New Delhi, 3 December 2011. As intense discussions begin in Bonn this weekend in preparation for the December 5 international conference on Afghanistan, India will for the first time get attention it has never gained during similar international meetings around the globe over the past 10 years.
India goes into the Bonn conference with the tag of being the only country with which Afghanistan has signed a security pact. The US, which has invested the most, is still finalising the contours of a similar pact.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said Afghan President Hamid Karzai told him that the strategic pact with India was “universally popular” in Afghanistan and there was “no demand for its ratification” unlike the proposed pact with the US.
A few days back, an Indian consortium was given mining rights to the region’s biggest untapped iron ore deposits south west of Kabul. And if the confrontation between the west and Iran deescalates over time, India would be the only country with an alternative route largely in place for bringing in men and material for construction and exporting steel from the Hajigak mine.
This marks a remarkable elevation for India from a stage when it was in danger of being relegated to the status of also-consulted countries. At a conference early last year on Afghanistan in Turkey, while France and Japan managed to get invited, India was kept out, as the WikiLeaks tapes reveal, “in deference to Pakistani sensitivities.”
The Bonn conference will be held on Tuesday with 90 delegations, most of them led by Foreign Ministers, and 1,000 participants. But representatives of major players are already in Bonn, reviewing the previous conference in Turkey, trying to cope with the Pakistani spanner of a boycott and trying to figure out the U.S. Silk Road proposal.
The conference has three themes — managing the transition as the West prepares to pull back the bulk of its forces, the political process that ought to be fashioned and long term engagement of the international community in Afghanistan.
It will be on the last aspect that the global community would be closely examining the headway made by India. A gas pipeline from Central Asia will cut through Afghanistan to supply gas to Pakistan and India. And while European companies were agonised on policy issues, India walked away with three out of four Hajigak mine blocks which will actually be a package deal of producing semi-finished products from the ore, a power plant and evacuation routes.
China has been successful with the Aynak copper mine but unlike India it does not have a visible political role. Apart from agreeing on exploring for hydrocarbons and minerals, the India-Afghanistan strategic pact has a clause for training Afghan security personnel. India had been carrying out small scale training for the security personnel in addition to its longstanding programmes for military cadets from developing countries and the strategic agreement “puts together all that we had been doing so far with the aim to build on it,” said diplomatic sources. These developments add to the soft power India has always enjoyed in Afghanistan through its soap operas and films.
“At last month’s conference in Turkey, Mr. Karzai said India had a major role to play in Afghanistan. At the beginning of last year, it was not invited to an Afghan conference in the same country,” said an official, while underlining how the situation has changed.