Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Indian Consulate Signals Closer Ties

India and Pakistan jostle for markets – and influence – in Afghanistan.
By Rahimullah Samander

In what is widely seen as an attempt to reassert economic influence in eastern Afghanistan, the Indian government has reopened its consulate in Jalalabad a decade after it was shut down.

One of the consulate’s main roles will be to accelerate growing trade links between the two nations, starting with new air links from Amritsar, Ludhiana and Delhi in India to Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.

India and its rival Pakistan, which borders the province, have long jostled for markets in Jalalabad. The city occupies a strategic position, controlling the main road between Kabul and the Khyber Pass, and on to Pakistan.

The region is important politically since Pakistan exercises considerable influence here, as in the rest of southern and eastern Afghanistan. When the Russian-backed government of Najibullah fell in 1992, links with Pakistan – which had been hostile to the communist regime – grew dramatically. This continued through the Taleban period and remains the case, the most visible sign being the Pakistani goods and rupees which dominate local markets.

India had been on good terms with the Najibullah government, and subsequently its star fell as Pakistan’s rose. It closed its Jalalabad consulate in 1992, and trade dried up. Relations with the Taleban government were poor because India supported the Northern Alliance. The Afghan national airline was banned from flying to India and there was no land route through Pakistan.

The present Afghan government led by President Hamed Karzai is trying to pursue more balanced foreign policy and has fostered better relations with India while ensuring Pakistan remains involved. The sensitive nature of the latter relationship was highlighted in recent days by allegations that Pakistani troops had made incursions into Nangarhar and Kunar provinces in pursuit of Taleban and Al-Qaida forces. That prompted criticism from Karzai on July 7, and crowds of Afghans attacked the Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul.

Lal Badshah Azmoon, a university lecturer in Jalalabad, told IWPR that he sees the opening of the Indian consulate as a hopeful sign, “It may help us to be free from dependence on one country.”

Others have been warier of India’s intentions. In a speech earlier this year, Nangarhar governor Haji Din Mohammad explicitly warned against interference by Delhi.

“I am glad about the opening of the Indian consulate, but I hope that they will not attempt to damage our relationship with Pakistan,” he said.

The new consulate’s interim head, Dr Ramish Chandra, has been quick to stress that his government does not want to cause trouble between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Our main aim is to have good and strong relationships with Afghanistan and take part in reconstruction,” he told IWPR.

The Pakistan embassy was not available for comment.

India’s generous contributions to Afghanistan’s reconstruction effort – including a children’s hospital, buses, airplanes, and garbage trucks as well as food, medicine and other humanitarian aid – has left little doubt that it will be seeking a bigger role in the country.

Air routes have already reopened and increasing amounts of Indian clothes, textiles, tea, spices, sugar, medicines and cosmetics – not to mention videos of the popular Bollywood movies – are to be found in local markets.

Next up are plans to ship big-ticket items such as construction equipment and machinery. India and Iran are also funding construction of a road through Iran and north-west Afghanistan to complete a sea route between Central Asia and Indian ports. On an official visit to India in March, Karzai said his government was working with Islamabad to allow Indian goods to transit Pakistan.

For its part, Afghanistan has the potential to rejuvenate exports of dried fruit to India, a thriving trade in earlier decades.

Indian traders will face tough competition. Shopkeepers in Jalalabad say goods from Pakistan are often cheaper there than they would be across the border.

The consulate will also help restore human contact severed by the years of war. Chandra says that the consulate should start issuing visas within three months, and he expects to see far more than the 150 a week approved prior to 1992.

“The Afghan people love us,” Chandra said. “When I go out and people know that I am Indian, they are happy and invite me to drink tea.”

Rahimullah Samander is a local editor and staff reporter for IWPR in Kabul.