NEW DELHI: Ahead of Afghanistan Independence Day on August 19, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama congratulated soon-to-be former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, committing their respective support in building a strong Afghanistan. The statements come as a political impasse continues in Afghanistan, where rival candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have only recently signed a shaky deal to form a unity government.

In a letter to Karzai, Modi referred to a “a common quest for peace and stability in the region.” “India will continue to extend its full support to the government and people of Afghanistan in their efforts to build a strong, peaceful, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan,” the letter concluded.

The US similarly, which is scheduled to withdraw a majority of its troops at the end of the year, pledged long-term support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

As US troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of December 2014, leaving behind a residual force of up to 10,000, the Obama administration has begun looking for countries that serve as its strategic partners in Afghanistan, and that can offset the influence of Iran, Russia and China. Although historically Pakistan has played this role, relations between the two have soured after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and are not helped by Pakistan’s own volatile security situation as the Nawaz Sharif government continues a military offensive against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan.

With this changed scenario, India seems to have emerged as a key player -- itself harbouring strategic interests in Afghanistan. India has flexed its soft power muscles in Afghanistan, emerging as one of the leading donor nations, with aid standing at $2 billion. India has invested in hospitals, institutional buildings, including Afghanistan’s parliament, educational institutions, and signed accords to train army and police officers, amongst other capacity building measures.

India’s own interests in Afghanistan stem from a discourse rooted in security, with policymakers pointing to the fact that chaos in Afghanistan will likely stem to Pakistan, which will inadvertently turn to India.
US interests in Afghanistan, in turn, will remain even as its military presence declines, with Afghanistan serving as an important energy transfer route between South and Central Asia. This is evinced by the continuing budgeting for Afghanistan for FY2015, with $2.6 billion being sought by Congress.

Interestingly, although US troop levels in Afghanistan declined by 40 percent from 2013 to 2014, the Pentagon’s spending request in 2013 did not decline. This is because the US budget differentiates between defense spending and spending on overseas operations. The Obama administration, which has proposed a budget $115 billion over the 2011 cap set by the Budget Control Act, uses the war budget (from the overseas operations segment) for funding operations related to the Afghanistan conflict, as that segment of the budget is not subject to congressional budget caps.

However, as both India and the US commit themselves to Afghanistan’s long term stability, the task ahead is set to prove costly. Afghanistan’s GDP stands at $26 billion, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.

Further, as pointed out by Mohan Guruswamy in an article previously published in The Citizen, 35 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is composed of grants from the West, Saudi Arabia and a handful of other countries, including India. The US has extended almost $100 billion in aid since 2002, and has spent an estimated $642 billion in military operations in the country.

Afghanistan’s own revenues, in comparison, are only 10 percent of its GDP. With the scale back of western influence in Afghanistan, the country’s already dismal GDP will take a further hit.

Given the country’s rising population, the economic burden of reconstruction of Afghanistan will be monumental, and any country -- whether the US or India -- needs to be privy to this reality.

The economic situation is further aggravated by an unstable political scenario, with the recently concluded Presidential elections being marred by repeated allegations of fraud. Although rival candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have signed a unity deal, it remains shaky and the fact that the details of the deal are still to be worked out implies that Afghanistan has not yet emerged from this political impasse.

Add to the mix a deteriorating security situation, with the Taliban stepping up its offensive and 2014 being the worst year yet in terms of civilian casualties, and the cost of meddling in Afghanistan only rises.