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The Indian government recently approved the funding to construct the Afghan parliament building, together with a new Indian chancery building in Kabul, for a hefty combined cost of $200 million in US dollars. Total Indian reconstruction aid to Afghanistan is about $1.2 billion, so this $200 million addition looks like an impressive Indian vote of confidence and commitment to democratic Afghanistan .
However, on closer examination the Indian position may be a bit more nuanced…and anxious. The Indian government made a strategic bet on the Karzai government in 2003 after the U.S. invasion. The U.S. dislodged Pakistan ’s ally in Kabul , the Taliban, and replaced it with the viscerally anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan Karzai regime. Karzai, who had studied in India from 1979 to 1983, welcomed an alliance with India. So did the United States, which needed regional allies that, unlike Pakistan , had genuine enthusiasm and a stake in the success of the Karzai government.
India quickly opened an embassy and three consulates and embarked on a series of high profile aid projects boosting Afghanistan ’s transportation, aviation, and power generation and transmission infrastructures.
It is difficult to explain New Delhi ’s interest in Afghanistan ?which is 99 per cent Muslim, shares no common border with India , and is a hellishly dangerous environment to work in as anything other than a desire to make mischief in Pakistan ’s backyard. Indeed, India ’s signature aid project is the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which links Afghanistan ’s highway system to the Iranian border and onward to the Iranian port of Chabahar .
The explicit intent of this project is to break Pakistan ’s monopoly on Afghanistan’s links to the outside world through the Khyber Pass, and the Taliban strongholds of eastern Afghanistan, and reorient Afghanistan ’s transport, economic, and strategic focus to its west.
The highway project, built at a cost of $80 million dollars (ostensibly) under the direction of the Indian government’s Border Roads Organisation (analogous to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), was a miserable experience. The Taliban, no doubt with the encouragement of Pakistan’s intelligence services, launched repeated attacks on the construction team, necessitating the dispatch of Indian paramilitaries to back up the outgunned Afghan security forces.
A report by Sudha Ramachandran in Asia Times in January 2007 gives an idea of the Fort Apache vibe surrounding the project:
Although India is keen to complete the project as soon as possible, it is behind the December 2006 completion date, with only a fourth finished. And the cost of the project, which was originally pegged at about $70 million, has almost doubled. “The cost and time overrun has been because of the security situation,” BRO chief Lieutenant-General K S Rao said recently, pointing out that the road runs through “the drug-cultivation belt where there is huge resistance to the work being done” by the BRO. The poor security situation has compelled BRO to work only eight hours a day. Initially, BRO worked on several stretches of road simultaneously, but after the killing of one of its workers in 2005, it was compelled to take up one stretch at a time to keep its workers together. About 300 Indians work for BRO on the Zaranj-Delaram project. They are protected by about 70 personnel of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). However, ITBP personnel are not permitted to move beyond the living camps with weapons, so Afghan security personnel provide security at the work site.
The project was finally completed in September 2008, almost two years behind schedule.
The Kabul parliament and chancery projects have a similar backstory of security problems, delays, and spiraling costs.
Foundations for both projects were laid during a historic state visit to Afghanistan by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005. The Indian government press release noted that “ India has already committed US $ 25 million for the construction of the Parliament“.
In January 2007, the Indian government had been unable to award contracts for either structure, as Calcutta ’s The Telegraph reported:
A magnificent desolation in snow today marks the spot where India is to gift Afghanistan a fitting symbol of its democracy: its Parliament House… New Delhi is struggling to get the building off the drawing boards while Kabul ’s fledgling democracy dithers over a house for itself. The Indian government’s Central Public Works Department (CPWD) has finally worked out a budget for the project…
According to The Telegraph, initial designs hit a snag as the Indian government rather obtusely pushed a design inspired by Ghandara motifs, Ghandara being a magnificent Buddhist/Indian civilization that, during its heyday 1500 years ago, controlled Pakistan and Afghanistan and also, apparently, gave its name to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar . The Afghans bluntly asked for something more Islamic and sent the architects back to the drawing board. The Telegraph continues:
… the other problem dogging the CPWD is that of builders. ..
An Indian company — Shapoorji Pallonji — rebuilt the Kabul Hotel in Kabul (now called the Serena) for a hefty Rs 350 crore. [a crore is 10,000,000 ].
But even that kind of money is apparently making Indian private builders of repute rethink ventures in Afghanistan after the kidnapping and killing of three Indians over the last year.
The Indian government’s engineers expect to start construction in the spring. “The water is freezing now and we can’t build in this weather,” is an official plea. That is about the time that Nato and Afghan officials are anticipating an offensive from the Taliban.
The Telegraph also provides the information that the Parliament House was budgeted at 337 crore and the chancery at 42 crore at that time That’s about US$67 million for parliament (recall that the initial announcement gave the budget as US$25 million) and US8.4 million for the chancery.
At the beginning of 2007, India ’s Ministry of External Affairs unhappily reported that the chancery tender, which should have been awarded in October 2006, had only received “exorbitant bids” “almost double the estimates”. A year later, the MEA could only report that a boundary wall had been erected around the chancery property, a CPWD (Central Public Works Department) team had been organized, and “financial bids received were almost double of the approved estimates”.
AFP picked up the story in May, 2008:
Security fears have stopped even a single company from bidding to build a new parliament for Afghanistan after the Indian government floated tenders, an official said Friday.
New Delhi’s Central Public Works Department had invited tenders last year for the multi-million-dollar project in Kabul , but did not receive any response by the February deadline which has now been extended.
Only two companies put in bids after the extension, and the price stubbornly refused to come down, as Indian financial news outlet Livemint reported :
“There are only two companies that are now willing to construct these buildings and they demanded a high rate of return taking into account the risk they were taking,” said the official, who didn’t wish to be named.
Finally, the Indian government threw in the towel, and doubled the budget for the projects to $200 million.
“The earlier cost was only an estimate,” a ministry of external affairs spokesman said. “The new cost was determined on the basis of the tendering process.”
The lucky bidders, according to Livemint:
The least price was quoted by a consortium led by B. Seenaiah and Co. Ltd (BSCL), the official said, refusing to disclose further details.
An executive with BSCL confirmed that the company had bid for the project. “The cost is bound to shoot (up) because the situation in Afghanistan is very tough. Some of our workers have been kidnapped four years ago and were held hostage for a fortnight. We have to insure our workers at 10-times the price a worker is insured in India ,” he said.
According to the same executive, eight companies that had shown interest in the project had backed out when it came to submitting bids. The other company in the reckoning for the project is Mumbai-based KEC International Ltd.
There are two ways of looking at this.
The first is that India, committed to retaining its foothold in Afghanistan, gritted its teeth and doubled down, committing another US$ $100 million to get the project done.
Another way to look at it is that India only bought an option on the future of Afghanistan and has yet to make a downpayment.
Ramesh Ramachandran of Calcutta ’s The Tribune reports: “Work on the new chancery, which will take 18 months to complete, will be taken up on a priority basis. The Parliament building will take longer, about 30 months.” Eighteen months, for Afghanistan , is fast-track. Three years, on the other hand, is an eternity in Afghan politics.
India ’s geopolitical fortunes in this alien land rest on the shaky foundations of the Karzai government and the goodwill India hopes it is accruing among Afghani citizens by its public works projects and the widespread airing of its Bollywood features and trash television.
U.S. support is a limited and conditional commodity, since India’s strategic plans for Afghanistan rely on a de facto alliance with Iran in the west to counter the Pashtun/pro-Pakistan forces in the east.
With the NATO governments unanimously swinging behind a negotiation-driven exit strategy, the most likely outcome three years from now is that the Taliban are back in the government, Pakistan has regained its influence in Kabul , every Indian in Afghanistan has a bull’s eye on his back, and the most important Indian asset inside the country will be its fortified chancery.
With this uncertain outlook, will the Indian government actually spend over $100 million dollars on a public building for the Afghan government?
It remains to be seen if the Parliament House is actually funded, let alone built by India.
PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.