India and Afghanistan signed strategic partnership on October 4, 2011 during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India, which was a landmark event. The document is significant for its implications for Indo-Afghan relations as well as for India’s wider neighbourhood policy.

At the time of its signing, Afghanistan was preparing for the post-2014 situation when the international forces are scheduled to withdraw and hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was categorical in his support for the Afghan people when he stated at a news conference that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”

What were the important things mentioned in the agreement:

On Security: The agreement does not tantamount to a security alliance. The agreement states clearly that the strategic partnership is not directed against “any other state or group of states”. India has merely agreed to assist in the “training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan national security forces.”

Trade and economic cooperation: The partnership arrangement also dwells on trade and economic cooperation, capacity development and education, social cultural & civil society and people to people relations.

Establishment of Partnership Council: The agreement provides for a high powered implementation mechanism. A “Partnership Council” at the Foreign Ministers’ level with four separate joint working groups, on political & security consultations, trade and economic cooperation, capacity development and education, and social cultural & civil society interactions, will be set up. The numerous existing dialogue mechanisms between the two countries will be consolidated and brought under the Partnership Council. The two sides will also have a regular strategic dialogue. The setting up of a Partnership Council will ensure that bilateral relations get sustained attention.

People-to-people exchanges: The strategic partnership lays considerable emphasis on people to people ties. The two sides have agreed to simplify the rules to facilitate people to people exchanges. This will require easing of the existing rigid visa regime.

Significance of the agreement: Being the first strategic partnership agreement that India has signed with a South Asian country, it has implications for India’s neighbourhood policy. India appears to be taking a cooperative security approach to deal with security issues, combining hard and soft power options. The strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan showcases India’s considerable soft power. It signals to the other neighbours that there are benefits to be had from partnering with India and shedding negative attitudes. There is growing realization that human security concerns are as important as traditional, hard core security concerns. Focusing on the people helps to mitigate security issues and also brings prosperity to the people. That is why the strategic partnership agreement focuses on terrorism on the one hand and regional cooperation capacity building, trade & investment and human security concerns on the other.

Pakistan’s reactions to the agreement: Pakistan’s reacted to the Indo-Afghan Strategic partnership negatively. Pakistan takes India-Afghan relations as detrimental to its own interests. Its zero-sum attitude to regional cooperation creates many security dilemmas in the region. Then President Karzai was in an unenviable position. On the one hand, he sees Pakistan as playing a destabilizing “double game” in Afghanistan; and, on the other, he regards Pakistan as a “brother”, while describing India as a “great friend”. The nuance to be underlined here is that friends always help while brothers can sometimes do great harm. Pakistan is singularly placed to hurt Afghanistan’s interest. This is well recognised in Afghanistan where India enjoys warm welcome while Pakistan often comes for stinging criticism. Pakistan, concerned over the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, is likely to step up pressure on the Afghan government.

Conclusion: The immediate challenge will be to provide resources for the expanded Indo-Afghan strategic partnership. In general, India will require far greater resources to conduct an effective and sustainable foreign policy in the neighbourhood.

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