The recent bilateral agreements between India and Afghanistan, as well as India and Pakistan, give hope to a prosperous and secure future for South and Southwest Asia.  However, the hurdles that all three nations must clear remain high, and given the twisted web of historical dysfunction, a task that remains daunting at best.

The economic and security agreement between Afghanistan and India, according to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, signifies not only a “bold strategic move on behalf of India”, but an “acceleration of India asserting itself as a possible leader in what to this point remained a region without a leader.”  Additionally, the tentative agreement between India and Pakistan regarding each other as most favored nation trade status, coupled with the $1.2 billion investment in Afghanistan thru 2013, are positive signs that all three regional players are utilizing regional confidence building measures bilaterally, beginning with economic cooperation to achieve long-term regional development and peace.  It also signifies that relations between India and Pakistan have begun to thaw behind the scenes, which is the only way the India-Afghan agreement could exist.  However, there are still many hurdles in the areas of security that threaten to not just complicate matters, but can dismantle any short term gains for the long term future of the region.

The injection of Indian military and intelligence officials into the Afghan theatre initially raises concern about conflict between India and Pakistan, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The mistrust that the three nation states share towards one another undoubtedly is far more difficult to overcome than just agreements on paper.  Let us not forget that a majority of militant groups based in the region for decades had one sole purpose: to fight the Indian military in an attempt to drive them out of the Kashmir Valley.  In fact, the resistance by the Pakistani authority to reign in terror organizations who continued to receive unofficial aid and support via the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continues to exacerbate the mistrust of both India and Afghanistan that Pakistan will become a reliable regional partner.  The two agreements India has achieved given the historical antagonism towards the two Islamic countries, as well as a broadening relationship between India and the United States, continues to serve as a coming out party of good will and greater international assertiveness emanating from New Delhi.

Realistically, India finally positioned itself so as to not just be perceived as a ‘pivotal state’ or ‘emerging market’, but having an ability to enter an exclusive club of nation states who have can lead and impact a region and the global community through the implementation of economic aid and material security support.  On the surface, this is a marked change in the perception of India externally, whereas the reality internally, much like China, has an extremely underdeveloped and poverty stricken populace throughout the country.  In fact, India, Afghanistan, and especially Pakistan have yet to tackle their own internal issues and struggles, especially when it comes to terrorism, security and poverty.  Oddly enough, despite the micro level internal issues, the questions regarding the macro policy discussions of the region are now thrust to the forefront.  The most important question being: Does India have the political will and patience to see their regional venture into a leadership role all the way through, or will regional dysfunction, backbiting and corruption result in the typical outcome of falling far short of expectations?

Given the two scenarios and how high the stakes are for the region as a whole, especially India, which is taking the greatest risk with two typically unreliable partners, this once and for all is a sign that the region is taking the necessary steps to combat the internal cancers of terrorism and poverty. Moreover, announcement of the agreement between India and Pakistan as favored nation status regarding trade will go a long way to alleviate tensions after six decades of antagonism between two nuclear states.  This antagonism has continued for decades due to dysfunctional policy-making, cronyism, and corruption, ultimately resulting in a false sense of reality with regards to their importance as emerging markets and global players, all the while allowing China to surpass them with ease and superiority despite greater hardships with regards to poverty alleviation and being a non-democratic society.  The inclusion of economic and social development as a fundamental criterion of the new agreement between India and Afghanistan in the end will bring Pakistan into the fold on security issues, raising the prospects of regional economic prosperity to unforeseen heights rather than continued uncertainty.

As previously stated, the terror networks that need to be dismantled and ultimately eliminated by the Pakistani government have fought against the Indian military for decades. During this time, Pakistan has watched India average an annual economic growth of 8% over the past decade, while Pakistan at 3% growth at best, and has  regressed to the point of near economic collapse.  This has forced Pakistan to reform its thinking with regards to their conflict with India, especially in the region of Kashmir.  Moreover, now that Pakistani military and intelligence officials realize they have lost control over the terror networks, they have quickly come to realize that Islamic militancy is only beholden to a twisted version of Islam deep rooted in nihilistic philosophy.

The considerable damage and harm inflicted upon the two regional partners necessary for Pakistan’s long-term future, India and Afghanistan, continue to receive attacks with ISI protection. To add insult to injury, these same groups now threaten the internal stability of Pakistan.  Finally, the militants’ coordinated effort against the US military continues to cause incredible strain with the United States, which once served as Pakistan’s largest economic donor.  Pakistan now finds its relationship with the US at considerable risk, and the billions in economic appropriations possibly terminated by the US Congress.

However, Pakistan’s self-inflicted problem believe it or not opens the door for India to fill that vacuum the US will leave in its wake.  A vacuum that just months earlier appeared to be filled by China through a series of agreements with Pakistan.  One agreement in particular, regards the construction of a Chinese naval base on the Pakistani coast of the Indian Ocean.  However, India has a significant comparative advantage in this regard due to their cultural ties with both Pakistan and Afghanistan that the US and coalition forces could never achieve.  The disputes between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are more like an argument between Cane and Abel rather than two differing social, cultural and religious paradigm.  This does not mean it will be easier to say the least.

The blossoming partnership between India and Afghanistan has maintained a steady growth since the beginning of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban.  India is the sixth largest donor to Afghanistan, promising nearly $1.2 billion in aid thru 2013.  This assistance has laid the groundwork for trust and familiarity with a regional face and footprint in Afghanistan.  Moreover, this will free the people of Afghanistan and the region of the fear that the intentions of the United States are to permanently establish themselves as a regional hegemon. Afghans will now develop alongside a regional partner whose intentions are to see them develop, but will allow them to do so on their own terms. There is a new found belief that if this initiative is successful, it would help eliminate a host of other issues shared throughout the region.

Fortunately for Afghanistan, they have gained a strategic partner not only from the region, but will gain incredible knowledge in the ability to fight specific militant groups from Pakistan due to the Indian military and intelligence services familiarity. Additionally, Indian officers will gain knowledge via interrogation of captured militants coming across the border, and will be able to find the direct linkages between Pakistan and the insurgency on both fronts.  This presents an even greater possibility of heightened tensions between the regional players, given the necessity for border control between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  However, it will open the door for Pakistan to have a wedge in which they can clean house on the militants in their backyard.  Coincidentally, it will enhance their negotiating position with both India and Afghanistan as a reliable partner to combat terrorism and Islamic extremism.  Most importantly, it will establish greater trust in regional economic and trade initiatives in the future.

India’s clever usage of terming their agreement with Afghanistan as “capacity building” for the Afghan National Security Forces means that, following the scheduled US pull-out of the Afghanistan theatre  by 2013, the Indian military will fill that void based on the terms of this agreement in the security areas. Though it is not stated specifically as such, it is obvious that this is the intention despite being initiated bilaterally between the three nations, rather than as a joint initiative.   This will show Afghanistan that they and have a trusted regional friend who also benefits from seeing Afghanistan grow economically and socially. Moreover, this will give India a bargaining chip with Pakistan.

Cross border trade on the AfPak border is devastated by the continuing conflict and would relieve considerable economic strain for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This is the only way that Pakistan has found the India-Afghanistan agreement remotely palatable.  Be that as it may, it must be noted that Pakistan’s objections to the agreement were not as vociferous as expected.  India’s only reasoning for taking such considerable risks on both the economic and security front is economically motivated.  The declaration of India and Pakistan’s favored nation trade rights just one week following the Indian Afghanistan security and development package signified that regional parties are communicating, and that these agreements did not come as much of a surprise.

The Strategic Partnership Agreement between India and Afghanistan is confirmation that New Delhi is willing to invest in the region in order to develop greater trade advantages through development initiatives.  India, with a commitment of $1.2 billion through 2013, is already the sixth largest donor to Afghanistan.  Coupled with the recent tentative agreement with Pakistan, it shows the ability of India to successfully implement more of a carrot and stick approach with regional partners who were once perceived adversaries. India’s involvement in diverse development projects in infrastructure, education, and agriculture will pay dividends in easing the minds of the Afghan population who may side more with Pakistan than India when it comes to understanding their particular issues, especially among the Pashtun population. The agreement signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi goes beyond development and humanitarian assistance, and may test average Afghans who view India as nothing more than an opportunist nation.

Finally, India will also assist “as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programs for the Afghan National Security Forces.” In addition, the two countries will hold a regular strategic dialogue “with the aim of intensifying mutual efforts towards strengthening regional peace and security.” Significantly, two side agreements were also signed for the development of minerals and natural gas in Afghanistan, which is said to hold mineral deposits worth $1 trillion. If all this is a reflection of friendly ties between India and Afghanistan, it comes with the knowledge of the dysfunctional nature of geopolitics in the region.  More importantly, it shows a desire to finally move forward out of the chaos.

Pakistan has responded to the agreement between India and Afghanistan with calculated skepticism, but one has to wonder if Pakistan was really in the dark about the agreement given the timing of the economic and trade agreement Pakistan announced with India.  If all continues to go without a hitch, we may soon see a real ‘kumbaya’ moment between the three regional partners.  More importantly, this may signify the end of terror groups’ ability to inflict damage causing strains to the tripartite partnership.  At the very least, the region is moving at lightning speed to alleviate economic and development shortcomings.  Once the security issues are handled, the sky is the limit.