite. “We completed some of our older flagship projects including the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam (Salma Dam) and others,” he shares. “We also made the decision to offer another US$1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan. New projects under that have now been identified and announced, including the Shahtoot Dam, housing for returning refugees in Nangarhar among others,” he adds.
India’s work in Afghanistan has been largely focused on post-conflict development — a move that has earned them favor from consecutive Afghan administrations. Lately, New Delhi has extended support in terms of defense training and military hardware including combat helicopters, although over the years India has refrained from providing lethal support.
‘Invest in Afghanistan’
Vohra encourages private investment in Afghanistan and underscores its potential. “The news that comes out of Afghanistan is generally about attacks and destruction and very few people would know what Afghanistan is and what promise it holds. So, I would like to make them [Indian investors] aware of the promise of Afghanistan, a country in the neighborhood with potentially vast opportunities for investments,” he said, adding a few words of caution about the security situation. “I would encourage private investors to come to Afghanistan. But I will also be realistic and tell them about the climate and the situation.
“I predict, that if Afghanistan was to become peaceful and the violence wasn’t a factor of daily life that scares people, there would be a gold rush here. Only the most shortsighted of businessmen and investors would not want to come in here. It’s a virgin territory; there’s a market for nearly everything,” he says.
His advice for the incoming Indian Ambassador Vinay Kumar is to expect a lot of affection from the Afghan people. “One of the reasons for the Indian popularity is our honesty and transparency. They don’t see us as a negative and destructive influence. They are aware that we also are a poor developing country, and we also have our own needs. So they appreciate that, despite our needs, we share our resources with our friends,” he said.
Reminiscing about his time in Afghanistan, the ambassador referred to it as an exceptional assignment. “It’s gotten under my skin and I don’t think I will ever be divorced from what is happening here,” he said.